The fifth and final recipe from UPenn Ms. Codex 252, known as the Maddison Family Receipt Book, is for something I do not consider mead, but which is called mead in the text, and which serves as a good mechanism for a final conversation about this manuscript cookbook; like the other conversations, it has an undercurrent of change.
Hill (17th c.) on p.214[=208] gives the following recipe for mead:
Mrs E Hescot ressett for mead
To a pound of hony, take two pound of sugar, 2 gallons of watter well boyled mix them boyle and scum it very well. And clean then pour it into ye vessill you will worke it in. Put a good hand full of baum when it is cold enough put in littill spoonful of east let it work a littill stope it close in 10 dayes you may draw it into bottles.
Here we see sugar being used to bolster the fermentable sugars in the drink. Over 2/3 of the fermentable sugars are from sugar rather than honey. This practice of replacing some of the honey in mead with sugar appears to have started in the latter half of the 17th century, and is reflected in multiple recipes from manuscript cookbooks. Typically a smaller portion of the honey is replaced by sugar than in this recipe. A few manuscripts go so far as to provide recipes for ‘mead’ or ‘braggot’ where sugar has entirely replaced the traditional honey.
The 17th century was a time of great change. Significant changes in the religious, military, economic, and scientific worlds brought about changes in all aspects of life. All of these are relevant to fermented drinks in general and mead in specific.
The core question is what has driven the replacement of some (but not all) of the honey with sugar. While we cannot presume that our palates are the same as someone form the 17th century, we can state with certainty that sugar instead of honey will not lead to a more full-flavored drink. In my opinion the most likely reason for the use of sugar is economic, with a potential secondary factor being the novelty and residual perceived status of using a former luxury item (sugar) in your drink.
The third quarter of the 17th century saw a 70% drop in the price of sugar. Added to this, the sugar refining center of Europe was in London, and contemporary commentaries note the ‘sweet tooth’ of the English. (see http://www.reed.edu/anthro/570/Chronologies/Week%205%20Mintz%20Chron.html ).
In addition to aspects of cultural and socio-economic preference, alcohol production and consumption has always had a primary driving force of availability and economics. Where grapes grow well, wine is preferred, where apples grow well, cider, and so on. Where economically advantageous, wine producers drink beer/ale in their own homes to reap the greater economic benefit of selling their wine rather than consuming it. The status conferred by drinking rare and expensive drinks perhaps from distant lands is higher than that from drinking the local brew. These factors have always played a significant factor in brewing and drinking.
Placed in that cultural and economic frame, the newly cheap sugar becomes an obvious replacement for honey.
This recipe is one I’m unlikely to make. I suspect most mead makers would agree with me. But as a piece of history it is quite interesting.
Photo of Sugar cane courtesy of Wellcome Collection.