Lobel’s Meth 1609
The Feminine Monarchie: or, a Treatise Concerning Bees by Charles Butler was published in 1609. The majority of the book is about bees themselves; 9 of the 10 chapters cover their habits, the keeping of hives, feeding bees, protecting them, managing swarms, etc. The tenth chapter gets into harvesting honey, and what is done with it.
This book is credited as the first recognizing that the bee hive was ‘led’ by a queen. In our time period of interest, it was published in English in 1609, revised in 1623, and revised again in 1634. In 1673 it was published in Latin.
Illustration from The Feminine Monarchie – courtesy Wellcome Collection
One of the recipes in Butler’s 1609 book is attributed to “the learned Physitian Mathias de Lobel”. It reads:
“The learned Physitian Mathias de Lobel requireth this proportion: unto one measure of hony take sixe of water, and let them boile to fowre. His receipt of spice is this, cynamom, ginger, peper, graines, cloues, ana drachm 2.”
Matthias de Lobel – courtesy Wellcome Collection
MAKING LOBEL’s METH
The 1609 recipe for Lobel’s meth is brief and incomplete. It is located at the end of a somewhat detailed description of mead making, and it is reasonable to assume that these instructions would also generally apply to the Lobel recipe addendum / fragment. In the section immediately before Lobel’s recipe Butler says:
“The liquor being thus prepared let seeth an houre or better, … or as long as it will yeeld any skums which you must continually take from it, as fast as it riseth. For if it once sink down againe, the liquor wil not be cleere without putting in some cold liquor to raise it. And therefore it is good to keepe back some eighth part of the liquor, and, when the rest hath boiled about halfe an howre and is wel skimmed, to powre in that cold liquor, & to skim it cleane againe. When it wil cast no more skum, take it from the fire, and set it a cooling. When it is but milke-warme, straine it through a thicke linnen cloth into a tubbe to worke: & put into it a little bag of spice, … and when it is wel soaked, rub the bag in your hand and wring out the liquor, & then leaue the bag in the tubbe, until the meth be tunned. At which time do the like.
To set it a working you may out into it a little barme. And when it hath done working, put it up into a barrel: where the Meth in time wil be covered with a mother, which if by iogging the barrel, or by other meanes it be broken, the meth wil sower; but so will it make excellent vertjoice, and the sooner, if it be set in the sun with the bung open.”
Between the general and the specific instructions we have a good basis for a recipe.
The initial steps of the recipe are clear, 1 part honey to 7 parts water, mixed and then boiled back to 4 parts. ‘Part’ is unspecific, and can mean either weight or volume, but when measuring liquids it typically means volume (using volume fraction the OG here about 1.11, if weight fractions are used the OG will be about 1.08). The boiling liquid should be skimmed to remove any scum that rises. The step of adding in a reserved portion of the cold mixture to force more scum to rise does exactly that; it is arguably unnecessary with honey extracted using modern methods, which will contain relatively few impurities. The step has been omitted to simplify the process.
Those who do not want to boil their honey should skip this step entirely, and mix their honey and water at body temperature, ensuring the desired final volume is achieved.
The must that has been boiled and cooled or mixed warm should be strained into a’tub’ for fermentation. A tub, in the vernacular of the time would have been an open container made of wood. Most will prefer to use a modern fermentation vessel to avoid contamination and oxidation. The aging after fermentation is also in wood, in a barrel.
Stating that the fermentation takes place in wood is less informative than may be thought. At this time wood tubs and barrels were used for a wide variety of purposes, and would have been used and repaired as long as they could be maintained water-tight. We have no information to judge either the age or previous contents of the tub and barrel being used here. That it was oak is almost certain, oak was overwhelmingly the wood of choice for liquid barrels, but whether English oak, French oak or Eastern European oak is less clear (in England, English oak seems likely, but many barrels were re-used after having contained wine shipped from the continent, making French oak a distinct possibility). Eastern European oak is
The tub used for primary fermentation logically is more likely to be a utility container which sees regular use, and the aging container could be expected to turn over contents less frequently.
I generally choose to start with an assumption of a well-aged tub/barrel that is clean of previous contents. Thus, no significant wood or previous contents flavor is added during fermentation. With this assumption I use the glass fermenters I have ready at hand. The addition of barrel flavors from wood or carry-over from previous contents opens up many options for modifying the recipe and featuring different flavors.
Barm is used for yeast, which in England at this time almost certainly means the top or bottom (lees) from ale or beer brewing.
“Put into it a little bag of spice”. Spice is added while the wort is still warm, left in during fermentation, and flavor addition is assisted by squeezing out the bag one or more times. The spices are taken out before aging.
To gauge the spice amount: a dram is 60 grains or 1.77 gram. 3.5 gm in 2 dram, or 1/8 ounce each spice. Based on my measurements of the weight of bulk spices, this amount is:
- Cinnamon: One medium 3 inch stick.
- Clove: 35 dried cloves. (Note that relative to modern tastes this is a lot of cloves, I often reduce the amount of cloves, since many recipes instructs the mead maker to add flavors to their taste I judge this an acceptable modification).
- Ginger: about 7 dried slices.
- Grains 2 scant tsp.
- Pepper: 3 ½ tsp or 1 generous Tablespoon.
Spices for 1 Gallon (before bruising)
The recipe does not clearly state the volume of the mead being made. The previous recipe has about twice as much total weight of spice in “8 or 10 gawnes of meth”. Modern definitions tell us ‘gawn’ is variously: a foolish person, to make sticky or gum up, or to gawk or gape. None of these give enlightenment. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, with its historical focus tells me that a gawn is a gallon, and interestingly enough cites the 1623 edition of Butler as one of the early citations for use of the word. Please recall that these are perhaps ale gallons (roughly equivalent to the imperial gallon, which are 4.6 liters or 1.2 gallons).
The simplest path to a spice amount is to assume this recipe is for a similar amount of mead as the previous recipe: 8-10 gawn or 10-12 modern gallons. From this we get a lightly spiced drink. If we assume a smaller amount than for the preceding recipe, say that each ‘part’ of the initial recipe is itself a gallon, leading to a final volume of 4 gallons, this gives an amount of spice that seems more appealing. The first explanation is a more likely progression, but since I like more spice in my mead, I have chosen the second, less likely option for this recipe.
The drink ferments in the tub, but using a closed and sanitized fermenter is certainly not inappropriate. It is racked into a barrel when done, and it is allowed to age. No aging time after the completion of fermentation (presumably visible fermentation), is provided, leaving the brewer free rein.
THE MODERN RECIPE
This recipe has been formulated to produce a drink that closely emulates the 17th century drink, the mead maker may choose to modify the recipe to match their preferred methods and taste.
Recipe for a 5 gallon batch:
- Take 1 gallon plus 1 quart honey (15 pounds).
- If boiling, add to 7 1/2 gallons water, then boil back to 5 gallons, skimming. Then allow to cool to body temperature.
- If NOT boiling, heat 4 gallons minus 1 quart water to about 120 F (to allow for cooling from honey) and mix in honey to make 5 gallons.
- Strain honey:water mix into fermenter.
- Add bruised spices in a bag:
1 medium stick cinnamon,
about 35 cloves,
7 medium slices of dried ginger root,
2 scant tsp grains of paradise, and
1 generous Tablespoon black pepper.
- Add preferred ale/beer yeast.
- If desired use your preferred nutrient and degassing schedule.
- When fermentation is complete rack.
- For longer storage bottle after secondary.
Possible variations based on the assumptions made:
- Roughly halve the amount of spice to model a batch the same size as the previous recipe.
- Add English (or French) oak to the primary or secondary fermentation to mimic fermentation or aging in wood.
- Use French oak soaked in wine for the secondary fermentation, modeling re-use of an imported wine barrel. Or use beer soaked oak to model use of a barrel that has held beer/ale.
I have made this recipe several times, with fairly consistent results.
I boil the wort to remain true to the recipe (I also do not use nutrients or other additives as I believe this gives a better initial assessment of the results that would have been expected from the recipe when it was written). The initial gravity is consistently about 1.11, and varies from 1.025 to 1.035 at bottling (without nutrient use), indicating about 10-11% alcohol.
The spices come across in both the nose and the taste, with some unexpected, almost medicinal interactions between the flavors. The pepper can be picked out specifically, as can the cinnamon and cloves. The grains are not obvious, but provide some background aromatics. Ginger is not very present. The nose retains honey, and as would be expected with the high residual sugar, it has a solid mouth feel, and is relatively sweet.
OTHER VERSIONS OF THIS RECIPE
The recipe presented in Butler and attributed to Lobel has a very interesting and extended history. To date I have traced appearances across over 250 years in books published in France, Germany, England, and Belgium. All aspects of the recipe shift somewhat between different versions: proportions, flavor additions, and brewing / fermentation / aging regimes. These changes over time lead to over 50 variant recipes, each of which is expected to taste notable different due to changes in ingredients, proportions, and brewing conditions.
Butler, Charles. (1609). The Feminine Monarchy: or, a Treatise Concerning Bees. Oxford: J. Barnes.
Butler, Charles. (1623). The Feminine Monarchy: or, a Treatise Concerning Bees. London: John Haviland.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89094193828 and on Google Books.
Simpson, J. A., E. S. C. Weiner, and Donna Lee. Berg. (1991). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically. Oxford: Clarendon.
Last updated July 17, 2019