In the 14th century, an un-named individual copied a number of texts into a volume. Without printed copies, this individual was using the available technology to preserve information for later use when separated from the source texts. The overall manuscript contains a wide variety of information, and in that respect this recipe is representative of a segment of early mead recipes that appear in contexts with no apparent relationship to brewing.
‘Tractatus’ the appellation that I have given this recipe is the for Tractatus de Magnete et Operationibus eius, the name given the volume by the owners.
There follows here some 6000 plus words interpreting the 336 words in the original recipe. This is a somewhat longer discussion of a recipe than I typically undertake, and is intended to present the process of redaction in some detail. The modernized recipe is near the end.
TL:DR (too long: didn’t read) – Interpreting a recipe for the modern age requires a lot of selecting one option among many possibilities (of greater or lesser likelihood), first figuring out what the options actually are. Then many choices are made in how to execute those instructions when the original equipment and ingredients may be difficult or impossible to obtain. Choices are also made to try to ensure the end product meets the brewers’ desires and expectations. Some choices are better or worse in specific contexts, but there remain many many possibilities. Skip to the bottom of the page to find the recipe.
THE TEXT AND ORIGINAL RECIPE
The entire manuscript is available scanned at http://contentdm.mhsl.uab.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/PHARM/id/889/rec/9
The manuscript is identified in the University collection by the title of the major item in the manuscript, a 13th century piece on magnets (the first known treatise on them). But the 35 page ( each with a front and back or recto (r) and verso (v)) manuscript also includes pieces on number theory, ‘seven signs of bad breeding’, and, most important to us, 5 pages of recipes, including recipes for mead and metheglyn on a single page.
See https://www.uab.edu/reynolds/collect/manuscripts/tractatus the folios page leads to the transcription of the mead recipes on folio 20r (the image for the original page is linked at the start of the transcription).
I do not copy the images here because even though the text is long out of copyright, the images are copyrighted to the modern creator (the University of Alabama at Birmingham).
Here’s the transcription of the two recipes from Tractatus, as close as possible to the old text but in something that registers on the computer (at least it does on mine …).
ffor to make mede. Tak .i. galoun of fyne hony and to þat .4. galouns of water and hete þat water til it be as lengh þanne dissolue þe hony in þe water. thanne set hem ouer þe fier & let hem boyle and ever scomme it as longe as any filthe rysith þer on. and þanne tak it doun of þe fier and let it kole in oþer vesselle til it be as kold as melk whan it komith from þe koow. than tak drestis of þe fynest ale or elles berme and kast in to þe water & þe hony. and stere al wel to gedre but ferst loke er þu put þy berme in. that þe water with þe hony be put in a fayr stonde & þanne put in þy berme or elles þi drestis for þat is best & stere wel to gedre/ and ley straw or elles clothis a bowte þe vessel & a boue gif þe wedir be kolde and so let it stande .3. dayes & .3. nygthis gif þe wedir be kold And gif it be hoot wedir .i. day and .1. nyght is a nogh at þe fulle But ever after .i. hour or .2. at þe moste a say þer of and gif þu wilt have it swete tak it þe sonere from þe drestis & gif þu wilt have it scharpe let it stand þe lenger þer with. Thanne draw it from þe drestis as cler as þu may in to an oþer vessel clene & let it stonde .1. nyght or .2. & þanne draw it in to an oþer clene vessel & serve it forth //
And gif þu wilt make mede eglyn. tak sauge .ysope. rosmaryne. Egre- moyne./ saxefrage. betayne./ centorye. lunarie/ hert- is tonge./ Tyme./ marubium album. herbe jon./ of eche of an handful gif þu make .12. galouns and gif þu mak lesse tak þe less of herbis. and to .4. galouns of þi mater .i. galoun of drestis.
And here it is using modern typography and spelling, but no other changes:
For to make mead. Take 1 gallon of fine honey, and to that 4 gallons of water and heat that water till it be as lengh then dissolve the honey in the water. Then set them over the fire and let them boil and scum it as long as any filth rises thereon. And then take it down off the fire, and let it cool in another vessel till it be as cold as milk when it comes from the cow. Then take dregs of the finest ale or else barm and cast it into the water and the honey. And stir it all well together, but first look ere you put your barm in that the water with the honey be put in a fair stonde and then put in your barm or else your dregs for that is best and stir well together; and lay straw or else cloths about the vessel and above if the weather be cold and so let it stand 3 days and 3 nights if the weather be cold. And if it be hot weather 1 day and 1 night is enough at the full. But ever after 1 hour or 2 at the most assay thereof and if you will have it sweet take it he sooner from the dregs as clear as you may into another clean vessel and let it stand 1 night or 2 and then draw it into another clean vessel and serve it forth.
And if you will make metheglyn, take sage, hyssop, rosemary, agrimony, saxifrage, betony, centory, lunaria, harts tongue, thyme, maribium album, jon herb, of each a handful if you make 12 gallons and if you make less take the less of herbs and to 4 gallons of the matter 1 gallon of dregs.
Finally, into modern English prose, removing some ambiguities that will be discussed below.
To make mead. Take 4 gallons of water and heat it until it just begins to boil, then dissolve in it 1 gallon of fine honey. Boil the mixture over a fire, removing scum from the top, until no more scum is being generated. Remove from the heat. Transfer to mixture to a good cask/barrel (the fermentation container), and let it cool to body temperature.
Add either 1 gallon of the lees and liquid from good ale, or yeast cake/fermentation tops, and mix it in thoroughly. Using the lees and liquid is better.
If the weather is cold insulate the vessel with straw or cloths, and let it stand for 3 full days. If the weather is hot it will only need to stand for 1 full day. After this time has elapsed, sample the brew every hour or so. When it has reached the desired sweetness, rack it off the dregs into a clean vessel and let it ferment another day or 2. For sweet mead take it off the dregs sooner. After this time, rack it again into a clean vessel and drink.
For 12 gallons of metheglyn take a handful each of sage, hyssop, rosemary, agrimony, saxifrage, betony, centory, lunaria, harts tongue, thyme, maribium album, and jon herb. If you make less, use less herbs.
The discussion below goes through the following topics in order:
- Words: interpreting middle English terms
- Ingredients: identifying and laying out the ingredients
- Equipment: Identifying equipment called for in the recipe.
- Process: the brewing process, which is broken into initial boiling, yeast addition, fermentation process, and herb addition.
Start with the Middle English words, since they might change the interpretation of other parts.
Lengh in the start of the recipe as a measure of how water is heated: A number of sources show lengh as length or lengthen. Heating water until it lengthens, seems inexplicable. The only immediate thought to explain that is it means when the water expands from boiling. This makes sense because the next instruction is to add honey and boil.
Stonde as a designation for where boiled wort is placed: Stand, or an alternative form of stound, a period of time. The University of Michigan online Middle English Dictionary gives an alternative definition as a barrel, tub, cask or other container with a stonde worter being a cooking vessel and an ale stonde an ale vessel.
The ingredients named in the recipe are
- Fine honey
- Dregs of finest ale OR Barm
- 12 named herbs (if making metheglyn)
‘fine’ honey. Without going into a long essay, this would logically mean good quality. So fairly clean, from decent comb, and presumably not a lot of extraneous matter. I generally prefer to use wildflower honey, believing that multiflora honey is better than monoculture (clover, orange blossom, etc,) to model the historical honey that would be collected only once per year and would destroy the hive in the collection process. I use ‘raw’ honey, which may still ‘be cleaner’ than early honey would have been – again since the entire hive would need to be dealt with in processing.
Water is quite variable based on location and source. Given this inherent variability I use tap water – mine is from surface water sources. Yes, it contains fluoride at about 0.7 ppm, but fluoride also occurs naturally in water. Bottled spring water is good, but I do not recommend the use of distilled water or RO water, because all trace elements are removed from it. Some bottled water is treated by reverse osmosis and then has minerals added in again (so it tastes ‘right’), this is another possibility.
Some recipes do call for the use of rain water (mostly ones derived from Roman-era texts). Rain water will have very low mineral content, and distilled or RO water could be considered as an option – unless you actually gather rain water.
YEAST: ALE DREGS OR BARM
The text on yeast source for this recipe leads me to the conclusion that there are four recipes in this text.
- A mead with dregs of the finest ale added in the ratio of 1 gallon dregs per 4 gallons honey mix as noted in the last sentence of the recipe. This makes a braggot (mead with grain sugars) because this amount of ale will add some significant sugars (about 10% of the total potential alcohol) it will also have a significant effect on taste.
- A plain mead with barm added, barm being yeast alone, and which would be added in a volume which is not significant relative to the honey mix.
- The above two each with herbs added to make metheglin.
Barm is usually taken to mean the floating yeast cake on the top of fermenting beer using top fermenting yeast. It could be argued that this might be added with a volume of beer and would therefore be functionally equivalent to the dregs; the one option being the bottom fraction of the ale and the other being the top fraction. If this is the case, the first two recipes could be argued to be the same (unless you believe the top fraction of the ale is a significantly different ingredient than the bottom fraction – I’m not sure, but my interpretation at this point does not require a conclusion on this). Other sources define barm as ‘yeast’ and some recipes use barm in a context that is either fairly clearly yeast alone, or implies a relatively small volume. Also the text says “dregs of the finest ale or else barm“, ‘or else’ implies a more significant substitution than simply ‘or’ and the instruction for mixing in the dregs 1:4 only says ‘dregs’. Therefore the explanation of the dregs with liquid and the barm (small volume) being two distinct ingredients makes the most sense to me. (I might change my mind.
This type of conclusion on the specifics of a recipe based on selecting the strongest argument from a group of possibilities is quite typical in redacting recipes. In this case I’ve relied on the word definitions, the placement and context of the words in the recipes, and knowledge of other recipes of this type. The investigation here has been somewhat cursory, I could certainly do a more exhaustive look, specifically into other uses giving insight into the specific meaning of the words ‘dregs’ and ‘barm’ or a more rigorous examination of other recipes using these terms.
For ‘barm’ it is possible to use beer yeast. Nottingham and Windsor are two packaged dry ale yeasts that I find are easy to get, inexpensive, and provide good results. For an English recipe that also refers to ales I would not use a wine yeast (wine not being commonly made in England at this date). Alternatively the barm layer from an active beer fermentation is probably closer to the original process.
For the dregs, I see three possibilities of increasing complexity. The best analog is addition of the proper amount from the bottom of a fresh ale fermentation that mimics a 14th century English ale (no hops – hops were not an expected part of English beer in the 14th century). Second would be to make a quick ale analog using perhaps 1 gallon from malt extract, boiling in a little grain if you see fit. Finally, one could use a commercial unfiltered beer with low hop content and bolster it with some yeast. The first requires a lot of research and work to make a whole grain brew (or easy access to someone who has done it in a timely fashion). The third has a lot of weaknesses. The second, while having drawbacks, is probably what I would choose.
I think yeast is the single most difficult question facing the brewer who wants to re-create historical brews with an effort to approach authenticity. Yeast can evolve rapidly; assuming that modern yeasts are similar to 700-year old yeasts in terms of alcohol tolerance, by-product formation, and fermenting characteristics seems optimistic. But we do not (currently) have access to these historical yeasts.
The Tractatus herbs, each with description notes from Dodoens Herbal (in English) 1578, uses are for leaves, roots, and/or flowers in various formulations:
- Rosmaryne: Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. Is the most common herb in herbed meads in my database. It is used for ills including jaundice, and to help the brain and memory. It is hot and dry in the second degree.
- Sauge: Sage, salvia officinalis. Is the second most common herb in herbed meads in my database. It is good for pregnant women, for the heart, provokes urine, and breaks up stones; it is a fertility aid (for women), and helps stop bleeding. Just in case – “The wine wherein Sage hath boyled, helpeth the manginess and itche of the privie members, if they be washed in the same.” It is hot and dry in the third degree.
- Ysope: hyssop, hyssopus officinalis/hyssopis communis. Is the third most common herb in herbed meads in my database. It is used against breathing problems and coughs, and is good for problems in the mouth and throat. It is hot and dry in the third degree.
- Tyme: thyme, thymus vulgaris. Is the 4th most common herb in herbed meads in my database. Its uses include against cough and shortness of breath, to provoke urine, clears the womb, and dissolves blood clots. It is hot and dry in the third degree.
- Egremoyne: agrimony, agrimonia eupatoria. Is relatively common in herbed meads. Per Dodoens it is good for the liver and against the bloody flux. It has no manifest heat.
- Betayne: betony, stachys officinales/betonica officinalis. Is relatively common in herbed meads. Its uses include provoking urine, breaking kidney stones; “leaves of Bettayne dried, are good to be given the quantities of a dram with hydromel, that is to say, Honied water, unto such as are troubled with the Crampe, and also against the diseases of the Mother or matrix.” (the matrix is the womb) It is hot and dry in the second degree.
- Hertis tonge: harts tongue asplenium scolopendrium is a fern. Is somewhat common on herbed meads. Dodoens says it is good against snake bite and against the bloody flux. It is very dry and astringent
- herbe jon: St. John’s Wort, hypericum perforatum. Is slightly uncommon in herbed meads. Per Dodoens, the herb, flowers and seeds in various formulations: provoke urine, are good against stones, bring on menstruation, drive away fevers, cure sciatica. In modern use it is often used for anxiety/depression. It is hot and dry in the third degree.
- Saxefrage: saxifrage. Is uncommon in herbed meads. The seed and root are used for ills of the kidney and bladder including to break stones. It is hot and dry in the third degree.
- Centorye: centory, centaurium erythraea. Is uncommon in herbed meads. Per Dodoens, it is good against a lot of illnesses including: poor breathing, cramps, to clean the womb, and to kill worms. It is hot and dry in the third (great centory) or second (small centory) degree.
- maribium album: White Horehound, marrubium album. Is rare in herbed meads. According to Dodoens, there are 4 kinds of horehound: white, black stinking, field, and water/marsh. It is good for the liver and spleen, cleanses the breast and lungs. It is hot in the second degree and dry in the third.
- Lunarie: lunaria, honesty, moonwort, lunaria annua, money plant, silver dollars. It is rare in herbed meads, this is the only recipe in which it appears. Per Dodoens it is good to heal wounds. It is cold and dry.
The nature of most of these herbs is hot and dry; see http://mysteryofmead.com/historical-context/mead-and-health-humor-theory/ for a discussion of what this means.
Are any of these herbs inadvisable for internal consumption? Always do your own research and make your own choices as to what you use, I report what the 600 year old recipe says, but cannot speak authoritatively to the safety of these herbs.
Some herbs used in older recipes are poisonous or inherently dangerous. Others may require some caution in use.
I try to be cautious of sources that rely on questionable science or old sources; understanding whether a given source has a bias and interpreting information within that bias is suggested. I tend to avoid entirely sources focusing on herbs as primary medical solutions.
None of the herbs seem to be psychoactive or mind-altering. A number are noted as being potentially unsafe for use by pregnant or nursing women. The possibility of interactions between multiple herbs cannot be ruled out. That said, it is generally considered important to be sure that people are able to know all ingredients in a drink.
EQUIPMENT – FERMENTATION CONTAINER
A cask/barrel is specified to contain the wort during fermentation.
Wood is not a neutral fermentation or storage container. However, in the context of history it might be. Wood flavors a mead by leaching out compounds inherent in the wood, or compounds that have been absorbed/adsorbed from other things that have been stored in the wood. An old barrel, but still sound, may have leached out flavoring agents to the point they add minimal flavor. A new barrel will flavor based on the wood used (both species and source), and construction technique (toasting of wood during construction). A used barrel will donate flavors from all of the things that have been previously stored in it, more from the most recent contents. Absent other indicators in a recipe, the resulting brew could be not at all to heavily flavored by the container.
If we assume a well-used but still sound barrel here, very little flavor will be imparted in fermentation or storage and modern glass carboys and glass storage bottles model well. If a new barrel is assumed, addition of raw or slightly toasted wood chips / cubes / spirals / chunks may do. Actual use of a beer or wine barrel could be optimal, if impractical due to availability, volume, or cost. A used barrel can also be modeled by using the same wood pieces soaked in the preferred ‘previous contents’ (long soaking will also leach some of the wood flavor components, helping model a ‘used’ barrel).
Which route to choose … Here personal preference comes heavily into play. That and understanding the elements, so the techniques you use are clearly connected to our understanding of the historical context.
My initial choice would be to focus on the core recipe by assuming use of an old but still sound barrel, where wood flavors had been leached out. That will give a basis to look at effects of other barrel modeling choices later.
The recipe clearly starts with one part (volume) honey to 4 parts water – 5 gallons. The exact volume of the gallon in this case seems irrelevant, which conveniently avoids another debate. We are adding 12 pounds (1 US gallon) honey to 5 US gallons total. Starting point is 2.4 pounds honey per gallon (a specific gravity of about 1.09 – 12% +/- potential alcohol).
How long does the mixture boil? This will govern how much water evaporates, and how concentrated the sugar is in the final must. For those who are less focused on historical re-creation, and do not wish to boil their honey, the debate will determine the final volume of water to which honey will be added, achieving the same gravity without boiling the honey. (Sugar concentration may also be relevant if nutrient addition is used to ensure fermentation goes to completion, a historical recipe, with no nutrients is more likely to stop fermentation short of yeast tolerances, providing a wider range of potential residual sugar in the product).
Boil and scum as long as filth arises. Even with modern processed honey, scum may continue to rise for an hour or more of boiling, although overall relatively little gets taken off. When I made whole comb honey the scum arose for several hours, and the total amount of material removed was significant. Starting with ‘fine’ honey, I will argue that my preferred modern raw honey is not too far off (convenient, yes, and that convenience certainly influences my conclusion, but it is a good starting position).
How quickly water evaporates is governed by three major factors. First the surface area of the liquid relative to the total volume (water evaporates faster from a wide shallow pot then from a tall narrow one). Second, how ‘hard’ a boil, the agitation of a rolling boil will lead to greater evaporation. Finally, the time something boils. In this case we cannot determine the first two, and have only a rough guideline for the third.
Here, I will read more into the recipe than is perhaps reasonable. Later instruction gives addition of the ale wort relative to 4 gallons of the honey wort. An hour or so of boiling can readily take 5 starting gallon to 4 gallons, so I will use as a starting position that the 5 gallons honey plus water is boiled back to 4 gallons before yeast addition.
Another point of reference is specific gravity readings. Details of calculations left out for the sanity of non-nerds.
4 gallons of final wort with 12 lb honey is 3 lb/gallon, an SG of about 1.11 and 14.5% alcohol potential. Fermented with a beer yeast (modern) to 7% alcohol gives a very sweet SG of about 1.055; at wine strength of 11-13% alcohol, we will have a SG of about 1.01-1.025, a somewhat sweet mead. In my experience beer yeasts are perfectly happy to proceed right to their alcohol tolerance when presented with honey for food – which can easily give 12% alcohol.
4 gallons of our honey wort plus 1 gallon typical beer wort (Based on BJCP data) starting at 1.05 SG (yes, it is added to our recipe already fermented, but let us look at the starting condition). A blended SG of 1.098 (13% + alcohol potential), fermented to 1.045 SG it is 7% alcohol and to 1.00-1.015 it is 11-13% alcohol.
Right now I have three avenues of thought (boiling time for scumming, 5-4 gallon implication in recipe, gravity/alcohol/residual sugars) that work with the boil to 4 gallons theory.
I’ll add a couple of considerations that might contradict this conclusion. First, boiling 1/4, 1/3, or even ½ of the original volume away is pretty common in these old recipes, although boiling away only 20% is well within typical instructions – this argues that longer boiling/more evaporation might be justified giving a higher OG. Second, this is served out after about 1 week of fermentation (although with beer dregs addition, the beer itself will already have alcohol present), and a higher gravity will not typically ferment out in 1 week; this argues for a lower OG to avoid a super sweet final (although super sweet may have been the desired result). A recipe with less liquid loss that consistently leads to a tasty result with 1 week fermentation would be a strong alternative.
How the yeast is added to the brew has been discussed, but not the core question of what east strain form the culture.
The recipe is English, and the source of the yeast is a fermenting ale/beer.
This leads me to yeasts I commonly use Lallemand Nottingham and Lallemand Windsor. Windsor has a stated alcohol tolerance of 9% and Nottingham 14%. Given the expected initial gravity of our mix, neither is a perfect match. Use of Nottingham might produce a very dry final mead, and use of Windsor may produce an overly sweet one.
I plan on using Nottingham, because although the alcohol tolerance is a bit high relative to the OG, I have not had it go much beyond 12% in practice.
12 handfuls total herbs in 12 gallons.
A handful can be highly variable – big or small hand, loosely held or tight, spilling over the sides (like with a branch of rosemary)? Using my (medium to small) hands and dried version of the 6 of these herbs I had at hand, a small handful was about 1.5 Tablespoons, and an overfilled grabby handful was about 10 Tablespoons. The larger amount required a large amount to be grabbing from, and was messy. Cutting off the larger end due to practicality, and also based on experience of adding herbs to mead (too much can come easily), I estimate our handfuls at 1.5-4 T each (4.5-12 teaspoons).
Final verdict: scant ½ to 1 teaspoon of each dried herb into each gallon of honey/water mixture prior to boiling.
The recipe has no instruction for when to add the herbs or when/how to remove them.
Of the recipes I have containing herbs, almost 7 times as many recipes call for the herbs to be added to the boil as call for adding them to the ferment. Most of those remove the herbs before fermentation. The number of recipes that do not specify how the herbs are added is slightly greater than the number that call for herbs in the ferment.
Based on this, I choose to add herbs to the boil, (which will be the water alone for those who do not boil their honey). The herbs will be strained out before fermentation. Choosing to add the herbs to the ferment, or leaving them in for both boil or ferment are viable alternatives.
The form of the herbs used, by practicality must be whole rather than powdered since we are adding handfuls. Also, I’m not aware of evidence for the use of powdered herbs historically (another possible research area).
It is plausible that all of these herbs could be available fresh at the same time in the late summer/early fall (when seeds are available and roots are typically harvested). It seems more plausible that dried herbs would be easier to align the seasons of the different plants and ease collection. For our purposes dried is much more convenient.
Spending some time looking into the specific growing cycles of the relevant plants, and figuring out when the different herbs would be likely to be harvested would be an interesting exercise and might lead to a conclusion whether using fresh herbs for this recipe is possible.
The parts of the plant typically used based on old herbals and modern usage:
—Rosemary, Sage, Hyssop, Thyme, Betony, Harts tongue: Leaves.
—Agrimony: Above-ground portions of plant.
—St. John’s Wort: Flowering tops used.
—Saxifrage: Seed, leaves, and root.
—Centory: Whole herb.
—White Horehound: Leaves and flowers used.
— Lunaria: Root and seed.
The question of fermentation conditions gets a bit wobbly.
This is where:
- the recipe redaction choices from multiple options,
- process and component best guesses,
- difficulty understanding and recreating 600 year old brewing,
will crash headlong into
- our desire to do things ‘right’ by modern understanding,
- planning for the changes in expected results from using modern methods,
- planning for a drink available at our convenience,
- and wanting to make something that tastes good.
The relevant portion of the recipe is this.
“stir well together; and lay straw or else cloths about the vessel and above if the weather be cold and so let it stand 3 days and 3 nights if the weather be cold. And if it be hot weather 1 day and 1 night is enough at the full. But ever after 1 hour or 2at the most assay thereof and if you will have it sweet take it he sooner from the dregs as clear as you may into another clean vessel and let it stand 1 night or 2 and then draw it into another clean vessel and serve it forth.”
Or, in modern English:
Keep the barrel at a constant temperature, not too cool. Let it ferment for 3 full days in cold weather, or 1 full day in hot weather. After that time sample and when it has reached your desired sweetness, rack it into another container. After an additional 1-2 days rack it again and serve it.
Keep temperature constant.
Not too cool would seem to suggest a higher than cellar temperature.
But noting different initial fermentation of 3 days for cool weather to 1 day for hot weather implies that the fermentation could be run at a wide variety of temperatures above that too cool threshold. Modern wisdom suggests fermenting cool to avoid off flavors. Based on this we will aim to ferment for the 3 days period at a lower (65-70 F) temperature.
The recipe calls for racking, but not until it has reached the desired sweetness (this could be hours or days, unclear). This leaves a lot of ground open. The 4 gallon honey/water recipe will have an OG of about 1.11, if 1 gallon of fine ale (already fermented, but assume with a typical OG of 1.05 to 1.06) is added the OG should be about 1.10.
And the fermentation will continue for 1-2 days further before it is served. Therefore, the ‘desired sweetness is probably rather sweet to allow for further sugar consumption. And the recipe assume consumption without any aging, not typical in the modern world.
The question of fermentation timing becomes particularly difficult, and in my opinion needs to be addressed within an understanding of the goals of the brewer. It also needs to be looked at from the standpoint of a scientific understanding of fermentation. Finally, the serve immediately versus save for consumption over time is a question of practicality that while it is outside the recipe, requires consideration.
The purely historical brewer will find the desired hot or cool place, and follow the directions to the best of their ability. They will make the brew 3-5 days before they expect to serve it, and will serve a cloudy, still fermenting beverage that will have more or less alcohol/residual sugar depending on how things worked out. Then hope they have enough cooperative friends on hand to drink it quickly.
The purely modern brewer focused on making a drink adhering as closely as possible to the historical drink will probably select a yeast appropriate to the ingredients, temperature, and original gravity. The short fermentation does not allow for a standard nutrient addition regime, but a modified schedule perhaps just the 24, 48, and 72 hour additions, should work. The fermentation can be crashed at that 3-5 days or served immediately. Alternatively the must, once prepared can be fermented using modern timing and not adhering to the 5 +/- days to serving, with the drink being bottled for later use. Under this option, the brewer can choose to clarify, age, apply a formal TOSNA, etc.
That is a lot of room for variation, and will lead to enormous differences in the resulting mead.
My choices will be based on my personal goals, and keeping in mind that the current recipe is an initial redaction, intended in large part to learn whether all the research, deductions, choices, and opinions I’ve been working through work in practice.
SIMPLIFIED RECIPE FOR QUICK PLAIN MEAD
The recipe without herbs makes a plain mead. This is a recipe we have used for a very easy and quick mead.
We have made this a number of times using a less rigorous redaction and have found the results to be pleasant, bubbly, cloudy, not overly alcoholic, and yeasty.
The modern recipe derived from this text is as follows for one gallon product:
- 3 ½ Quarts Water
- 3 ½ Cups Honey
- Ale yeast
The process is:
- Place water in pot and heat until it begins to steam.
- Mix in honey.
- Bring to a boil and boil, skimming, until total volume is reduced to 1 gallon (about 1 hour).
- When the wort is blood warm, pitch yeast into fermenter and add wort.
- Place in a warm location and let ferment 1 to 3 days depending on weather. If inside, use 2 to 3 days as the time.
- Rack into a clean vessel and let ferment an additional 2 days.
- Rack into new vessel and serve immediately. (Alternatively siphon or pour off a bit at a time into a serving container, leaving the rest to settle again before the next batch is poured.)
Brewed on a Sunday, this drink will be ready for consumption the next Friday or Saturday.
We think that this recipe likely gives the best feel of any we have of what this class of quick mead was like in very early days. It would have been an extremely young drink, with an active yeast culture and sweet with residual sugar. Based on the technique, it may not be completely opaque, but will not be very clear. It will be low in alcohol.
Although this recipe is intended to be ready and drunk quickly, it has been reported to us that it does fairly well for several weeks or months; the brewer can decant from the fermenter as needed.
RECIPE – FOUR VERSIONS INCLUDING METHEGLYN
This is the initial recipe that allows side by side comparison of all four versions. Commentary follows:
- About 5 days in advance, prepare and start fermenting 1 gallon ale.
- Take two pots and add to each 1 gallon of water and heat it until it just begins to boil.
- Add 1 quart honey into each pot.
- Into one pot add ½ teaspoon each of the 12 herbs.
- Boil and remove scum until 1 1/4 gallon remains in each pot. (Additional evaporation will take place as it cools)
- Allow mixture to cool to lukewarm.
- Transfer to four ½ gallon glass fermenters as follows. For both the plain wort and the herbed wort fill one fermenter completely and the second fermenter gets 6 ½ cups of honey wort.
- Mix in yeast solids from fermenting ale into the two full fermenters.
- Add 1 ½ cup of lees and ale to the two partially full fermenters.
- Take gravity for all tests.
- Place in my house’s fieldstone basement for constant cool temperature. Monitor each day for sweetness and gravity.
- After 2-3 days rack.
- Continue monitoring for 1-2 more days.
- After 3-5 days total time taste and rack off again.
- Continue tasting and monitoring. If any is left after fermentation is complete, bottle remainder.
If I’m very lucky in planning and execution, I will try to have this ‘done’ at a time when I can get a bunch of people together to taste it.
Before finalizing their own recipe for making this brew, the user will need to decide, at a minimum, the following major points:
- Are they using yeast alone or yeast plus wort addition?
- If using the lees plus ale/beer decide on the beer recipe, yeast, etc.
- Are they adding herbs to make metheglin?
- If so, all herbs? How much of each?
- What fermentation regime and conditions will they use (in particular relevant to when and how they want to serve to product).
- How will changes made to the recipe and techniques affect to expected outcome, and does that ask for further changes to adjust?
- Have you identified the proper series of instructions to match the recipe choices, batch size, and techniques being used?
I identify here the points which I believe mark the major variants of this recipe.
To my mind there are three major branching points inherent in this recipe (and thus agnostic to modern versus historical technique).
- Use of yeast alone or yeast plus ale wort.
- Use of herbs or not. Choice of fresh or dried herbs and amount of herbs.
- Use of a fresh (wood flavor added), somewhat used (wood and contents (ale/beer or wine) flavor added), or old (no flavor added) barrel.
Minor branching points in the recipe (also agnostic to modern versus historical technique) include:
- Honey/water ratio,
- type of yeast used, and
- length of fermentation before drinking.
Technique branching points (some of which are inherent to the recipe, others are choices as to historical versus modern execution or for brewing convenience) include:
- boiling honey or not,
- using yeast culture rather than barm from an active beer/ale ferment,
- how to execute fermentation process (nutrients, degassing, etc.), and
- handling of brew after end of called-for fermentation period.
Another side note: Look carefully at how many assumptions were made. And how in several cases assumptions were made that in turn supported the direction I was already headed in (circular reasoning alert). This is why I am always very suspicious of claims of certainty surrounding re-creations of these types of recipes; in many cases certainty is simply not possible, and I find it difficult to have confidence when uncertainty is not acknowledged.
Last updated June 18, 2019
The Tractatus analysis that has been re-worked on this page was originally presented on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MysteryofMead/). The Facebook posts represent a slightly longer presentation with some digressions from the version presented here.