Cloves in Historical Meads

Continuing the discussion of mead flavoring ingredients. Today’s subject is the second most common addition in historical mead recipes, cloves.

There is little opportunity for confusion in what cloves are, or what form they are used in. Flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, have the European name clove. This name comes from the Latin clavus, or nail, based on the shape of this spice. Native to the Molucca Islands in Indonesia, the spice is said to have been once more expensive than gold weight for weight. They are universally used dried.

Cloves have been attributed with multiple medical properties. They have a long history of being used as a local anaesthetic, the eugenol that forms about 80% of the oil in the clove being the active ingredient. Cloves are often chewed to sweeten the breath. Cloves also have a general attribution as an aphrodisiac.

The use of cloves in historical mead recipes shows some notable trends. It is consistently used across my period of interest in about half of all mead recipes with spices.

However, in the time before about 1670, cloves are rarely used by themselves. After that time, cloves were used as the sole spice in a mead less than 10% of the times where they are used.

When cloves are used with other spices, their constant companions are ginger, mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The most steadfast of those is ginger. Recipes with cloves and 2, 3, 4, or 5 total spices almost always select from this group. This is not entirely unexpected; those five spices are 5 of the top 6 historical mead ingredients.

Recipes using citrus appear to have an increased frequency of the use of cloves.

Most who have worked with cloves for brewing are well aware that a little clove goes a very long way. There are a number of historical mead recipes that call for cloves significantly in excess of the amount that my experience tells me is desirable. Each clove weighs about 0.1 gram, leaving many recipes calling for 10-20 cloves per gallon! (Which I frequently reduce with a note in my records recording my callous disregard for accuracy to the original recipe.)

Today’s picture is a clove tree from an 1808 illustration, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

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