The recipe clearly starts with one part (volume) honey to 4 parts water – 5 gallons. The exact volume of the gallon in this case seems irrelevant, which conveniently avoids another debate. We are adding 12 pounds (1 US gallon) honey to 5 US gallons total. Starting point is 2.4 pounds honey per gallon (a specific gravity of about 1.09 – 12% +/- potential alcohol).
How long does the mixture boil? This will govern how much water evaporates, and how concentrated the sugar is in the final must. For those who are less focused on historical re-creation, and do not wish to boil their honey, the debate will determine the final volume of water to which honey will be added, achieving the same gravity without boiling the honey. (Sugar concentration may also be relevant if nutrient addition is used to ensure fermentation goes to completion, a historical recipe, with no nutrients is more likely to stop fermentation short of yeast tolerances, providing a wider range of potential residual sugar in the product).
Boil and scum as long as filth arises. Even with modern processed honey, scum may continue to rise for an hour or more of boiling, although overall relatively little gets taken off. When I made whole comb honey the scum arose for several hours, and the total amount of material removed was significant. Starting with ‘fine’ honey, I will argue that my preferred modern raw honey is not too far off (convenient, yes, and that convenience certainly influences my conclusion, but it is a good starting position).How quickly water evaporates is governed by three major factors. First the surface area of the liquid relative to the total volume (water evaporates faster from a wide shallow pot then from a tall narrow one). Second, how ‘hard’ a boil, the agitation of a rolling boil will lead to greater evaporation. Finally, the time something boils. In this case we cannot determine the first two, and have only a rough guideline for the third.
Here, I will read more into the recipe than is perhaps reasonable. Later instruction gives addition of the ale must relative to 4 gallons of the honey must. An hour or so of boiling can readily take 5 starting gallon to 4 gallons, so I will use as a starting position that the 5 gallons honey plus water is boiled back to 4 gallons before yeast addition.
Another point of reference is specific gravity readings. Details of calculations left out for the sanity of non-nerds.4 gallons of final must with 12 lb honey is 3 lb/gallon, an SG of about 1.11 and 14.5% alcohol potential. Fermented with a beer yeast (modern) to 7% alcohol gives a very sweet SG of about 1.055; at wine strength of 11-13% alcohol, we will have a SG of about 1.01-1.025, a somewhat sweet mead. In my experience beer yeasts are perfectly happy to proceed right to their alcohol tolerance when presented with honey for food – which can easily give 12% alcohol.
4 gallons of our honey must plus 1 gallon typical beer must (Based on BJCP data) starting at 1.05 SG (yes, it is added to our recipe already fermented, but let us look at the starting condition). A blended SG of 1.098 (13% + alcohol potential), fermented to 1.045 SG it is 7% alcohol and to 1.00-1.015 it is 11-13% alcohol.
Right now I have three avenues of thought (boiling time for scumming, 5-4 gallon implication in recipe, gravity/alcohol/residual sugars) that work with the boil to 4 gallons theory.
I’ll add a couple of considerations that might contradict this conclusion. First, boiling 1/4, 1/3, or even ½ of the original volume away is common in these old recipes, although boiling away only 20% is well within typical instructions - this argues that longer boiling/more evaporation might be justified giving a higher OG. Second, this is served out after about 1 week of fermentation (although with beer dregs addition, the beer itself will already have alcohol present), and a higher gravity will not typically ferment out in 1 week; this argues for a lower OG to avoid a super sweet final (although super sweet may have been the desired result). A recipe with less liquid loss that consistently leads to a tasty result with 1 week fermentation would be a strong alternative.
How the yeast is added to the brew has been discussed, but not the core question of what microorganisms actually do the fermenting.
The recipe is English, and the source of the yeast is a fermenting ale/beer.
This leads me to yeasts I commonly use Lallemand Nottingham and Lallemand Windsor. Windsor has a stated alcohol tolerance of 9% and Nottingham 14%. Given the expected initial gravity of our mix, neither is a perfect match. Use of Nottingham might produce a very dry final mead, and use of Windsor may produce an overly sweet one.
I plan on using Nottingham, because although the alcohol tolerance is a bit high relative to the OG, I have not had it go much beyond 12% in practice.
It is worth noting that evidence suggest that ferment of the 14th century was unlikely to be a pure culture, and indeed probably contained both yeasts and bacteria. In other words a modern sourdough is perhaps one of the best analogs, in fact sourdough, sour leven, or acid ferment is called for in some early mead recipes.
12 handfuls total herbs in 12 gallons.
A handful can be highly variable – big or small hand, loosely held or tight, spilling over the sides (like with a branch of rosemary)? Using my (medium to small) hands and dried version of the 6 of these herbs I had at hand, a small handful was about 1.5 Tablespoons, and an overfilled grabby handful was about 10 Tablespoons. The larger amount required a large amount to be grabbing from, and was messy. Cutting off the larger end due to practicality, and based on experience of adding herbs to mead (too much can come easily), I estimate our handfuls at 1.5-4 T each (4.5-12 teaspoons).
Final verdict: scant ½ to 1 teaspoon of each dried herb into each gallon of honey/water mixture prior to boiling.
The recipe has no instruction for when to add the herbs or when/how to remove them.
Of the recipes I have containing herbs, almost 7 times as many recipes call for the herbs to be added to the boil as call for adding them to the ferment. Most of those remove the herbs before fermentation. The number of recipes that do not specify how the herbs are added is slightly greater than the number that call for herbs in the ferment.
Based on this, I choose to add herbs to the boil, (which will be the water alone for those who do not boil their honey). The herbs will be strained out before fermentation. Choosing to add the herbs to the ferment, or leaving them in for both boil or ferment are viable alternatives.
The form of the herbs used, by practicality must be whole rather than powdered since we are adding handfuls. Also, I’m not aware of evidence for the use of powdered herbs historically (another possible research area).
It is plausible that all of these herbs could be available fresh at the same time in the late summer/early fall (when seeds are available and roots are typically harvested). It seems more plausible that dried herbs would be easier to align the seasons of the different plants and ease collection. For our purposes dried is much more convenient.
Spending some time looking into the specific growing cycles of the relevant plants, and figuring out when the different herbs would be likely to be harvested would be an interesting exercise and might lead to a conclusion whether using fresh herbs for this recipe is possible.
The parts of the plant typically used based on old herbals and modern usage:---Rosemary, Sage, Hyssop, Thyme, Betony, Harts tongue: Leaves.---Agrimony: Above-ground portions of plant.---St. John’s Wort: Flowering tops used.---Saxifrage: Seed, leaves, and root.---Centory: Whole herb.---White Horehound: Leaves and flowers used.--- Lunaria: Root and seed.
The question of fermentation conditions gets a bit wobbly.
This is where: • the recipe recreation choices from multiple options, • process and component best guesses, • difficulty understanding and recreating 600 year old brewing,
will crash headlong into • our desire to do things ‘right’ by modern understanding, • planning for the changes in expected results from using modern methods, • planning for a drink available at our convenience, • and wanting to make something that tastes good.
The relevant portion of the recipe is this.
“stir well together; and lay straw or else cloths about the vessel and above if the weather be cold and so let it stand 3 days and 3 nights if the weather be cold. And if it be hot weather 1 day and 1 night is enough at the full. But ever after 1 hour or 2at the most assay thereof and if you will have it sweet take it he sooner from the dregs as clear as you may into another clean vessel and let it stand 1 night or 2 and then draw it into another clean vessel and serve it forth.”
Or, in modern English:
Keep the barrel at a constant temperature, not too cool. Let it ferment for 3 full days in cold weather, or 1 full day in hot weather. After that time sample and when it has reached your desired sweetness, rack it into another container. After an additional 1-2 days rack it again and serve it.
Keep temperature constant.
Not too cool would seem to suggest a higher than cellar temperature.
But noting different initial fermentation of 3 days for cool weather to 1 day for hot weather implies that the fermentation could be run at a wide variety of temperatures above that too cool threshold. Modern wisdom suggests fermenting cool to avoid off flavors.
Based on this we will aim to ferment for the 3 days period at a lower (65-70 F) temperature.
The recipe calls for racking, but not until it has reached the desired sweetness (this could be hours or days, unclear). This leaves a lot of ground open. The 4 gallon honey/water recipe will have an OG of about 1.11, if 1 gallon of fine ale (already fermented, but assume with a typical OG of 1.05 to 1.06) is added the OG should be about 1.10.
And the fermentation will continue for 1-2 days further before it is served. Therefore, the ‘desired sweetness is probably rather sweet to allow for further sugar consumption. And the recipe assume consumption without any aging, not typical in the modern world.
The question of fermentation timing becomes particularly difficult, and in my opinion needs to be addressed within an understanding of the goals of the brewer. It also needs to be looked at from the standpoint of a scientific understanding of fermentation. Finally, the serve immediately versus save for consumption over time is a question of practicality that while it is outside the recipe, requires consideration.
The purely historical brewer will find the desired hot or cool place, and follow the directions to the best of their ability. They will make the brew 3-5 days before they expect to serve it, and will serve a cloudy, still fermenting beverage that will have more or less alcohol/residual sugar depending on how things worked out. Then hope they have enough cooperative friends on hand to drink it quickly.
The purely modern brewer focused on making a drink adhering as closely as possible to the historical drink will probably select a yeast appropriate to the ingredients, temperature, and original gravity. The short fermentation does not allow for a standard nutrient addition regime, but a modified schedule perhaps just the 24, 48, and 72 hour additions, should work. The fermentation can be crashed at that 3-5 days or served immediately. Alternatively the must, once prepared can be fermented using modern timing and not adhering to the 5 +/- days to serving, with the drink being bottled for later use. Under this option, the brewer can choose to clarify, age, apply a formal TOSNA, etc.
That is a lot of room for variation, and will lead to enormous differences in the resulting mead.
My choices will be based on my personal goals, and keeping in mind that the current recipe is an initial recreation, intended in large part to learn whether all the research, deductions, choices, and opinions I’ve been working through work in practice.