Historical <-> Modern Techniques

On the scientific basis of historical mead making techniques.

One of the topics I’ve become quite interested in, partly because it appeals to the scientific side of my though processes, and partly because I think a lot about how my research may be relevant to different groups of brewers, is the extent to which historical mead recipes dictate processes that approach or mirror modern scientific processes for mead making.

Among the technically-driven activities which modern mead makers use to manage fermentation and produce an end product that is more pleasing to the palate and eye are:

  1. Addition of nutrients to improve yeast performance (both avoiding stuck fermentations and reducing fermentation by-products.
  2. Temperature control of fermentation.
  3. Aeration of must to improve fermentation.
  4. Avoiding oxygen exposure of finished product.
  5. Managing acid levels in fermentation.
  6. Knowing the gravity of your must to manage fermentation.
  7. Clarifying product.

Despite the lack of the scientific and technical understanding that has been developed over the 300 years since my time period of interest ends, historical mead recipes often include steps that address one or more of the above processes.

  1. Use of a significant quantity of beer/ale as a yeast source also brings along nutrients (from the grain and from dead yeast carried in lees or barm). 17th and 18th century recipes also sometimes call for addition of flour.
  2. Placing a fermenting vessel in the sun, in a warm kitchen, or in a cellar are all ways of controlling fermentation temperature.
  3. Some recipes call for mixing during fermentation which will provide aeration.
  4. The importance of sealing containers used to age and store drinks is a common theme. A few recipes dictate leaving the top yeast layer undisturbed (preventing oxygen exposure).
  5. In the 17th and 18th centuries citrus rapidly becomes a standard ingredient in mead making; manipulation of pH and acid levels in fermentation is a possible experiential reason for some of this.
  6. Use of eggs as a hydrometer is seen in multiple recipes, specific ratios of honey to water and notes of boiling times indicate additional attention to manage sugar content in must.
  7. Egg whites, egg shells, isinglass, and time are all presented as methods to improve clarification.

It is quite clear that historical brewers were aware of many of the factors that cause fault in mead (and other fermented drinks). While they may not have been aware of the scientific basis of these faults, the empirical solutions we see reflected in recipe texts are not ineffective, and show a sophistication that modern individuals sometimes overlook.

Photograph: Laura Angotti

Woodcut: Wellcome Collection

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