Tuesday, 26 January 2016

German Sage Mead

by Caleb Reynolds

"A wine is also made of only water and honey. For this it is recommended that rain-water should be stored for five years. Some who are more expert use rain-water as soon as it has fallen, boiling it down to a third of the quantity and adding one part of old honey to three parts of water, and then keeping the mixture in the sun for 40 days after the rising of the Dog-star. Others pour it off after nine days and then cork it up. This beverage is called in Greek ‘water-honey’ [‘hydromeli’]; with age it attains the flavour of wine." [1]

This brief paper is not to prove that mead was available in the SCA time period, for we have plenty of documentation that it did. I will not take up the reader's time with the many pages required to document the history of fermented honey. I will, instead, concentrate on one particular recipe from Ein Buch von guter spise: [2]


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 lane 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 hoven ein halp nözzeln 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 tae 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 vas und laz in ligen aht tage vol und trinke in denne erst sechs wucher oder ehte. so ist er allerbeste.

14. How you want to make good mead: He, who wants to make good mead, warms clean 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 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 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. [3]

The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, by Terence Scully, [4] references the same recipe but translates it slightly differently:

For those who want to make good mead, warm pure water from a well, only as warm as you can bear your hand in it, and for each two maz [each about two pints] of water take one maz of honey; stir this with a stick, let it sit for a while and afterwards strain it through a clean cloth or through a hair sieve into a clean barrel. Then boil the usual mead spices for as long as it take to walk around a field, and do that again, and skim the spices using a bowl with holes in it so that the foam stays but not the spices; the pour the mead into a clean barrel and cover it, so that the steam cannot escape, leaving it there until [it has cooled to the point that] you can bear your hand in it. Then get a pot the size of half a Maz [roughly one pint], fill it half with hops and a handful of sage. [5]

The recipe calls for a one-to-two ratio of honey to water (by volume) and a half of a pint of hops for every three pints of must. This may appear to be a lot of hops, but we are not only talking about whole hop leaves, but hops that most likely were dried when they were harvested then transported and stored until they were needed. It is most likely that the hops used on a daily basis were not as strong as the vacuum-packed hops we use today. Also, since the recipe uses pint pots as a unit of measurement, I can only conclude that this recipe was intended for the home brewer; the alewife who would have brewed for the family’s daily consumption and not an inn, tavern, monastery, or commercial brewery.

Redaction for the modern brewer:
Five pound of clover honey
1 gallon of spring water
1/2 ounce of German hops pellets.
3 ounces of whole leaf, fresh Sage.
1 ounce of Ale yeast

You can use dried sage, but it doesn't taste as well as using fresh. I find it next to impossible to get fresh, European sage [6] and use locally available California sage. I am told that the California variety has a slightly different taste then it’s European counterpart, [7] and is readily available at the supermarket all year round. If your thumbs are green, then grow whatever variety that you wish.

In modern terms, a handful of whole hop leaves is about an ounce, [8] and when packed well, is about a half a pint in volume. As the recipe calls for a half of a pint of whole hops, which is, as I had stated, about one ounce, which was most likely dried from the previous harvest, I substituted 1/2 ounce of hop pellets that were ground up, pressed into pellets and then vacuum sealed right after being harvested. My reasoning is that modern pellet hops would be two or even three times as strong as what was available to the average 14th century alewife. You can use whole or chopped leaf hops, but I think the pellets are easier to deal with for this recipe.

You can use any variety of hops, but I like to stick to Noble German varieties, such as Spalt, Hallertau and Hersbruck: varieties that have been grown for centuries and are the great-ganddaddies of modern varieties.

You can use any type of honey but I use clover honey because any subtle flavors from other varieties will be overwhelmed [9] by the flavor of the hops and the sage. While the recipe calls for a one-to-two honey to water ratio (by volume), I go with a eight-to-five ratio of water to honey (by weight), in order to get a sweeter mead, and to offset the stronger flavor of the hops. And so that I don't have to do any conversions or complicated math: 1 gallon container of water plus 1 five pound jar of honey equals mead.

Since I am of the camp of "do not boil honey to make mead", I choose instead to pour a small portion of the water into a small sauce pot and make a "tea" out of the hops and the sage. There is no reason to boil the honey, when making mead, if you are using pasteurized and filtered honey. All that is required is enough heat to liquefy the honey; greater heat could start to break down compounds in the honey into nasty tasting esters.

While the "tea" boils, pour a half gallon of the water into a larger pot and add in the honey. Add the remainder of the water into your fermenter. Let the honey simmer for about twenty minutes, [10] skimming any the scum out. By this time, the "tea" should be a dark shade of green and smell great.

Add the must to the fermenter. Then strain the solids out of the "tea" add it to the fermenter, as well. Cover and let cool for several hours before pitching your yeast. Let it ferment for 10 to 14 days, then bottle. The mead will have a lot of sugar in it, so either drink it quickly, or use modern chemicals to halt the fermentation or cold crash the yeast in the 'fridge or freezer. Your mead will be sweet, savory and bitter at the same time.

[1] Natural History, by Pliny the Elder, Book XIV, section XX, p. 261.
[2] The Book of Good Spices, published between 1345-1354
[3] Translated by Alia Atlas, 1993
[4] p154
[5] Unfortunately, the digital copy of this book skipped page 155 and the rest of the recipe.
[6] The cost for dried European sage leaves was too high for the meager flavor they gave to the beverage.
[7] Some people say that there is a lemony aftertaste.
[8] Tested in personal kitchen and brewing classes over the years.
[9] If one can be overwhelmed, and if one can be underwhelmed, can one just be whelmed?
[10] My estimate on how long it would take me to walk an acre.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Ein Buch von guter spise c. 1350. Translated by Alia Atlas. http://cs-people.bu.edu/akatlas/Buch/buch.html

Pliny, the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny, Volume 3. Translated by John Bostock and Henry T Riley. H. G. Bohn; London. 1855

Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Boydell Press, 1995. Digitized by Google Books.



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