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MB-Mead-Brewg-art - 7/22/18


"Mythbusting: Medieval Mead Brewing" by Elska á Fjárfelli OL.


NOTE: See also the files: 13thC-Mead-art, Of-Honey-Wine-art, Making-Mead-art, mead-msg, bev-labels-art, brewing-msg, Chocolat-Mead-art, meadery-list-msg.





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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



You can find more work by this author on her blog at:




Mythbusting: Medieval Mead Brewing

by Elska á Fjárfelli OL

Of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn in the Kingdom of Aethelmearc


You probably have heard them too, those hard-to-check factoids of medieval life. Medieval people had no concept of hygiene. Peasants and Royals alike were dirty people who never bathed as nobody washed themselves in the Middle Ages. The drinking water was so disgusting, and dangerous, adults and kids drank beer like water. And: medieval beer was always sour, and flat to boot. It makes us feel good to think we know 'better' than our uneducated ancestors, although not all 'facts' might be as factual as one might think...


A handful of common preconceptions about medieval meads:


# Medieval mead (or mead in general) is sweet


In the latter part of medieval Europe, the popularity of mead waned as the production of honey slowed and prices rose. This happened in part because of shorter growing seasons due to the Little Ice Age (1350-1850), in part because of increasing population and deforestation, and in part because of a significant decline in the use of ecclesial candle wax after the Reformation (1517-1648). With the increase in availability of cheap wine - by the 14th century a gallon of mead was three times more expensive as a gallon of imported wine - likely only the monasteries and great houses, who kept their own bee gardens, could afford to make mead. In southern Europe, where grapes were cultivated, wine became economically more important and elsewhere beer supplanted mead. The only wines with which mead could rival were the expensive sweet Southern European wines like Vernage and Malmsey and thus it came about that the dry wine-like mead as it was known then - very good mead was equated with clear, old wine in old medieval leechdoms - became more akin to a sweet sack mead.  



# Medieval mead is made by boiling a hive, bees and all!


According to medieval beekeeping manuals, honey is not removed from the hive, or the comb, by boiling, but by a gentle rinse. The English father of beekeeping Charles Butler instructs “keep your hand in the vessel stirring about the honie and the wax, and opening the wax piece-meale until the hony and not the wax shal be molten.” Not until the honey is intended for mead making is it to be boiled, especially honey of a lesser quality. According to Butler boiling low quality or coarse honey - “The coarse honey being boiled and clarified has a most pleasant & delicate tast” - betters the taste of the honey to then brew with it: “having boiled and scummed it, put it to your brewlock.” But be aware, even Butler knew too much (or too high) heating evaporates the volatile fragrances “overmuch boiling consumes the spirittuous parts of the honey, and turnes the sweet tast into bitter”.



# Melomels are a modern thing


Historic recipes show that honey would most often be used to brew plain mead, spiced metheglin or honeyed-ale braggot. The combination of honey, fermentation and different kinds of fruit juice is known, though the practice is not common enough yet to have coined our modern terms melomel (for fruit mead), cycer (for apple mead) or pyment (for grape mead). While melomeli was known to the Romans as a wine made from honey and fruit juices, and the word possibly came by the Greek melimelon or melomeli for apple-honey or tree fruit-honey, it does not seem to have been adopted into the English language as such until well after the middle Ages.


The one early renaissance book listing brewing recipes using honey and fruit is the 16th century beekeeping manual Van de Byen (About Bees). Not only do the recipes make plausible the use of fruit in medieval mead, it also validates the method of adding fruit juice in secondary fermentation. Modern brewers often prefer to brew plain mead first and add fruit juice only after fermentation slows down, about a month later, to make sure most of the fruit flavor is saved for the end product. Otherwise, the yeast will eat the fruit sugars first, and start on the honey sugars only after the fruit sugars are all consumed, resulting in plain(er) mead. Mead made with fruit must have been a hit, as by the 17th century fruit mead became much better known, as shown by the many different versions in the Renaissance brewing cornucopia The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened (1669).



# Medieval braggot is a malted mead


Modern braggot is a type of mead which gets its fermentable sugars both from honey and from barley malt, typically between 30 to 50%. In history, the definition of a braggot seems to be quite different. The 14th century recipe Ad faciendum brakott from Curye on Inglysch uses already fermented ale from grains used twice; a second run, which would be weaker and benefit from the extra honey sugars. The Customs of London and The Haven of Health and The Jewel House of Art and Nature all use already fermented ale as well. The Haven of Health adds barm at the end to start secondary fermentation and The Jewell House of Art and Nature recommends strong new ale, which would also re-ferment by adding more sugars, i.e. back-sweetening with honey. As historic recipes request ale (fermented) and not malt (before fermentation), even though secondary fermentation is often part of the process, it seems medieval braggot was most likely a back-sweetened spiced ale. The abundant use of spices similar to spiced wine - like pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon - also makes a good case for period braggot to be more akin to hippocras (sweetened and spiced wine) than to malted mead, and the whole process might have had more to do with keeping turned ale drinkable …



# Hives would have to be killed in order to harvest honey.


In medieval Western Europe bees were mostly kept in skeps, cone shapes made of bound straw or mud-caked or coomed wicker. The cone was placed point side up on a wood or stone slate, and had a small entrance hole for the bees to come and go. This means that to get access to the honey, the whole hive had to be turned upside down to get to the open end to access the honeycombs. The removal of honeycomb from a hive, whether from a manmade hive or up a tree, has always been seen as a somewhat hazardous undertaking, even when carried out by expert beekeepers. It was known in ancient Roman beekeeping that bees were more docile by the administration of smoke and medieval beekeepers did as well.


As opposed to our modern perception that harvested skep hives would have to be killed to harvest the honeycomb - for instance by holding the skep over a fire with lethal sulfur smoke - this method was most often used for surplus hives, old hives which had not swarmed that season. Manuscripts from Antiquity, like Pliny the Elders’ Natural History, mention to harvest honey three times a year, in spring, summer and fall, leaving a 10th to 15th of the honey in spring and summer, and a 3rd of the honey in fall, for the bees to feed on “as lack of food causes the bees to despair and die or fly away”. The Irish Brechbretha laws regarding hive ownership also indicate the bees were not destroyed at the extraction of the honey from the hives; otherwise multiple honey harvests per hive to pay off debt would not have been possible.


It is possible the modern preconception hives had to be killed in order to harvest the combs came by way of the 1609 book Feminine Monarchie by the British father of beekeeping Charles Butler. He starts his chapter on the taking of combs with “the ordinary taking of the combes is by killing the Bees.” And then he goes on page after page on how to harvest combs by driving away and even rehoming bees, saying “I do rather commend vnto you the driuing of one stal into another: vvhereby the fruit of one is taken, and the the liues of both are saued together.



# Honey must was wild-fermented only through open-air exposure.


The 14th century To Make Mede recipe in Curye on Inglysh starts with how to get honey out of the combs: “[t]ake hony combis & put hem into a greet vessel & ley thereynne grete stickis, & ley the weight theron til it be runne out as myche as it wole; & this is called liif hony.” This life honey is the honey that drips out of the freshly removed combs without any assistance, as indicated by Hyll in his A Profitable InstructionThe nobler or worthier Honey is that which runs out in a manner of the own accord, before the second pressing out of the combs” and is highly regarded both in brewing and in medicine. Life honey as honey which is completely untreated is also found in Butlers’ Feminine Monarchie as “and so let the live honey run of it own accord, so long as it will”


What makes the term life honey interesting is the implication that it is alive or that it can bring something to life. Several of the earlier medieval mead recipes add life honey separately after the act of boiling the main amount of honey (to clarify or scum it). For instance, the same 14th century recipe from Curye on Inglysh goes on to mention “& caste it into another vessel into hoot water, & sethe it wel & scome it wel, & do therto a quarte of liif hony. & thanne lete it stone a fewe dayes wel stoppid, & tis is good drinke.” Assuming the must is cooled down after heating and then the life honey is added, this step would introduce ambient honey-yeast to start fermentation. In another recipe from the same manuscript called Ad faciendum brakott it states to “take a quart of fyne wort, half a quart of lyf hony; & sette it ouer the fier, & lete it sethe, & skyme it wel til it be cleer”, clearly heating and thus killing any ambient yeast, but at the end specifically mentions “& put thereto newe berm” to start fermentation. The concept of life honey as a yeast starter is possible because, even though honey is antibacterial, it is a welcome host for osmophilic yeast strains, which work best for fermentation of honey solutions with sugar concentrations above 15%. They are a little less robust in alcohol production as our standard beer/wine yeast which might be why, by the 15th century, mead recipes start to mention the addition of berm (yeast from a previous ale / beer fermentation).


For more on medieval brewing, including medieval examples, please visit my site at



Other papers on medieval brewing of interest:


Of Hony – A Collection of Mediaeval brewing recipes. 2017. https://www.academia.edu/31052051/Of_Hony_-_A_collection_of_Mediaeval_brewing_recipes


The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018. https://www.academia.edu/35704222/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Gruit


Medieval Ale & Beer. 2018. https://www.academia.edu/36051244/Medieval_Ale_and_Beer



References for MEAD:


# Medieval mead (or mead in general) is sweet

·        Kritsky, Gene. Beekeeping from Antiquity through the Middle Ages. The Annual Review of Entomology 62:249–64, 2017 (p. 253). http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-ento-031616-035115

·        Crane, Eva. Mead. Wine and Food (49) 30-34, 1950. Eva Crane Trust (p. 31-32). http://www.evacranetrust.org/uploads/document/e94db7659de86ee1879ec266b3fdc06d11efcd90.pdf


# Medieval mead is made by boiling a hive, bees and all!


# Melomels are a modern thing


# Medieval braggot is a malted mead


# Hives would have to be killed in order to harvest honey.


# Honey must was wild-fermented only through open-air exposure.


Copyright 2018 by Susan Verberg. <susanverberg at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org