James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
Dark Age Drinks
One of the perks of having a 40-minute commute (OK, just about the only perk) is that it gives me a chance to catch up on my podcasts. One of my absolute favorites is the British History Podcast (BHP). I highly recommend it if you enjoy, well, British history.
One of the reasons I enjoy it is that Jamie Jeffers, the host, creates special episodes, such as “Dark Ages Drinks,” where he discusses what Anglo-Saxons in Britain were drinking during that era. It fascinated me enough that I wanted to try and create a mead using the old Anglo-Saxon method (with a few exceptions that you’ll see below). So, using Jamie’s podcast (partially shared here with permission—and it won’t hurt if I get him a few more listeners!) as a template, I set about my job. It was fun, and the mead was quite delicious!
One of the bonuses I had in this project is having a father who is an apiarist. I went to his house to collect the honey and comb for the project. This step was more enjoyable than I remember, compared to when I helped him as a young man. Maybe because he now has a spare netted helmet without holes. I tell you, nothing teaches patience like having a bee crawling around on the inside of your mesh helmet inches from your eyes.
So with just these extra notes: anything in italics is from the BHP; I made it as a sweet mead, also called a sack mead, which is a strong, sweet, and thick mead due to using more honey than usual; and that the more recipe-friendly version starts the article, but then I go into tips and specifics that you might tweak.
If you read further, you’ll get a full analysis of medieval mead-making processes and why you might choose (or not) to deviate from those while making this recipe. Now without further ado, here we go!
How to Make Sack Mead (Like the Anglo-Saxons Did in the 400s)
You can adjust this recipe and the process you use to make it by using modern ingredients or by taking out whatever you want to make it more historical. As mentioned, I review why you might modify some of your methods from medieval ones. As is, it should yield 5 gallons.
- 18 pounds of honey
- 4 gallons of water
- 2 teaspoons yeast energizer
- 2 teaspoons yeast nutrient (I'll use it if I have it on hand from other brewing but rarely use it.)
- 1 packet of sweet mead yeast
- Sanitize everything!
- Heat all water to boiling, then remove from heat.
- Add yeast energizer and stir in.
- Add honey and stir in.
- Chill to 75°F.
- Put must into a fermenter.
- Pitch yeast.
- Sit 2 to 4 weeks.
- Rack to secondary (after sanitizing everything!).
- Sit another 2 to 4 weeks.
Changing the Sweetness Level
- You can make a dry or medium mead, instead of sweet mead, simply by adjusting the amount of honey used. For a dry mead, the honey-to-water ratio should be around 2.5 pounds per gallon. For a medium mead, the honey-to-water ratio should be around 3 pounds per gallon. The sweet mead has a ratio of around 4 pounds per gallon. All of these can be adjusted.
- I use a standard max of 18 pounds instead of 16 because I like it very sweet.
- Overall, the more honey, the sweeter it is, but you have to make sure your yeast can handle it.
- If you make a dry mead, there is also a dry mead yeast that will handle the sugar content and give a dry profile.
When you bottle, you can just bottle straight, or you can make a sparkling mead by adding a little sugar or extra honey to the mixture of the mead. This will let the yeast work a little bit in the bottle and give it extra carbonation. The same process is how they bottle conditioned beer.
However you make it, I hope you enjoy your mead! Slainte and Wassail!
- The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm (that's not a misspelling)
- Brewing Mead: Wassail! In Mazers of Mead by Robert Gayre and Charles Papazian
- Got Mead
But let’s imagine you can’t afford beer but you still want to get your drink on. What else was there? Well, the next rung down was mead. And oh, boy, is this drink old. In fact, the word for mead appears to be derivative from the Sanskrit word for honey. It's that old. It was also something of a heroic drink. Mead was the drink used to repay warriors and it was also the drink of choice for many royal feasts.
What Is Mead?
I mostly wanted to add this part in because one of my very favorite authors uses this very concept. In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the main character agrees to work for Mr. Wednesday (read the book to find out who that is – no spoilers here), and they seal the deal with mead.
So what is mead? Well, it’s fermented honey and you didn't need a lot of equipment to make it, especially when compared with ale or cider. And because it was so easy to make, it was the common drink of the masses. - BHP
This is, from a personal standpoint, very true. From someone who has home-brewed beer (dozens), mead (several), cider (a few), and wine (once), I can state that mead is by far the easiest to make. All you need is water, honey, and yeast. Like all brewing, each one of them can affect the flavor.
If you're wondering why different regions of Britain produced different types of ale a few hundred years ago, it was because of the water. Certain salts did better with pale ales, and other regions with different salts and such made better porters. This is a huge topic, so rather than soapbox it to death, I'll leave it at that.
Yeast also can change the flavor profile. Yeasts can give butterscotch, apple/pear, peppery, and oh so many other flavors. Yeasts are now made to handle specific types of drinks (beer, wine, mead), so I did choose a nice sweet mead yeast. (You can also get dry mead yeast, but as Jamie points out, the Anglo-Saxons loved their sweet drinks, so I went with the heavier and sweeter sack mead. Later on, I'll explain how to make a dry mead.)
One of the two big differences between the old dark ages method and mine was that in the old days, yeast was added by taking a branch and stirring it into the water-honey mixture. The natural yeasts would be transferred in the process. That sounded like the recipe for a funky and nasty mess, so I used commercially purchased yeast.
Different types of honey can also produce different flavors. For example, I've always wanted to make mead using orange tree honey, but since I live in the US Midwest, I can't find it easily, so I've always made my meads with clover honey.
And that's it for the main ingredients! Water, honey, and yeast.
Consider Sanitizing Your Utensils
As Jamie points out: Was it easy? Yes. But also: Was it sanitary? No.
Here, too, I diverged from history. I refuse to spend the time and money on something that will end up tasting like rabid monkey sweat because I didn’t disinfect everything properly. So I did use some sanitizing agents to make sure everything was clean and would not produce off flavors. Honestly, making a strong mead would help cover some off flavors in any case, and even back in the day (fifteen hundred years ago), the fermentation process would’ve killed off “creeping things,” but again, I want it to taste as good as possible.
Another modern bit is to use some yeast energizing agent. For those who want to make their own mead, I highly recommend it. It helps the yeast get the most out of the honey’s sugars it can. This time, though, I did NOT use it, as I am trying to be a bit more historically accurate. I suppose you could also point out that I’m using modern equipment, but if everything was properly taken care of, the differences are negligible (other than this way was much, much easier).
To Use Honeycomb or Not?
Jamie's description of mead is just about done:
According to Tickner Edwardes, to make mead, the people would crush honeycombs and steep them in water.
This was a pain! I typically use only honey and not honeycomb, but I wanted to make it more historically accurate, so about a third of my honey material was from the comb. It's not hard to crush, but it does get everywhere! Even taking a couple of simple pictures got honey all over my phone, from my hands and just from being all over. I very much recommend that, unless you're having an Anglo-Saxon mead-making party, you just get honey without the comb.
While I was smashing the comb, I had the water on the stove heating up. Once the water came to a nice roiling boil, I took it off the burner and added the smashed-up honeycomb and the honey. All you have to do is stir in the honey until it's combined nicely with the hot water.
Since we're using modern plastic or glass containers, a way to get all of the honey out is to ladle a bit of the hot honey water into the container, close it up, shake it, then pour it back into the pot. Be careful to only use a little hot water, though, and don't close the container completely, as the heat will cause a bit of a vacuum, and when you open the bottle, you'll get a rush of air and a pop that can cause hot honey water to splash over you and the stove if you aren't careful. I’ve also been told the glass can explode; I haven't seen it and don’t plan on it.
Modern addition: stir in the yeast energizer as soon as the water is taken off the burner before you add the honey.
Reinterpreting the Recipe
Then strain the liquid and let it stand. - BHP
Not entirely accurate. You have to let the must (pre-yeast honey-water) cool down before adding the yeast. Allow the must to cool to around 75 degrees (F) before adding the yeast. If it’s too hot, it’ll ruin it, and if it’s too cool, you won’t get any activity. Once it cools, you can strain or ladle out any remaining comb pieces and then add the yeast.
The longer they left it, the stronger it got. - BHP
True to the point that as long as there is yeast activity, it will get stronger. Once the yeast is done consuming the sugars, it won’t get any stronger. I will say, though, that the longer it sits, the better it gets. My first batch of mead was made four years ago, and I’m down to my last few bottles of it. It’s gotten nothing but more outstanding as time has gone on. I tried it first at six months, and it was only decent. At one year, it was good. It is now the nectar of the gods.
Now sometimes pure honey would be used, or herbs such as sweet gale would be added for flavor, but in general that’s all they had to do to make mead. - BHP
Wonderfully true. A good spiced mead (known as a metheglin) adds some nice complexities. I have made both a Yule mead (with cinnamon, vanilla, and orange peel) and a Halloween “Hallowme’ad” (with pumpkin spices and actual pumpkin). By the way, sweet gale wasn’t just used as a flavor. They considered it medicinal.
Letting It Ferment
So the process is nearly done! After adding the honey to the boiling water, we let it cool and then add the yeast. Here, you can just move it over to whatever container you want to ferment it in. You could let it open ferment, which can lead to some nice wild yeasts getting in and giving you a nice sour mead, but more than likely, you'll get crud and miscellaneous creeping things in it. You can also put cheesecloth or burlap over it (the smaller the holes, the less gunk you'll get in). I'm using my glass carboy with an airlock (another nod to modern techniques) because I had it and didn't want to spend money on additional equipment that doesn't work.
Before syphoning (racking) into the carboy, I took a hydrometer reading. This wouldn't have been done back in the 400s, but it has been done for centuries. Since it doesn't affect the outcome, I'm calling it a wash as far as historical vs. modern. Using the hydrometer will give you the sugar content (original gravity) before fermentation. You then take the reading after fermentation (final gravity), and there is an easy formula that will give you the alcohol by volume amount.
My original gravity was 1.081. That's actually a little low, as my best-case ABV would be around 11% (my first sack/sweet mead was at 14%), but I'm not shocked since I've never used comb before, and that may have thrown off my honey weights. The ABV did end up at 10.75%.
Once I’ve taken the hydrometer reading, I racked/syphoned the must over the carboy (see the previous post) and added the airlock. I will let it sit for several weeks and then bottle it. I don’t have the equipment to put it in a cask, so bottling is another modern nod that’s more of a wash since it doesn’t affect the outcome, other than not allowing any of the wood cask flavors to get into the mix.
© 2015 James Slaven