Rosemary in Historical Mead Recipes

The fourth most common ingredient in historical mead recipes is rosemary. It is the most common herb, and is more than 50% more common than the next herb on the list.

Rosemary is used as the only flavor addition in only 2 of the over 500 recipes it appears in.

Its prevalence appears to increase over time, being less common in meads from before the mid-17th century than in those dating after that time.

Rosemary from Fuch’s Herbal

For spices rosemary is most commonly paired with ginger, at a frequency that appears to be higher than expected based on how common ginger is. Rosemary is a common partner to citrus (a lemon-rosemary mead from the mid-17th century has been a very successful recipe for me). When used with other herbs, marjoram, sweet briar, and thyme are its most frequent partners.

Rosmarinus officinalis, has been used as a name for rosemary for hundreds of years, and is by far the most common member of the 5-species genus. Proving that changes in plant names are not purely a historical phenomenon, in 2017 Rosmarinus officinalis, was officially re-assigned to the much larger larger Salvia genus as Salvia rosmarinus. This decision was made based on DNA analysis. Because Salvia is so large a group, some plant taxonomists believe it should be broken up, other argue the DNA evidence argues otherwise. Maybe they will have some productive debates over a mazer of mead containing rosemary?

Rosemary does come in a wide variety of cultivars, but the differences in flavor between them is generally noted as being subtle rather than notable. Choice of cultivars appear to be more commonly made for aesthetic or climactic consideration than because of flavor.

Thanks to the Wellcome Collection for the illustration of rosemary from Fuch’s herbal.

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Cinnamon in Historical Mead Recipes

Continuing common historical mead ingredients.

The top two ingredients in historical meads, ginger and cloves, are ahead of the third, cinnamon, by a significant margin. Cinnamon is common across all periods, but in pre-1600 recipes, cinnamon is actually the number one addition, edging out both cloves and ginger.

Cinnamon is in just under half (46%) of the recipes containing spices. It is uncommon as the sole spice in a mead, about 10% of the single spice recipes use cinnamon. This continues in the recipes with 2 spices, where cinnamon is in about 25%. It is most often paired in these cases with cloves, mace, or nutmeg. Its overall frequency is driven upwards by being in about 2/3 of recipes containing four or five spices, and virtually all recipes with six or more. This paints a picture for cinnamon as the “Best Supporting Actor” of historical meads.

Ceylon Cinnamon (left) and Cassia (right)

As many know, there are two primary kinds of cinnamon, cassia and Ceylon. Cassia is much more common, and includes in the modern day three important sub-types: Indonesian (Korintje, Padang – Cinnamonmum Burmanni: the sweetest and mildest), Chinese (Cassia – Cinnamomum Aromaticum: stronger and bitter), and Saigon (Vietnamese – Cinnamomum loureiroi: intensely flavored). Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or Cinnamomum Zeylanicum) is overall milder and more aromatic.

About 75% of the cinnamon imported to the US is cassia, with Indonesian cinnamon making up the vast majority. Ceylon cinnamon is relatively more common in Europe, and many believe it was the more common cinnamon historically, making it arguably a better choice for historical recipes containing cinnamon. It is unclear if that claim can be substantiated historically. The use of Ceylon in the US is increasing, apparently largely due to concern over the much higher concentration of coumarin (known to cause liver damage) in Ceylon cinnamon.

Historical mead recipe writers were aware of the two kinds of cinnamon. At least one recipe calls out the thicker and thinner leaves of cassia versus Ceylon. German 16th century recipes occasionally call for “Caneels oder Zimmetrinden” indicating both types were available and acceptable options.

Cinnamon historically was used as the rolled quills, not powdered. When the quills are used it is easy to tell cassia types from Ceylon (see picture, thank you Wiki Images). Once ground the Ceylon is less red and lighter in color.

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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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Mead Ingredients – Ginger

Starting my 2020 topic of flavorings used in historical mead recipes.

Ginger is the most common added flavor in historical mead recipes. Almost 1/3 of all cataloged recipes use ginger as an additive.

For recipes from the mid-17th century to 1750, ginger is noticeably more common than the second most common addition (cloves). In recipes from 1601-1669 ginger is only slightly ahead of cinnamon and cloves. In recipes dating up to 1600 the current catalog count places both cinnamon and cloves slightly ahead of ginger in frequency.

The fraction of recipes using ginger goes up over time, as does the fraction of recipes using spices in general. The prevalence of ginger as one of the spices in recipes containing spices also appears to go up slightly over time.

This ingredient is easily identified and carries a consistent name throughout history. In the modern day many cultivars are grown for culinary use.

Today, ginger is available in a number of forms including fresh, candied, dried and pickled. Pickled ginger is unsuited to mead making. I do not believe that candied ginger was used in historical mead recipes because recipes typically call out ingredient processing of this type and there is no such language used for ginger.

Logically, fresh ginger root would not survive transit from its native Asia several hundred years ago. However, European cultivation of ginger was initiated by the Romans, and ginger is hardy to temperate areas of Europe. It can be grown in pot culture with some care in most of the rest of Europe, so we can conclude that fresh ginger would have been available in most of Europe for use in historical mead recipes. It has been noted that ginger grown in different regions has different flavor characteristics.

Almost no historical mead recipes clearly specify which form of ginger they use.

A few recipes give a weight measure for ginger, in which case common sense and looking at the relative volume of fresh versus dried ginger leads to a likely conclusion. The accompanying picture shows 15 grams (about 1/2 ounce) each of fresh, dried, and candied ginger. The fresh and candied have about the same amount of root, but the dried is much more.

Dried, Fresh, and Candied Ginger

Many recipes measure ginger in “races” a rather non-specific amount defined as a root or sprig of ginger. In this case fresh ginger seems the most likely version to supply such an amount. But this measure opens another issue – anyone who has looked at ginger root can imagine how this definition can be interpreted to mean a small or a large piece.

The easy identification of ginger hides the issues that make actually using ginger in a historical recipe complicated. Many recipes are unclear as to whether fresh or dried ginger is added, giving an uncertainty of both amount and the flavor variations between fresh and dried. The additional uncertainty of the amount used (particularly when a “race” is called for, provides the mead maker with a lot of leeway to interpret instructions.

This potential variation of how ginger is used in modern re-creations seems suitable for the most common additive for historical meads.

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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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