Today’s recipe offering is from a 17th century beekeeping book; ‘A Discourse or Historie of Bees’ by Richard Remnant and published in 1637. He writes:
How to make Mead.
Now when you have taken as much hony out of your combs or pulse as you can doe, then wash your puls with water made blood-warm, and make your Mead with that. And if you desire to have your Mead very good and strong, make it so full of the hony, that it will beare a hen-egge swimming as broad as a sixe pence on the top: then set it over the fire, and boyle it well, and take the scum clean off; then set it a clearing into a kive or tub, two or three daies till it be cleare, and then draw it off from the lees or grounds, and put it up into a vessell; but stop it not too close, for the strength of it will teare the vessell in peeces. Also if you will, you may put in a bag of spices thereinto in boyling.
At first look this passage seems to offer relatively little of specific interest. But a number of items can be drawn from it.
Mead made from washing the combs with warm water to dissolve residual honey, is a methodology cited in the earliest written mead recipes (1st c. CE). In some works this is cited as leading to a weak mead. This makes sense, as the bulk of the combs, would require enough water to cover them that the residual honey would be dilute.
Combs in Traditional Skep Hive
I did some calculations (that’s what us engineers are for after all). I looked at modern information on the amount of honey typically extracted from a given volume of combs, then I assumed a range of honey (percent) left in the combs after the rest drips or is squeezed out, and finally I made some assumptions about how the comb residue would fit into a pot, and how much water would be required to cover it and enable stirring to mix the honey into the water.
Based on this I estimated that 0.5 to 2.5 pounds of honey per gallon could reasonably be present without boiling down the wort to concentrate. The lower end, with an alcohol potential of 2-3% would provide the weak brew maligned by some authors. If the maker were trying to minimize water use 1.5 to 2+ lb/gal (6-10% alcohol potential) is reasonable, a credible brew.
Remnant’s second example move towards the other end of the spectrum.
A hen’s egg swimming until a given amount is exposed is actually a fairly specific measurement. The typical density of an egg is known; it is neutrally buoyant at a specific gravity of 1.06-1.065. The amount exposed at the breadth of a sixpence (about 2 cm), while a relatively small proportion of the total volume, implies a notable rise in the gravity to perhaps 1.085. Boiling it ‘well’ is ambiguous, especially when it is considered that mead recipes often call for boiling away 1/3 or even ½ of the total volume before fermentation. If boiling well is interpreted as ½ of the total, the end concentration of honey will be about 1.17 (4.5 lb honey/gal), with a potential alcohol of 23% or so, which is difficult to achieve even with completely modern techniques.
In summary, these instructions allow for a mead that could be anywhere from very weak to very strong, by implication giving the brewer free reign in determining the amount of honey in their brew.
Similarly the spice addition instruction allows any choices, number, and amount of spices (so long as they are ones that would have been available in 1637 England, and ones that were considered acceptable to combine).
Remnant follows his instructions for mead with this comment:
But now, how to make metheglin I purpose not to teach you; for it is part of my present trading; both hony and metheglin have an excellent virtue for many cures; being moderately taken they doe remedy many diseases.
Thanks Mr. Remnant …
Remnant, Richard 1637. A Discourse or Historie of Bees. London.
Picture of combs in skep by Simon Speed, public domain.