Making Mirth c. 1600

Around 1600, in a book with some 100 pages, Leticia Cromwell (or an associate) wrote down instructions “to make mirth”. Rather than a direct invocation to enjoy life, this presents a short recipe to make a mead with herbs and spices, a metheglin. I believe ‘Mirth’ to be an alternate spelling for ‘meth’, a common shortening of metheglin.

Based on shared characteristics with other early 17th century recipes, I believe the recipe was written down relatively close to the c. 1600 date for the manuscript. The recipe is relatively simple, but is expected to make a mead with a complex variety of flavors.

BACKGROUND – The Text

Hand written manuscripts, usually in book form, held by a person, family, or group to record information of importance to them are important sources of historical information. Many of these are collections of cooking, medicinal, and household management information. A number of manuscripts of this type, mostly from the 17th century and later, contribute mead recipes to the historical record.

Dating these texts is often quite difficult. They typically contain multiple hands, each representing a different person writing in the book. Written dates within the text are uncommon. Use of such books over a period of 50-100 years is not uncommon. Therefore, in many cases, the date assigned to such a recipe has a good deal of uncertainty.

Dating can be aided by genealogical research on named writers or owners. Paleographical (handwriting) experts can infer dates from how letters are formed and words are spelled. In many cases the context also gives clues; ingredients and methods may also infer a date.

There are many such texts reposing in private hands, scattered in small libraries, and cataloged in larger collections. Most of these require in-person visits to review, and their mere existence may be close to impossible to discover in the first place. Some larger libraries have marshaled the resources to scan these texts and make them available for public review.

One such library is the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. The Folger houses a collection of documents and materials on Shakespeare that is the world’s largest. They also own a large collection of other books, manuscripts, and additional material from Shakespeare’s period to the present. Among these other materials are many personal manuscript books recording recipes, medicinal information, religious and philosophical writings, accounts, inventories, and other information as deemed important by the owners of the books.

In keeping with its mission of making the collection accessible, The Folger has scanned and made public on the internet many of these documents, notably including cookbooks, and collections of medicinal information. On a recent visit to their website to look at some of these resources, I found myself on the Folger Library Blog, ‘Shakespeare & Beyond’, looking at a recent post about recipes from transcribed manuscripts. One of these recipes they characterize as “a honey-spiced drink called mirth”, which I immediately identified as a mead recipe.

Of note, the Folger has teamed with Zooniverse (research crowdsourcing), Early Modern Manuscripts Online, and the Oxford English Dictionary to crowdsource transcription of some of its documents through the ongoing Shakepeare’s World project.

BACKGROUND – The Recipe

The use of ‘mirth’ is unique in my current body of recipes.

Looking at the scanned manuscript page containing the recipe, I transcribe it as

To make mirth

“Take 2 or 3 Gallons of Water to the leavings of the Honey & breake & straine ye Comes with it & boile it in water an howre & straine it put to it a sprig of rose: & some bay leaves with it, then put in Cloves sinamon & ginger & some littell Nutmegs & boile it with these & when it is Cold put it into a rundlet & a littell new barme at top”

The disagreements between my transcription and that by the Folger do not affect meaning.

REDACTING THE RECIPE

My purpose in initial redaction of a recipe is to understand how the recipe would/could have been made at the time it was written down. My approach is to identify a group of potential possibilities, from which the most likely options can typically be identified.

This recipe has three main areas where interpretation is required:

  • How much honey (sugar) is present in the wort?
  • How much of each herb/spice is used proportional to the final volume?
  • What fermentation conditions best reflect 17th century practice.

Making mead from the residual honey left in the combs after initial extraction is a very old practice. We see it in some of the earliest written mead recipes from the 1st c. CE such as those from Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica and Columella’s Res Rustica. The name Apomel is associated with this kind of mead, and appears to be specific to mead made from honeycombs.

This practice is absolutely sensible. Wasting the honey left in the combs would be undesirable, and recovery of the wax from the sticky mess important. Once the honey has been diluted with the water that has served to separate it from the wax, it is already close to being ready for fermentation.

The relative amount of honey in the 2 to 3 gallons of water once mixed and boiled an hour is highly uncertain. It depends on how much honey was left in the combs to begin with, how much water was used relative to the honey/comb mixture to extract the honey, how much material other than honey and wax was present, and how much of the water is boiled off in the hour period (a function of among other things strength of boil, surface to volume ratio of pot, and amount of stirring; with additional evaporation in the cooling process). The secondary boiling after the herbs and spices are added will further reduce volume (concentrating the honey sugars).

The best option would be experimental, taking drained combs, following the instructions, and testing the results. This experimentation would need to take into account differences in hive management and honey extraction between today and 400 years ago.

Experiments would provide insight into this question, or combs from which the honey had already been extracted could be used in making the recipe (and many recipes give the option f using combs with residual honey or pure honey). But even in the case of using actual combs, the questions above remain the same. For the first trial of this recipe, I plan to use pure honey and water and skip using drained combs. This choice adds significant convenience and reduces the complexity of the process overall. If the source combs are assumed to be relatively clean to begin with, it should not provide a significant change in flavor.

For further insight into the question of honey concentration, I took an analytical approach. Going through a number of calculations based on the amount of honey in comb relative to other materials (based on published information), an assumed percent of honey extracted prior to this step (based on published information), an assumed proportion of water relative to comb/honey, and experience of typical water loss during boiling, I estimate that between 1 and 3 lb/gal honey in the final boiled mixture is the likely range. This is a broad range, but helps set boundaries for our recipe.

In terms of fermentation 1 lb/gal honey gives potential alcohol of about 5% and 3 lb/gal honey has an alcohol potential of roughly 15%.

The yeast called for is new barm. Barm typically refers to the yeast layer from a beer/ale fermentation. I will choose a generic beer yeast.  Based on the relatively low amount of honey, I will use Lallemand Windsor, which with a stated alcohol tolerance of 9% should give a mead with a bit of residual sweetness (my preference) at a bit over 2 lb/gal honey. Use of a yeast like Lallemand Nottingham (another generic ale yeast, but with an alcohol tolerance of 14%) or a wine yeast is more likely to lead to a result with little or no residual sugar.

The only addition for which an amount is given is rosemary, where a sprig is added to what is probably 2-3 gallons of finished mead wort. Compared to other contemporaneous recipes, this is a moderate amount of herb, therefore other additions were scaled to moderate flavor addition, based on experience and other recipes from the era.

The recipe, in modern terms, as I interpret the original instructions:

  1. Fill a 5 gallon pot a little more than half way with broken combs after the honey has run out. (About 3 volumetric gallons of combs).
  2. Add 2-3 gallons of water (this amount would allow the broken combs to be stirred readily).
  3. Extract wax from which the honey has been dissolved (this step is not specified, but this is the logical point to remove the wax, which would complicate the later boiling and the valuable beeswax will decompose on boiling).
  4. Boil it an hour, stirring.
  5. Strain mixture to remove extraneous material. (There is likely a missing cooling step here because straining it while boiling is extremely difficult/dangerous).
  6. Put in rosemary, bay, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
  7. Return to boil (for an unspecified period, more evaporation will take place).
  8. Let it cool.
  9. Decant to a barrel and add ale/beer yeast from an in process or just ended fermentation. (straining out the herbs and spices may occur).

There are no instructions for timing for fermentation or for any post-fermentation decanting or aging.

MY INITIAL RECIPE

Understanding how we believed the recipe was made 400 years ago is a mid-point in planning to make the recipe ourselves. The second portion of this process is much more personal. Although I prefer to adhere closely to historical instructions, I often make adjustments to the recipe based on safety, time considerations, availability of materials, cost of materials, wanting to add certainty to results, convenience, personal preference, and other factors.

In this case, I identify the following factors as notable departures from historical practices:

  • I will use pure, raw wildflower honey rather than combs. This is a matter of convenience and cost. Because of this the initial boiling period will be abbreviated.
  • I will use a hony:water ratio that I believe to be on the middle to higher end of likely proportions to make a mead that is likely to have some residual sweetness once the yeast is done.
  • I will boil the honey as called for; boiling honey is avoided in modern mead making.
  • I will not use yeast nutrients in fermentation; these are used in modern mead making to reduce fermentation by-products and promote more complete fermentation. I view the unpredictability as part of the process of learning about historical meads.
  • I will use modern sanitation, ferment in glass, and bottle into capped bottles. The runlet from the original recipe may add residual flavors in fermentation and storage (depending on how old it was and what had been in it previously).
  • Herb and spice additions will be scaled to provide moderate levels of flavor.
  • The Windsor yeast has been chosen expecting that its stated 9% alcohol tolerance will be reached and leave some residual sugar after going to completion.

The goal is a first batch that provides meaningful insight into the original recipe.

Ingredients for 1 gallon (my initial test will be 1/2 gallon):

  • 4 quarts water
  • 3 cups honey
  • 1 T dried whole rosemary or ½ large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 medium sticks cinnamon
  • ½ nutmeg crushed
  • 6 slices ginger root the thickness of a large thumb
  • Lallemand Windsor Beer Yeast

Instructions:

  1. Put 4 quarts water in a 1 ½-2 gallon pot.
  2. Add 3 cups honey (2.25 lb).
  3. Bring to a boil and boil gently about 15 minutes. Remove scum.
  4. Add herbs and spices.
  5. Boil an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Let cool; final volume should be 1 gallon.
  7. Strain into fermenter, removing herbs and spices.
  8. Add yeast.
  9. Ferment according to preferences.
  10. Bottle when fermentation is complete.

For those who do not want to boil their honey, boil the herbs/spices in water for 15 minutes and add the honey after straining. If desired, follow preferred nutrient addition and/or degassing schedule.

ONE MONTH LATER

The primary fermentation appears to have finished. The brew remains cloudy, which is expected, and may take some time to clear.

The gravity (measure of sugar content) has gone from 1.082 to 1.028, giving an reasonably high residual sugar and an alcohol content of about 7%.

Mirth (Cromwell, c. 1600)

The yeast did not go all the way to its alcohol tolerance as expected, and while this result would be undesirable to the modern brewer, I believe it to be accurate to the expected variation for a historical re-creation. If I made it a dozen times, I would expect that most would end at this residual sugar or less.

For the historical person, they probably would be drinking it now, cloudy and un-aged. For the modern mead maker this would be considered unfinished, the residual sugars a risk for unwanted fermentation (particularly if you bottle it, since bottle bombs are not good) and the lack of clarity an issue.

The nose shows a good honey presence, and honey is the first thing on the tongue. The mouth feel is a bit thinner than expected for the amount of residual sugar, but is quite good. The herbs come across immediately after the honey with the bay stronger than the rosemary. The herbs also are quite present in the nose. The spices in this brew hide somewhat, all can be found if you think about them, but their flavors do not push forward. It is quite sweet (above my liking, and I do like my mead somewhat sweet), but not unpleasantly so.

I think it would be better if it had fermented to the desired 9% alcohol (which could be controlled with modern techniques). Another thought, if it had been served earlier, still somewhat carbonated from fermentation it might be very pleasant. Finally I think the flavor would improve if it were a little cooler than room temperature – hmm, chilling pulls the herbs and spices forward so whether that is better depends on your palate

I will rack this off the settled yeast at the bottom into a secondary fermentation (no fermentation is expected, this is probably better termed bulk aging), and after it clarifies it will probably be bottled for tasting and evaluation over time. It is an experiment after all.

REFERENCES

Cromwell, L. 17thc. Cookbook  Folger call number V.a.8.  https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/view/search?q=V.a.8&sort=call_number,mpsortorder1,cd_title,imprint&os=0

Updated March 30, 2018