by Michael Sisson (reprinted with permission from the Fall 1986 AMA Newsletter)
In the mid-1800's there was a revolution in France that continues to have important consequences for us up to the present day, although no blood was spilled and no kings lost their heads.
It was led by Louis Pasteur, whose discovery of the role of yeast cells in alcoholic fermentation officially changed our conception of the processes involved in the making of wine, beer, and mead. Pasteur's experiments were aimed at helping the ailing French wine industry of his time, but his findings have been applied to a much broader range of questions since then.
In our own century scientists have conducted a number of experiments on the fermentation of honey diluted with water, the basic must from which mead is made. In general, they have found that the pure honey-water solution does not contain adequate nutrients for the rapid growth of Saccharonmyces cervisiae (the yeast responsible for fermentation) that normally takes place in grape and other fruit musts. One benefit has been the recent research on how to improve honey-water as a saccharomycete growth medium by adding various forms of yeast food, which can help the mead maker to get a more consistent product. Another is that this research, An with Pasteur's earlier work, explains bow and why certain of the older, prescientific techniques of making mead worked.
Mead has been made since prehistoric times by many different peoples throughout the world without the benefit of scientific knowledge of fermentation. We have two main sources of information about their methods. One is the old books, such as Sir Kenelm Digby's (1669), that preserves recipes and descriptions from Northern Europe, where great quantities of mead were made and drunk during the thousand or so years from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Reformation. The other is the accounts of travelers andanthropologists who have observed the production of fermented honey drinks in traditional societies in tropical Africa and Central and South America.
'The stone-age Mbwiha Indians of Paraguay make a drink they call chicha from honey they collect from wild nests of the indigenous Melipomene bees.
The Mbwihas follow what seems to be a universal practice in the making of primitive and traditional honey beverages: they soak the combs in water to separate the wax from the honey. In seventeenth century England, straw skeps (hives) were often immersed in water to kill the bees before the honey was taken out; the water in which this was done was then used for making mead. One effect of this method of producing the basic must is that other contents of the hive may enter into it along with the honey. In Africa, according to P.D. Paterson, "Brewers are normally very reluctant to use any honey that has been separated from the wax, as they believe that crude honey makes the best beer. Perhaps the pollen content of the combs acts as a yeast nutrient, and the waxy layer that forms on the surface of the brew may perhaps also assist in fermentation."
By the Middle Ages it was known that the proportions of honey and water in the must affected the quality and keeping ability of the final product. Many old recipes, such as Digby's reflect this fact in calling for mixing specific volumes of honey and water: "To seven quarts of water, take two quarts of honey and mix it well together, then set it on the fire to boil…"
In our modem winemaking we use a hydrometer to determine specific gravity of the must, but one English recipe solved the problem by commending that the solution be adjusted “til strong enough to bear an egg the breadth of a shilling."
The importance of using good-quality water was also recognized early, and many old recipes call for rain water. In medieval Russia snow was often used. This would have been advisable at a time when many water supplies were contaminated with microorganisms that could interfere with the growth of the "good" yeasts. The practice of boiling the must, mentioned in Digby's recipe, was also very common. In Russia mead was prepared in large wooden tubs and red-hot stones were tossed in with large pincers to bring it to a boil. Although they were probably aware that it made better mead, these early mead makers could not know of the beneficial effects of boiling on the fermentation, which resulted from killing many unwanted micro-organisms.
After boiling, some recipes recommend the addition of some form of yeast, even though the essential part it plays in the production of alcohol was unknown. In one of his recipes for "meathe" Digby recommends that "a half pint of new good balm" be added to the must, while in another for metheglin he states: "There are some who put either Yeast of Beer, or Leaven of bread into it, to make it work. But this is not necessary at all…" Thanks to Pasteur, we now know that saccharomycetes are responsible for fermentations in baking, brewing, and winemaking, and we also have cultured wine yeasts which are the best strains selected from the wild types.
In places where today cultured yeast is unavailable or uneconomical to use, traditional methods of inoculation are still practiced. In Africa, Paterson reports the use of the loofah-like muratina fruit, which is sliced and put into the barrels in which the honey-beer is brewed; after fermentation the slices are removed and saved for the next brew. "These slices of muratina are supposed to give strength and flavor to the beer, but they may well be the means whereby yeasts are transferred from one brew to the next." The Mbwihas add wild tropical fruits to the must for their chicha, which may help the fermentation in two ways: since yeasts are generally abundant on the surfaces of fruits, they are a potential source of inoculum; and the juice of the fruits provides acid and nutrients which promote the growth of the yeasts.
Fruits and fruit juices were frequently ingredients in European meads as well. Many English recipes called for lemons or lemon peel. Polish and Russian mead makers routinely added juices of various kinds of raspberries, cherries, and currants to their musts, mixing one part of juice to five parts of honey-water. Apple juice was also widely used in this way, resulting in a product that in England was called cyser (related to cider). Fruit juices increase the total acid content of the mead, which helps stabilize it and enhances its flavor and keeping qualities, and they supply plenty of yeast food needed for fermentation. Even as late as the Second World War, G.R. Gayre found "peasant mead" being made with raisins. Raisins, like grapes, have an unusually high amount of amino acids and other nutrients used by the saccharomycetes.
A wide variety of herbs, too, were commonly added to the must to make what today we would call metheglins, or spiced meads. According to the old recipes, they included ginger, cloves, cinnamon, mace, rosemary, sweet briar, sweet woodruff, parsley and fennel-root, gillyflowers, borage, roses, violets, and many others. While people thought these plants improved the mead because of the flavors they imparted, they may also have provided small amounts of yeast food as well. Hops were widely used as a flavoring which helped stabilize and clarify the final product, and other herbs may have contributed to the process in ways not yet understood.
Of course many traditional mead-making practices have not been explained by modem science. An essential part of the process for the A-Kamba and Dorobo tribes in Africa is the ritual drinking of mead in order to ensure a good supply of the raw material in the future. Whether it is effective or not, modern mead makers might enjoy reviving the custom of the ancient Mayan beekeepers who, according to Eva Crane held a special feast "with the objective of increasing the honey crop; this ceremony ended with a great drinking of honey wine."
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