Lobel’s Meth 1609
The Feminine Monarchie: or, a Treatise Concerning Bees by Charles Butler was published in 1609. 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. 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.
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
This article covers two distinct stories related to this recipe. The first is redacting and making the recipes from 1609, as if I were a contemporary reading this book. The second is tracking down the predecessor and successor recipes of the 1609, and carrying out a superficial review of how it changed moving forwards, and backwards in time, and with translation.
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 in the 1609 text he 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 almost always means volume. 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 is probably unnecessary with honey extracted using modern methods, and has been omitted.
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 boiled and cooled or mixed warm must should be strained into a’tub’. Tub, my initial reaction says that should be an open container made of wood. In other English texts from the same period, when he word ‘tub’ is used with additional clarification, in each case I found with a quick review, it was specified to be wooden. Based on this fermentation in wood is assumed.
Now stating that the fermentation takes place in wood is less informative than may be thought. At this time wood 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 being used for fermentation. 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 (although in England, English oak seems likely.)
The aging after fermentation is also in wood, in a barrel. In this case it seems more likely that the barrel for aging would be newer and/or contain residue from wine (shipped from France?) or other contents. 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 relatively clean of previous contents. This concept is the background for an assumption that no significant wood or previous contents flavor is added during fermentation.
Barm is used for yeast, which in England at this time almost certainly means ale or beer yeast.
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 (4 ounce to one pound portions), 2 dram of each spice is:
- Cinnamon: One medium 3 inch stick.
- Clove: 35 dried cloves. (Note that relative to modern tastes this is a lot of cloves, I would generally suggest using about 20-25 unless you are confident you want more clove flavor).
- Ginger: about 7 dried slices.
- Grains 2 scant tsp.
- Pepper: 3 ½ tsp or 1 generous Tablespoon.
But there is little to give us 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”. An internet search led to varying defintions for gawm of: a foolish person, to make sticky or gum up, or to gawk or gape. None of these give enlightenment. But my trusty Compact Oxford English Dictionary, almost 2500-pages of magnifier required English words and their history, tells me that a gawn is a gallon, and interestingly enough cites the 1623 edition of Butler as one of the citations for use of the word. Please recall that these are probably ale gallons (roughly equivalent to the imperial gallon, which are 4.6 liters or 1.2 gallons).
While none of us tells us definitively how much spice goes into Lobel’s mead relative to the liquid volume, it does give us some guidelines. If the volume is the same as the previous recipe 8-10 gawn or 10-12 modern gallons, we get a lightly spiced drink. If we assume a smaller amount than for the preceding recipe, say that each ‘part’ of the recipe is a gallon, leading to a final volume of 4 gallons, this gives an amount of spice that seems more appealing.
Spices for 1 Gallon (before bruising)
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 (the same comments for barrel flavor contribution apply as for tub flavor contribution), and it is allowed to age. No aging time after the completion of fermentation (presumably visible fermentation), is provided, leaving the brewer free rein.
This analysis leads to the following 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: one 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 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 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.
I made a 1 gallon test batch from the redaction above, reducing the clove by about ¼, and boiling the wort to remain true to the recipe (not using nutrients or other additives as I believe this gives a better initial assessment of the results to be expected from the recipe). The initial gravity was 1.11, and was about 1.035 in racking, indicating about 10% alcohol. I used Nottingham Ale Yeast, which has a stated alcohol tolerance of 14%. AT this writing the mead has not been bottled. 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 very sweet. The cloves could probably go to the called-for amount without problem.
OTHER VERSIONS OF THIS RECIPE
Using my recipe database, I pulled up other recipes that had one or more of the following characteristics and upon review appeared to be variants of the same core recipe: Used the name Lobel, had the same starting ratio of honey to water, or contained the same set of spices.
In all, I have found 9 different books that present this recipe. The recipes and the connections interpreted from author, date, and recipe contents is shown in the figure below.
The Evolution of Lobel’s Mead
The solid lines present probable connection paths and dashed lines present possible connections. De Serres in 1600 could have take the recipe from his fellow French author, or directly from Lobel in either Latin or Dutch. Hugetan’s recipe in 1607 has most in common with Estienne, making that the most likely source.
In a 90-year period, the recipe is published at least 9 times, in four languages, in 3 countries. A more accurate idea of the reach of the recipes could be achieved by looking at recorded printings and editions of each of these books; for instance we know that Butler’s book on bees also had a 1634 edition, but without reviewing it cannot be sure this recipe was in it (although it is reasonable to assume it was). Pena and Lobel’s 1570 book may have been reprinted in 1571 and 1576, and was republished in Antwerp in 1576.
All of the recipes, except De Serres use the same group of 5 spices. All boil away about half of the original wort.
MOVING FORWARD IN TIME
Moving forward in time from the 1609 recipe, there are two more incarnations. For the 1623 edition of Butler’s book, the recipe section is modified somewhat, and that modified recipe is copied almost identically into Samuel Purchase’s ‘A Theatre of Politically flying insects’. There is also a 1634 3rd edition of Butler, which has not been available for review to evaluate for the presence and content of the recipe.
The 1623 and 1658 versions are very close to each other, but somewhat different from the 1609, and in the end more complex. While the text for Lobel’s recipe itself is unchanged, it is now embedded in the core meth recipe rather than sitting after it (which supports our choice of using he core recipe to bolster the instructions for Lobel’s Mead). The instructions for the core recipe have become somewhat more complex and have incorporated a host of changes that might change the flavor of the resulting drink significantly:
- the scum taken from the boiling must is reserved and returned to the must at one point (a rather odd instruction),
- the boiling instructions are somewhat more complicated, and the spices are placed in for part of the boil,
- the spices are split between a bag and loose so that the loose half is filtered out before fermentation,
- no yeast source is specifically introduced,
- the initial fermentation is specified as less than a week, and
- the aging barrel is “scalded with Bay-leaves”.
And all this in a recipe that at first look could be thought to be the ‘same’.
MOVING BACKWARD IN TIME
Looking at Butler’s 1609 recipe for Lobel’s mead enters the story of the recipe mid-stream.
Lobel is Mathias de L’Obel (Lobel, Lobelius), a Flemish physician and botanist. L’Obel was born in France in 1538 and died in England in 1616. He worked with the other Flemish ‘fathers of botany’ Carolus Clusius and Rembert Dodoens; they reworked the plant classifications of Dioscorides, which had held sway for 1500 years into a classification system focusing on their structures rather than their uses. His involvement with John Gerard’s English translation of Dodoens herbal led to a falling out among charges of plagiarism.
L’Obel was the author of a number of works all of which were primarily botanical, but within the nature of such books at the time, they also included significant amounts of medical information, detailing the use of the herbs; as well as other information on the natural world.
The probable first appearance of this recipe is in Pena’s 1570 ‘Stirpium adversaria nova’ (A new book of plants); L’Obel is listed as the second author, and this was his first book. This Latin text was published in London. My translation from the Latin gives instructions with the following notable differences from the 1609 recipe:
- The 1:6 honey:water ratio is measured in libras, which is an old Roman measure equivalent to about 330 grams. Because water and honey are measured by weight not volume, the honey volume is 1.25 gallons (15 lb) in 5.25 gallons water, or 2.3 lb/gal which is very different from the honey concentration when it is measured by volume. It can be argued that libra was being used as both a weight and volume measure, and thus this recipe has the same honey ratio. It is probably not a question that can be easily resolved.
- A wine vessel is specified for fermentation.
- The same amount of spices is used in 6.5 gallons final volume providing more flavor.
- A handful of elderflowers is also added to the fermentation.
- Yeast options are varied “6 ounces of bread yeast is added, or ale yeast, or acid beer yeast”. This acid beer yeast could be from a sour beer, implying presence/use of lactobacillus or brettanomyces.
- A less complicated boiling and fermentation scheme and different fermentation period are given with no racking/aging instructions.
- Two options are provided for coloring mead. The first adds 165 grams of turnsole, the second adds about 2 gallons (a third part) of wine. Turnsole is known as a blue color for illumination. In the absence of an alkali it gives red in food.
The 1580 version, with Lobel as the sole author is, unsurprisingly similar to the 1570, but it has the following differences from the 1570:
- Pounds of honey and water used rather than libra. A pound can vary greatly, which would change the final volume. Since libra is the root word for pound (our abbreviation of lb. for pound comes from the lb. abbreviation for libra), it is likely that this is an artifact of translation and does not represent a recipe difference. However, since the weight of a pound could vary significantly locally, it could represent a practical difference regionally.
- Yeast: the 1570 version very clearly includes acid beer as a yeast source, this one it is just beer.
- A lot more spice is called for, since a lod (lot) could be 10-50 grams. If we use the low end, a half lot each spice is 5 grams, compared to the 3.5 grams that is 2 drams.
- Elderflowers are added to the flavoring mix.
- Colored with turnsole is the same but with wine is a “portion” of wine, which would likely be mess than the third part called for in 1570.
In 1576, this recipe appears in Charles Estienne’s Maison Rustique, published in Paris. The 1576 was the second edition of this book, the first being published in 1570; this 1570 edition did not contain this recipe.
Estienne identifies the recipe as belonging to the “Polish, Muscovites and English”. This identification of mead with the regions to the east and west and often the north) is repeated in many texts. This recipe:
- Shifts the honey:water ratio from a 1:6 by weight to a 1:6 by ‘parts’. This may imply a shift from weight measure to volume measure, which is important when dealing with honey. Alternatively, it is more likely that original ‘weight’ measure was actually a measure for volume masquerading as weight.
- It is boiled “almost to the consumption of half of it. This is not a change, but it is less precise than other recipes in this group. This imprecision could lead to wider variance in results.
- The yeast source is “yeast, or beer, or ale”.
- Fermentation in a wine vessel.
- No amount is specified for spice addition, leaving more room for individual choice.
- It is fermented for 40 days in the sun in the summer or in the cellar in winter. Forty days fermentation in the sun in summer echoes the fermentation instructions in a number of Roman-era recipes.
In 1606 The Estienne text was translated into English by Surflet. The translation has two minor changes: boiling until almost half is gone becomes boiling until half is gone, and the yeast source is listed as ale or beer, leaving out the more general leaven (which based on the original source would include bread yeast).
A 1607 health treatise from France appears to have been working from the Estienne version. This is attributed to the Muscovites and Poles (leaving out the English) and called medon. It has the following differences:
- A good vessel of wood is used for fermentation, no mention of wine.
- Yeast sources are the same. But 3 ounces of leaven per livre of wort is recommended, which is much more than other recipes, and if read as initially translated gives about 1 part yeast source to 4 parts of wort, which might indicate a translation error, since leaven paste is one of the options.
- Elderflower addition is optional.
- Addition of fenugreek is a new option. Fenugreek is sometime added to early recipes as a yeast analog, why it was thought to be so is currently unknown by me.
Finally, a recipe that appears to be inspired by Lobel appears in another French husbandry book of 1600. De Serres includes a recipe that does not start with the same honey:water proportion but does include an option that leads to the same 1:3 final proportion. Fermentation is in the sun for 6 weeks (42 days) and spice addition is cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and nutmeg (nutmeg replacing the grains of paradise). There is no specific yeast addition and the fermentation vessel is “clean wood”.
The 1609 recipe chosen for the detailed redaction incidentally turns out to be a point of relative simplicity in the history of this recipe. We have traced the history from 1570 to 1658, a 90 year history and found that each versions of the recipes, while sharing enough to remain clearly connected, introduces options and changes that make it unique.
Given a good understanding of brewing and flavors as you develop a recipe from a historical source, it is usual that the resulting mead will be solid to good, and sometimes excellent, even on a first attempt.
This recipe, particularly in its progression through time shows an interplay of factors that could drive a wide variety of resulting drinks.
This variation and changes to recipes is very typical in the various texts I have reviewed. Often it is unclear whether changes that results in significant differences, (such as the transition from honey:water by weight (and 2.3 lb/gal honey) and honey:water by volume (about 3 lb/gal honey). The various options for amount of spice added also can lead to very different results.
Also of interest are implications that appear, but which require further investigation to determine their likelihood. For example, the apparent option for acid beer yeast in the 1570 recipe is very interesting. The implication in the 1607 recipe that ale or beer (as a yeast source?) should be added in a 1:4 ratio to must, if accurate, would make a braggot. These, and other investigation will involve a much more detailed review.
Image of Matthias de Lobel from the Wellcome Library
Butler, Charles. (1609). The Feminine Monarchy: or, a Treatise Concerning Bees. Oxford: J. Barnes.
1609 is available from EEBO (paywall)
Collecting honey and types, Recipes for mead, virtues of honey and mead.
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.
Text differs from 1609 somewhat, section on mead has been heavily edited from 1609.
De Serres, Olivier. (1600). Theatre D’Agriculture et Mesnage des Champs. Paris: Seigneur de Pradel.
How to run a farm and maintain it. Processing and use of agricultural products.
Estienne, Charles & Liebault, Jean. (1576). Maision Rustique. Paris
How to run a large farm and use the products from it.
Giacomotto-Charra, Violane. (2017). La Framboisiere, Nicolas. In: Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy. Springer.
Huguetan, Jean-Antione. (1607). Le Thrésor de santé, ou mesnage de la vie humaine, divisé en dix livres. Lesquels traictent amplement de toutes sortes viands & breuvages, ensemble de leur qualité & préparation. Lyon
The Treasury of Health. Diet, exercise and habits to promote a healthy life. Specific attention to proper food and drink.
L’Obel, Matthias De. (1581). Kruydtboeck oft Beschryvinghe Van allerleye Ghewassen, Kruyderen, Hesteren ende Gheboomten. Antwerp: Christoffel Plantyn.
Plants and herbs with descriptions and uses, references to previous writers.
Pena, Petro and Mathia de Lobel. (1570). Stirpium adversaria nova. London.
Herbal including medical and other uses for herbs. Sorts herbs according to their physical characteristics.
Purchase, Samuel. (1658). A Theatre of politically flying-insects. London: Thomas Parkhurst.
On bees, their keeping and uses of honey and wax.
Simpson, J. A., E. S. C. Weiner, and Donna Lee. Berg. (1991). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically. Oxford: Clarendon.
A gold standard for tracking the use of words over time.
Surflet, Richard, Tr. (1606). Maison Rustique, or the Countrey Farme. London.
Books details all aspects of running a farm and collecting and using the resources from it. Translation of Estienne & Liebault’s French book Maison Rustique.
Last updated June 19, 2018