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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Historical Mead Styles

Hello, its been a while. Travel and other factors have conspired to provide me an extremely busy life outside of historical drinks.

To make up for it, I wanted to provide an illustration from the presentation I am preparing for the American Homebrewers Association’s annual Homebrew Con at the end of June, where I am very pleased to be presenting “Mead AD 70-1750: Inspirations and Lessons from 2400 Recipes – Ingredients, Methods, and Styles”. I hope to connect with people as interested as I am in the historical underpinnings of mead making and also to communicate to more modernly focused brewers how they can take lessons from the ingredients and methods of historical mead making to inspire and enhance their efforts.

The talk will, necessarily, be an overview only, skimming over many topics which beg for much more in-depth consideration. But I know of no other collection of historical recipes that comes close to the catalog I maintain, and I think that even this high-level overview will contain significant information that has never been publicly presented.

The graph here is one of the stars of my presentation. It breaks my historical period of interest into 4 pieces: pre-1600, 1600-1669, Digby, and 1670-1750. I then track the percent of all cataloged recipes during each period which exhibit certain style characteristics.


Of course, context is everything (in keeping with my mantra of the interconnectivity of all things). Each line presents multiple intersecting factors, and in turn provokes questions about the whys and wherefores.

For example, despite the presence of citrus in cuisine, there are no cataloged recipes containing citrus prior to 1600. Then it explodes into mead making over the next 100 years. Similarly, did plain mead actually become less prevalent over time, or was it simply not worth writing down a recipe for the plain version?

But rather than blather on, I’d prefer to ask – What do you see in this chart? What questions pop up seeing the trends?

If you are planning on being at Homebrew Con I hope you come to hear me talk, and if not, watch this space as the topics in my presentation are sure to come up again and again as time goes on.

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London Research Summary

Museum of London – 17th Century table

I had a good trip to London. Final count 74 manuscripts reviewed, and over 130 recipes found in those manuscripts (the number will rise slightly as I process them and catalog the variants as well as the main recipes). I reviewed manuscripts at three different libraries, the nice studio I stayed in was 5 minutes from the British Library and a nice 20-minute walk from the Royal College of Physicians, and an in-between 10 minutes to the Wellcome Library.

In addition to the manuscripts I looked at a half dozen or so books that I have found otherwise hard to access, and obtained some articles from periodicals. These include a book covering mead in Sweden during the Medieval period (Swedish anyone?)

Finally, visits to the Victoria & Albert Museum, City of London Museum, and the British Museum provided pictures of artifacts like barrels, pots, and drinking vessels, that help fill out my understanding of the equipment used in mead making.

The recipes themselves are mostly later, 17th and 18th century. So far I have not found anything that is truly new and different.

Back in reality, I am working hard on the draft for Wellcome Mead, batches of samples for my Homebrewcon presentation in June, starting a few more test batches (since I have been brewing very little), and trying to catch up on reviewing, transcribing, translating, cataloging, and all the tasks required to keep the data coming. And I’ve still got a long list of primary resources to investigate, including manuscripts from US and German sources, some searches to complete on Early English Books Online, and a number of European libraries whose holdings I have not fully searched.

The mead life is busy and rarely dull.

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London Research

London research is going well.

Here is the cellar at Hampton court palace, a 16th century residence actually built by Cardinal Wolsey, but co-opted by Henry VIII. I visited last weekend, and also very much enjoyed looking at the palace kitchens. The kitchen garden contained many plants I recognize from my studies, but most were not quite up yet, so I did not take pictures.

Yesterday I went over 100 mead recipes collected on this trip (including an unknown number of duplicates), and I have 2 more days left in the libraries of London. This trip has focused on priorities, visiting only 3 libraries which had a good number of manuscripts that I was fairly certain would contain recipes. Many locations with fewer manuscripts, and many manuscripts that seemed less likely to contain recipes have been left off the itinerary.

Because I am primarily dealing with manuscript medical and cookery books, the sources I have been looking at are strongly 17th and 1st half of 18th century (using my self-imposed cut-off of 1750). I do believe I have found a late 15th century recipe for the distilled drink ‘aqua mirabilis’, and a few other gems.

For this sort of work, I spend very little time on the actual content while I am at the library, The focus is on identifying and getting copies (photos) of all the material of interest, for later reading and processing. I’ll report on that when the trip is done.

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New York City

The picture today is of a 6-7th century glass drinking vessel in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. It is identified as Langobardic (the Lombards were a Germanic people in northern Italy in that time period). It was made using techniques credited to the Romans. Perhaps it at some time was use to drink mead.

I admired this picture when I first saw it online. I was unprepared for how much more impressed I was when I saw the vessel in person a few weeks ago at the Harvard Museum’s beautiful and informative exhibit on animorphic drinking vessels (squeaked in on the last day). It is easy to forget how much more you see in person compared to a picture. A note, the Met is one of the many large museums who has made many images available for use under creative commons licensing and I am happy to use that to spread beautiful pictures of their collection.

I’m heading out tomorrow for almost a week in NYC.

I have 2 days at the library of The New York Academy of Medicine to review a number of manuscripts and texts. I also have 2-3 days at the New York Public Library to review manuscripts and texts in their collections. The NYPL also has a number of other books and documents of interest, I will get as far with my lists as time will allow.

It can be a challenge to work through the access requirements for collections of this type. No complaining, the precautions are all reasonable; if I had a bunch of 400-year-old documents I’d be careful about who I let come over for a look, and what they could bring with them. It can also be a challenge to understand the holdings of individual collections to ensure you are making the best use of your (and their) time. Manuscripts can be inconsistently or minimally cataloged, archives are often arranged in ways that are confusing to the outsider, and prioritizing can be difficult.

I am continually delighted by the knowledge and helpfulness of the librarians.

I expect to come back from this visit with about 20 recipes to add to my catalog (looking statistically from previous results). That does not count the almost 30 I’ve already added from books that came to my attention while preparing for this trip. If I am lucky the total could be significantly higher.

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Mead Musings – The Recipe Catalog

I have been remiss in updating here,  a situation I intend to correct over the next few days. But starting with my newest musings.

My mead recipe catalog embodies the thousands of hours I have spent on my quest.


Every mead recipe is entered as soon as it is identified. Details are entered (and modified) as sources progress through transcription, translation, and detailed review or as I adjust how I want to look at information about the recipes. Not all recipes are completely entered, and structural changes to the catalog are populated over time. Many of the decision points are fussy (e.g. what triggers 6 entries for variant recipes as seen here for Russian Meath).

I use the catalog continually: to find a recipe, relationships between recipes, look at use of ingredients over time, sort by recipe characteristics, and to understand what the entire collection of recipes tells me.

The screenshot above shows a tiny bit of the catalog as of this morning; the core organization being:

  • Bibliographic information about each recipe.
  • Addition recipe identification and sorting mechanisms including type and identification of core and variant recipes.
  • Identifiers of source type, topic, language, and geography.
  • Details of the brewing, fermentation, and storage instructions including honey to water ratio, other liquids, treatment during brewing, how flavors are added, use of yeast, fermentation conditions, and aging/storage conditions.
  • Finally, checklists of individual ingredients or additions, like the four that can be seen at the far right of the screenshot: fruits and other additional sugar sources, grains, spices, herbs (really flavor additives not categorized elsewhere and mostly herbs), flowers, citrus, and brewing aids/misc/exotics.

In all there are 363 columns, over 300 representing individual ingredients that have been added to at least one of the mead recipes.

The catalog also dynamically summarizes the data in many ways that I have found useful. You can see from the top of the screenshot some of that. The data is summarized for different time periods (pre-1600, pre-1669, Digby, and Post-Digby (1670-1750)).

The screenshot above offers the following interesting information:

  • 2065 recipes have been entered. 1939, or 94% of them have been cataloged for process and ingredients (the remainder are identified but not transcribed, translated, interpreted and/or entered).
  • 644 recipes are from before 1600, 575 from 1600-1669, 194 from Digby, and 622 from 1670 to 1750.
  • Of those 1939 cataloged recipes, 31.1% contain ginger – which happens to be the most common addition to mead recipes across all time periods.
  • I have assigned 744 recipes (about 1/3 of the total) recipe IDs, resulting in 206 ‘different’ recipes, which collectively have another 347 ‘variant’ recipes. There are 191 recipes among those 744 that are duplicates of an earlier recipe. (extrapolating these numbers to the entire database suggest the entire catalog will have close to 600 different recipes, 1000 additional variants, and 500-600 duplicates.)

The structure and content are constantly changing. Today I am adding column 364: Expected OG, which will permit me to look at the estimated gravity of each recipe as it begins fermentation. While I’m at it, I will change the summary statistics in the per-1669 category to 1600-1669.

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Manuscripts and Spiced Small Mead

I spent last week in Syracuse, NY looking about 200 years in the past (ahh, modern history), helping the family genealogist (hi, Mom). While searching for a scrapbook mentioning my 3x great-grandfather, we found ledgers and other books containing household recipes, including wines and beer (nothing using honey).

Such household manuscripts are found in many locations. The Onondaga Historical Association Research Center is similar to thousands of others in the US, and thousands more in Europe and other locations. The manuscripts I saw there were from the 19th century, but this type of document is common back into the 16th century.

National Library of Scotland

Upon returning and diving back into my research, I found a reference to manuscripts on cooking at the National Library of Scotland (see picture). Digging through their web-site led to a page titled ‘Manuscripts collections’ including ‘Food History’; a few pages later I was at “Manuscript culinary recipe books at the National Library” listing 27 documents, including 9 from the 18th century, and 6 back into the 17th (the earliest defined date being 1683). None of these are on line, and the data on each manuscript was only 1-2 lines.

But all is not lost.

In 2015 the library featured a recipe each month from these books. March was brewing and distilling, ( https://www.nls.uk/year-of-food-and-drink/march ) and featured a mead recipe from a “anonymous recipe book from the late 17th century”; this is likely either MS.10231, or Adv.MS.23.6.5. And so here we get our recipe for today.

To make small mead

Take 24 quarts of water set it over the fire put into it 2 quarts of honie boyle them together till there bee a quarter consumed, be sure you skym it very well, for therein consists the clearness add to it one nutmeg 3 Races of Ginger, half a dozen of Coves, and a blade or two of mace, when it is cold take two or three quarts of it and put it in a paile and put to it 3 or 4 spoonfulls of yeast and stirr it well together, and let it work as you doe beer, puting in now and then a little till it bee all gone then put it into a runlet let it stand a weeke, then bottle it put into your bottles 2 raysins of the sun, and some lemon peill.

This 1:12 honey:water ratio will end up as about 1:9 once it has boiled, which would end up at about 1.25 pounds honey per gallon, an OG of about 1.055-1.06, and a potential alcohol of 7-8% if fermented dry.

The recipe shows some interesting echoes of modern practices including use of a smaller volume of wort to start the yeast culture, and priming sugar (raisins) in the bottle.

Back to manuscripts …

In my research to date I have reviewed at least 250 manuscripts looking for mead and other drink recipes (about half contain one or more). I have at least 100 more for which I have access to scans but have not yet done a review. Finally I have identified probably another 100 manuscripts where in-person review will be required. Manuscripts rather than printed books are currently the source of 20-25% of my recipes. In the future, I expect that a larger proportion of new recipes will come from manuscripts.

Many recipe manuscripts from 3-400 years old are extant and scattered through archives (small and large; public, association, subject, and religious), library and university collections, museum archives, or in private hands (like the 17th century Washington manuscript published by K. Hess). And more recipes are certainly hidden in manuscripts with no obvious food or brewing connection, like the 14th century Tractatus recipes.

The household manuscripts are at once an incredibly fertile and frustrating source for drink recipes.

Fertile because about half of the manuscripts I have reviewed to date contain recipes for mead; perhaps ¾ or more have recipes for other fermented beverages. Fertile because the universe of manuscripts is much less well defined and explored than that of printed books.

Frustrating, because finding them is difficult on many levels, many are only available in person, dealing with manuscripts that are not in English has multiple challenges, and the complexities of dating manuscripts makes placing recipes in a timeline difficult.

Photo of National Library of Scotland courtesy of Kim Traynor / National Library of Scotland, Causewayside / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Occo Hydromel Compositum 1575

The last post was a plain mead or hydromel (honey and water only). Roughly 20% of the recipes I have cataloged to date are for plain mead. That does not mean they are devoid of interest, the proportions of honey, fermentation containers (such as wood casks used for wine), sources of honey (honet, combs, a combination), and different yeast still mean that plain meads are a complex topic.

The source for the hydromel recipe also contains a second mead recipe, this one more complex.

The recipe uses, among other things, licorice and coriander. Licorice, shown attached in an illustration from Gerard’s 1633 herbal (courtesy of the Wellcome Collection) was used, among other things, to clear the chest and lungs. Coriander, was used, among other things, to bring on childbirth, as shown in this 13th century manuscript Apollodorus de Herbis (also courtesy of the Wellcome Collection).

Occo, 1575 provides a recipe for Hydromel Compositum:

R. Aquae fontis lib. viginti.
Mellis despumati lib. unam.
Origani ana pugillum semis.
Coriandri ana drach. unam.
Glycyrrhizae drach. duas.
Cinamomi drach. unam semis.
Bulliant ad consumptionem quartae partis, & colentur.

This is relatively easy to translate. My translation is:

Recipe: Spring water 20 libra.
Scummed honey 1 libra.
oregano of each half a handful.
coriander, of each one dram.
Licorice 2 dram.
Cinnamon, 1 ½ dram.
Boil to the consumption of a quarter part and strain.

Using a libra of 330 grams, the total volume here is about 1 ¾ gallon to start, a bit under 1 ½ gallon after boiling. The drink will not be very strong, asthere is less than a pound of honey in that 1 ½ gallons of liquid. While I have not done a solid analysis, I think this lesser sugar concentration may be reasonably typical for recipes that are medicinal in nature, and a plausible argument could be made that these are potentially made and dispensed by the pharmacist fairly immediately after concocting and without much fermentation.

A dram is close to 4 grams, we have ¾ of an ounce of the spices (anise, coriander, licorice and cinnamon), which boiled for the approximately hour and a half to two hours required to reduce the volume by 25% would probably impart a lot of flavor.

That said, the recipe is an interesting one. The anise and licorice seem like an interesting combination.

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Occo’s Hydromel

Our recipe this week goes back to basic hydromel. The recipe comes from this text. Occo, Adolf. (1575). Pharmacopoeia seu Medicamentarium pro Republica Augustana. Willerus: Johann Georg Werdenstein. Retrieved from Google Books https://books.google.com/books?id=YEA6AAAAcAAJ .See p.282 of the book for our recipe.

Adolf (Adolph, Adolphus) Occo (Occone, Occonius, Occonus) (1524-1606) was a physician and numismatist (coin collector). The portrait attached to this post was made some time after his death, and is from the collection of the Wellcome Library. He wrote both on coins and medicine. (see http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n88132177/ for some bibliographic information)

Adolf Occo

His Pharmacopia was typical of the times, a list of medical recipes. Often these medicines would be in a fermented base. This text contains a recipe for plain hydromel and one for hydromel compositum containing spices and herbs (next time).

The recipe for hydromel is fairly standard. This 1:8 ratio of honey to water is seen in a great many recipes, and may originate with the Greek writer Oribasius (4th century). In later texts, the 1:8 ratio is strongly associated with the physician known as Mesue. He is more properly Yuhanna ibn-Masawayah, a 7th-8th century Persian Christian Physician, who was parts of the flourishing medical establishment in that part of the world. He wrote several texts that were widely published, translated, and incorporated into other texts in the 15th and 16th century in western Europe. While this recipe is not attributed to him by Occo, it seems likely to be derived from Mesue’s writings.

1575 Occo Pharmacopoeia p.281 recipe for hydromel under section for decoctions.


Mellis libram unam.
Aquae pluviae vel fontis lib. octo.
Decoquantur donec Mel non amplius spumet.

TRANSLATION (Laura Angotti): Simple Hydromel

Recipe One libra honey, Rain water or spring 8 libra. Cook until the honey does not scum anymore.

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Mede of Poles, Muscovites, and Englishmen

Charles Estienne, also known as Carolus Stephanus was born in 1504 and died in 1564. As a physician, he is credited with discovering the spinal canal and wrote about human anatomy. He was involved in printing in Paris. Relative to mead he wrote a number of works on agriculture, most notably ‘L’agriculture, et maison rustique’, first published in 1564 edited and rewritten by son-in-law Jean Liebault from Estienne’s previous works. The book was re-worked and expanded several times, with mead recipes first appearing in the 1576 edition. The book was translated to multiple languages and went through many editions.

The cover page pictured is from the third printing and second edition of the English translation, in 1616.


One of the mead recipes in the 1576 edition reads:

“Les Polonnois, Moscovites, & Anglois, sont un brevuage ayant forme d’hydromel, lequel est beaucoup plus plaisant & plus sain, que plusieurs vins genereux qu’ils appellent Mede: Ils prennent une partie de miel, & six parties d’eau de pluye, ou de riviere, ou de fontaine, font le tout bouillir ensemble, & en bouillant l’escument, soigneusement quasi a la consumption de la moitie du tout: estant refroid y le mettent dedans un vaisseau a vin, puis adioustent six onces de levain, ou de biere, ou d’ale, pour le faire ebouillir & depurer, & pendent dans le vaisseau un nouet plein de canelle, poivre, zingembre, graine de paradis, & cloux de girofle, mesmement jettent dedans le vaisseau une poignee de fleurs de suceau: exposent le vaisseau au Soleil d’Este l’espace de quarante jours, ou en Hyver le mettent dans la cave. Ceste facon d’hydromel est forte souveraine pour les fiebures quartes, mauvaises habitudes du corps, maladies du cerveau, comme epilepsie, apoplexie, paralysie esquelles le vin est defendu.”

Translation by Laura Angotti: “The Polish, Moscovites and English, have a beverage having the form of hydromel which they call Mede; this is much more pleasant and healthier than many good wines. They take one part of honey and six parts of rainwater, river water, or fountain water. They let it all boil together, and while it boils they scum it carefully, almost to the consumption of half of it. They let it stand to cool and then place it in a wine vessel, then adding six ounces of yeast, or beer, or ale, to make it boil and purify. And they hang in the vessel a little linen bag full of cinnamon, pepper, ginger, grains of paradise, and cloves. The same they throw into the vessel a handful of elder flowers. Expose the vessel to the summer sun for forty days, or in winter put it in the cellar. This type of hydromel is very good medicine against quartain fevers, bad habits of the body, brain diseases such as epilepsy, stroke, paralysis and those illnesses where wine is forbidden.”

This recipe is notable for a number of reasons. The proportions of spices is open to interpretation, the use of elderflowers new. The 40 days fermentation period harkens back to the earliest recipes in Classical writings. The use of a wine vessel for fermentation has important implications for flavor. Finally, the note of medicinal benefits of the brew highlights the deep and enduring connections between mead and medicine.

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