July 14, 2010
As I already discussed under the post about sweetness honey would have been a fairly uncommon commodity not readily available to most, but rather something that would display exclusivity, luxurity and long range contacts. Honey as a product would most likely have been imported to Lofoten, and it seems fairly likely that on had to import honey or mead in order to satisfy the need also in the rest of Scandinavia. This would also mean that mead was drunk only at the most important of parties rather than as an everyday drink, and as such I believe that one would have been careful to not brew away all the sugars from the honey.
This notion is supported in the ever untrustworthy Olaus Magnus who among his mead recipes mentions two things that may indicate such a practice. Instead of the contemporary moth to ferment the mead, Olaus Magnus states that one week is enough, which would yield a beverage that is less strong than the meads generally produced today. Secondly and perhaps more important is the advice from Olaus Magnus that one should balance the sweetness with either gale or hops.
Despite it being rather unpedagogic, in the context of this museum to brew a mead, I still decided to do so, mainly because I wanted to try out some more thoughts about fermentation. The process of making mead is quite simple in theory; dissolve the honey in hot water, add either some herbs or a infusion of the herbs wanted, let it cool down, add some yeast and then wait for it to transform the sugar into alcohol.
Though not really following any particular recipe, I chose to still follow the relation between honey and water as given in one of the descriptions given by Olaus Magnus, resulting in me using about 2 jars of honey to two jugs of water or to be a bit more metric, 800 grams of honey to 3,5 liters of water. The water was brought to a boil and I tried to get most of the honey out of the jars. After adding the honey to the soapstone vessel, I let it boil briefly while skimming it, I guess that this step is rather unnecessary in present day mead making as it probably aims at removing any surplus proteins. After I skimmed it I let it simmer for a while in order to dissolve all of the honey. After it then had cooled down enough to be handled I proceeded to pour it quite evenly into two of the tyttinger jugs I had been using before. To one of the cans I added a hand full of crushed juniper berries and in the other some caraway seeds. Part of the experiment was to see if the pores of the jug would have contained enough yeast to provide a good start for fermenting the mead. Halfway through the process of preparing the mead, I realised that the jugs were glazed on the inside and therefore without any suitable pores. I would therefore have to add some yeast to the brew. Instead of using the bought yeast as last time, I planned to use the yeasty remains from the last brew. However, at the time I had to finish for the day the liquid was still to hot to add any yeast. The brew should then be fermenting for about one week, at least according to the earliest known recipes.
The use of yeast raises some interesting questions, would one have been aware of yeast as we know it and save it from batch to batch or was it considered something completely magical? In Scandinavian and Anglo- Saxon languages the terms of Bearma and Dreg signifies two different stages of yeast, and as these terms seem to date back to the Iron Age it is quite possible that yeast was not an unknown entity, even if the micro-biology behind it was. A few days ago I talked to a microbiologists who commented on the possibility to get yeast from different plants. Apparently different plants would have differing affinities with yeast. The most well known examples would be grapes and apples upon which a very benevolent yeast is gathered. Less useful for yeast would probably lingonberries or cranberries be as they are quite sterile in themselves. If there is a difference in how yeasts grows and gathers on the plants mainly used when brewing – meadowsweet, juniper, yarrow or gale – there might also be a possibility that some of these plants were used not only for taste but also for a good addition of yeast.
On a final note about mead and the use of honey in mead, as I am not at the moment completely clear on how to stop the brew after about a week, if the brew proves to still be sweet at the time. The to main methods I can think of would be through either heat or cold. To warm and the yeast will die, but it would also cause the alcohol to steam off, to cold and the yeast will grow tired. Either way it should be possible to separate the brew from the dead or sleepy yeast in the bottom. Another way would be to add some herbs or fruits that would stop the fermentation, here lingon berries comes to mind.
Still, all in all, honey and mead would have been quite expensive and required more of the chieftain than just faraway contacts. Another and not really considered solution to keep up an expected duty to serve mead at a feast without being brought to the brink of poverty, would be by brewing a mölska instead. Mölska is a Swedish name for a beer that was refermented with the use of honey. Such a beer could provide not only strength and sweetness required but would also have the revealing honey aroma. This would have been a far more economical solution here at the fringe of the world.
Update: Looked into the jars today, a day after adding yeast to them, and could see the mead being topped by a healthy froth
Update II: The froth has calmed down a bit but it seem to still be working, one could even hear a fizzing sound from inside the jars. Today almost six days after starting the batch I tasted a small sample. Quite clear in colour, still very sweet and honey tasting, but with a slight alcoholic taste hiding in the background.