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I found online an ancient recipe for mead, given by the Spanish-Roman naturalist Columella in "De re rustica":

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius (around 1/2 litre) of this water with a [Roman] pound (about a 1/4 kg or half pound) of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

I've read that mineral water of low fixed residue is suitable for this. My questions are:

What are some tips (like the container, how to close the container)? How does the whole process work? How about the sun exposure part in winter?

  • Huh, the recipe doesn't mention boiling at all. It sounds like this recipe is the mead analogue of cold-brew coffee. Unless Columella just left that part out as obvious, which sometimes happens in pre-modern recipes. – Monica Cellio Mar 30 '17 at 1:22
  • @Monica: From Steve's comments, I would infer that they didn't boil water and honey together because they actually had to use honey's yeast, and boiling would kill it. Am I wrong? – Vincenzo Oliva Mar 30 '17 at 18:54
  • Vincenzo, Steve's instructions include boiling, but it sounds like Columella's don't, hence my confusion. – Monica Cellio Mar 30 '17 at 19:02
  • @Monica: Yeah, but I'm talking about his comment to his own answer. – Vincenzo Oliva Mar 30 '17 at 19:59
  • Oh, I missed the comment. It'd be better if one of you were to edit that additional info into the answer. – Monica Cellio Mar 30 '17 at 20:01
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If you want to make a small amount of mead, you can follow those directions, but you will need modern equipment. A carboy and an airlock is basically all you need. Actually, you will probably need two. One to ferment and one to age the mead.

Mead is pretty simple to make. Water, honey and some yeast. Most people get filtered water. Then boil it with the honey to sterilize the honey (especially important if you use unfiltered). Then let it cool off and add yeast. I would also add yeast nutrients since honey lacks the nutrients to really work good. Also, use wine yeast since it's adapted to higher alcohol levels than beer yeast.

Once it's cooled off you pour it in a fermentation vessel. You will need some space between the level of the fermenting mead and the airlock for foaming. After fermentation has stopped, then you need to have it almost to the top of the bottle so there is no oxidation occurring.

I am not sure about the sun exposure, in fact I would keep it out of the sun unless you need to warm it up, which is what they may have been trying to do in ancient times.

It will look something like this during fermentation (this is someone's picture of some cider fermenting):

Carboy and Airlock fermenting cider

This is what it looks like aging and clearing:

enter image description here

  • Thanks for your answer! I have a few follow-up questions: how long should water and honey boil? What goes wrong If I don't add some yeast? If I add yeast, should the whole thing be boiled again before pouring it in the vessel? Finally, do you think sun exposure can have negative effects or is it just a matter of warm vs cool ? I'm sorry, I guess it's more than a few, +1'd already 😁 – Vincenzo Oliva Mar 26 '17 at 18:42
  • Oh, just another thing, how much mead should result from the quantities in the recipe? – Vincenzo Oliva Mar 26 '17 at 19:23
  • You only need to bring it to a boil for a few minutes. But, if you want to be totally authentic, just warm the water up and dissolve the honey without boiling and let nature take it's course, but getting the right yeast to ferment is a crapshoot. Never boil after adding yeast, it will kill it. Remember they ancients weren't using glass vessels to ferment and did not have packaged yeast and just relied on the yeast that was in the honey already (random chance that you will get a good one) and likely needed to warm it up which is what I think the sunshine was for. – farmersteve Mar 26 '17 at 22:59
  • Oh, I think the recipe will make about 1 liter – farmersteve Mar 26 '17 at 22:59
  • I've been wondering, what alcohol content could Columella's mead achieve when it was good? – Vincenzo Oliva Mar 31 '17 at 9:01

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