Wurtzburg Mead 1350

We call this Wurtzburg Mead because the recipe was written down in or near Wurtzburg in about 1350. This recipe challenges many conceptions of modern mead-making. It contains hops and sage, uses a beer yeast, does not clarify readily, and is supposed to be drunk within a few months of making (or is it? More later). As far as we know, we were the first to brew directly from this recipe in the modern age, more than 20 years ago and still some 650 years after the cookbook was written.

BACKGROUND

The first known German cookbook dates from about 1350. Das buch von guter Speise, or ‘The book of good food’ is part of a manuscript in the Library of the University of Munich. The larger manuscript is called the Hausbuch des Michael de Leone.

The Hausbuch, also called the Wurtzburg song manuscript. The manuscript is best known for the poetical/musical contents, but also contains literature, health and medical information, political information, the cookbook, and other items. The cookbook is the 21st ‘chapter’ in the manuscript and includes about 40 pages and 101 recipes. The 14th recipe is for mead.

The book is actually two volumes, containing 33 chapters. The first volume is lost with the exception of about 6 pages. The second volume contains 285 leaves (each leaf having a recto and verso side), and was written out in German and Latin by at least 12 writers. Michael de Leone appears to have intended this book to serve as a lasting reference work for his family on the farm for which he was named. (background information from German Wikipedia “Das Buch von guter Speise”and “Hausbuch des Michael de Leone”)

The recipes from Das Buch von Guter Speise are partially replicated, sometimes with modifications in other 14th and 15th century manuscripts. I do not currently know whether the mead recipe is included in any of these manuscripts. The Wurtzburg Mead recipe did not make its way into any of the printed German cookbooks that I have reviewed to date.

More than 20 years ago, a friend who was studying for a technical PhD decided that for fun and distraction she would translate this and start making tasty things … I met Alia when we were both at MIT as undergraduates, and she knew my not-quite-husband-yet and I were brewers. When she found the mead recipe (number 14 in the manuscript), she enthusiastically announced that we should make it, so we did.

THE ORIGINAL RECIPE

Scans of the entire text can be found here https://bavarikon.de/object/bav:UBM-HSS-00000BAV80000017#. The mead recipe is on p.318 of the scans.

In the original (typography modernized) German:

“14. Wilt du guten met machen.

Der guten mete machen wil. der werme reinen brunnen. daz er die hant dor inne liden künne. und neme zwei maz wazzers. und eine honiges. daz rüere man mit eime stecken. und laz ez ein wile hangen. und sihe ez denne durch ein rein tuch. oder durch ein harsip in ein rein vaz. und siede denne die selben wirtz gein eime acker lanc hin und wider. und schume die wirtz mit einer vensterehten schüzzeln. da der schume inne blibe und niht die wirtz. dor noch giuz den mete in ein rein vaz. und bedecke in. daz der bradem niht uz müge. als lange daz man die hant dor inne geliden müge. So nim denne ein halp mezzigen hafen. und tu in halp vol hopphen und ein hant vol salbey. und siede daz mit der wirtz gein einer halben mile. und giuz ez denne in die wirtz. und nim frischer heven ein halp nözzelin und giuz ez dor in. und giuz ez under ein ander. daz ez geschende werde. so decke zu. daz der bradem iht uz müge einen tac und eine naht. So seige denne den mete durch ein reyn tuch oder durch ein harsip. und vazze in in ein reyn vaz. und lazze in iern drie tac und drie naht und fülle in alle abende. dar nach lazze man in aber abe. und hüete daz iht hefen dor in kumme. und laz in aht tage ligen. daz er valle. und fülle in alle abende. dar nach loz in abe in ein gehertztez vaz. und laz in ligen aht tage vol. und trinke in denne erst sechs wuchen oder ehte. so ist er allerbeste.”

A modern translation (courtesy of Alia Atlas):

“He, who wants to make good mead, warms clear water, so that he can just stand to put the hand in. And take two maz water and one honey. One stirs that with a stick and lets it set a while and then strains it through a clean cloth or through a hairsieve into a clean barrel. And boil then the same wort against an acre long there and back (as long as it takes to walk this distance and back) and remove the foam from the wort with a bowl with holes. The foam stays in the bowl and the wort does not. Next pour the mead in a clean barrel and cover it, so that vapor can not get out, until one can bear the hand there in. So take then a half maz pot and add until half full hops and a hand of sage and boil that with the wort against a half mile (as long as it takes to walk this distance) and give it then in the wort and take a half nut of fresh yeast (the amount that could be held in a nutshell) and give it there in and mix it together so that it will ferment.  So cover also, so that the vapor can get out, a day and a night. So strain then the mead through a clean cloth or through a hairsieve and three nights and pour (it) in a clean barrel and let it ferment three days and three nights and fill (it) in all evenings. There after one lets it go down and looks that the yeast comes therein. And let it lay for eight days, so that it falls and fill in all evenings. There after let it down in a resined barrel and let it lay eight days full and drink in the first six weeks or eight. So is it the best.”

Terence Scully, a food historian, translates the last sentence as guidance to drink it *after* the first 6-8 weeks. Throwing ourselves on the problem we tried it, before and after 6-8 weeks. And when we didn’t agree we tried it some more. The only conclusion we ever came to was we like the mead whenever we drink it.

Scully also translates ‘hops’ instead of yeast as the contents of the nutshell, which equates the words hopphen and heven. We think yeast is a much better translation given the significant difference from the word very nearby, and

A more recent translation to English is available in a 2000 book, but to date I have not found an accessible copy, or convinced myself that the price to buy the book is worth the marginal return of a potentially improved translation of a single recipe.

REDACTING THE RECIPE

Making a mead from this recipe presented typical challenges for recipes of its kind. However, for the most part, this recipe is fairly straightforward and most choices were relatively simple.

In reviewing this recipe for inclusion here after 20 years, I have made a few changes to it. I see some areas where I no longer agree we had the best interpretation of the text, and so have changed the recipe. This is an important part of redaction though, there are always many options, and selecting the best choice is a matter of expertise, opinion, preference, and other factors. There are always interpretations that are clearly or probably wrong, but there are also many cases where there are multiple possible interpretations that may have arguments in their favor of very similar strength.

  • The initial step of adding honey to warm water and then filtering has been omitted. We judged that this step is intended to remove particles such as bee pieces from the honey, a step not required with modern raw or processed honey. Since this sits a while, we assume we are at ambient temperature to start even when we omit this step.
  • When we first made this recipe, finding the volume of a maz took some library research. Today a simple search on Maz might lead you to a Maz (or mass) being one liter, and a standard beer pour in parts of Germany and Austria. But historically maz was different. The original source for the 1.43 historical maz volume is lost to me, but we will stay with it for now. Some more research is called for; in one respect since the proportion of honey and water is known, it makes little different, but in gauging the amount of herbs and yeast added, it is relevant to the end product.
  • Boiling the honey/water mix an acre and back initially seems strange, but both our translators agree that is is a measure of time, an acre is about 200 feet square, going around it once would take about 5 minutes moderate walking, or twice (and back) about 5 minutes. Skim off any foam.
  • Those who do not want to boil the honey, would skip this stage, boil the herbs in water alone, and then mix 6 cups (4 ¼ pounds) honey into each gallon of wort.
  • A handful of sage and ¾ liter of hops is a lot in our one gallon batch. We decided to pull this back a little.
  • Sage could be dried or fresh leaves. Since sage is common and hardy, fresh is very likely. I can easily fit the entirety of a 1 ounce supermarket container of sage leaves (on stalks) in my not too large hand; that is 30 or more leaves. Leaves without stalks perhaps halves that. Big hands and stalks of leaves crushed together could easily get you 50 plus leaves. We’ve typically used a ‘handful’ that is very small relative to these higher numbers.
  • Many modern hops are much higher in bittering agents than their historical cousins. Historical hops varieties include noble hops, we think Hallertau or Saaz are likely to be comparable to their historical cousins.
  • The hops would be leaf hops, much fluffier than the pelted hops commonly found these days. Some say about 10% more leaf hops (by weight) are required to get the same effect compared to pellets. Some estimates of volume of leaf hops: 2 oz dried 1 gallon plastic bag, 1-1 ½ ounces in a quart. These imply 1 oz leaf hops is 1-2 quarts (liters), so our recipe calls for 1/3 to 3/4 of an ounce pellet hops. Or 3 cups of leaf hops.
  • We typically do not cool the wort before adding the hops and sage. This is done so that it does not take as much time to make the recipe, although some more flavor may be derived from the herbs if they heat up and boil with the wort. Cooling and reboiling would be more historically accurate.
  • Boiling against half a mile. 10 minutes is a good estimate.
  • A half nut of fresh yeast would generally be the lees from a batch of beer or mead. We chose a dry lager yeast as appropriate to the time and recipe.
  • Then the wort, including herbs and yeast sits in the pot a full day.
  • Then strain the hops and sage out and put the mixture into a clean barrel for 3 days. Barrels are complicated. Wood used (probably oak, but source can vary flavors), age (a clean barrel could be brand new, leaching a lot of flavor or clean and used for years, in which case there will be very little flavor leaching out), previous contents (even if ‘clean’, a barrel just off use for storing wine could impart a lot of flavor). The basic version of this recipe uses neutral fermentation to model an old truly clean barrel leaching very little flavor into the mead.
  • The original indicates that you ‘fill in’ the wort each evening as it ferments. We judge that this means to top it of with liquid, what liquid is unspecified. Since our fermentation is not open to the air, we do not expect to see any significant evaporation, and in the interest of not opening up the fermenter too much, which could allow bacteria in, we keep it closed and do not top off. This could also mean to fill in for any frothing over from rapid fermentation – we’ve noted that a blow-by can be needed for this recipe.
  • After 12 days it is placed in a resined barrel. This will prevent barrel/wood flavors from coming in, but can add flavors from the resin. We’ve chosen to not model the resin flavor addition. However, given the high sugar content, and likelihood for fairly high residual sugar in the brew, the resin might add balance with the hops and sage.

OUR BASIC RECIPE

The drink is a sweet, carbonated, somewhat herby brew that has always been well received.

For 1 gallon:

  • 2 maz water 1 maz = 1.43 liters we use 1.5 quarts (6 cups)
  • 1 maz honey (1.5 quarts)
  • 1/3-0.75 oz Hallertau hop pellets
  • About 8 fresh sage leaves (1 Tablespoon rubbed dried)
  • 1 pkg German Lager yeast

 

  1. Take 2 maz (3 quarts) warm water.
  2. Stir in 1 maz (1 ½ quarts) honey and slow boil approximately 5-8 minutes. Skim and remove any scum.
    IF not boiling honey omit this step.
  3. Add hops and sage.
  4. Boil approximately 10 minutes.
  5. Allow to cool.
  6. IF not boiling honey, add 1 1/2 quarts honey to 2 1/2 quarts of this water mixture after the hops/sage are boiled in.
  7. Add yeast, cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours.
  8. Strain wort into sterilized fermenter.
    IF trying to emulate barrel fermentation, model here.
  9. Use a blow by for the first few days (about 3) of fermentation.
    IF desired, follow selected nutrient addition and degassing schedule.
  10. Rack at about 8 days and let ferment until the fermentation slows.
  11. Bottle after 20-30 days fermentation; depending on fermenting temperature. Ours has typically run about 28 days; the recipe calls for 20 days. The resulting mead should be slightly “herby” to the nose and taste and quite bubbly like ale.
  12. IF desired, use preferred techniques to stop fermentation, carbonate, and back-sweeten (back sweetening will probably not be required).

This basic recipe can and should be adjusted to meet the goals and desires of the brewer.

The choice of fresh vs. dried sage, pellet vs. leaf hops, type of hop, type of sage, specific yeast strain, yeast culture versus yeast from an active fermentation, amount of hops/sage, are all possible modifications to the basic recipe based on convenience, historical focus, or preference.

Most brewers also have preferences on how they carry out brewing and fermentation. In particular the level of technology and science used in the brewing process is highly individual. Some of these techniques and methods will affect the outcome of the recipe, and adjustments may be required if a more ‘historical’ flavor is desired.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atlas, Alia, tr. 1994. Daz Buoch von Guoter Spise.

Scully, Terence. 1995. The Art Of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Wikipedia. “Das Buch von guter Speise”. Last modified September 18, 2017; accessed December 8, 2017.
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Buch_von_guter_Speise

Background information on the first German cookbook.

Wikipedia. “Hausbuch des Michael de Leone”. Last modified November 5, 2017; accessed December 8, 2017.
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hausbuch_des_Michael_de_Leone

Background information on the manuscript containing Das Buch von guter Speise.

Last updated June 19, 2018