Intrepid brewer risks burning himself to recreate long-lost medieval mead recipe
Ah, mead, that sweet and honeyed alcoholic beverage that has been a staple at Renaissance fairs for decades (along with giant turkey thighs). It is also increasingly popular among craft brewers because it is relatively easy to prepare. Those looking for a unique challenge, however, turn to a special type of medieval mead called a bochet. The only known detailed recipe for bochet dates back to the late 14th century and was lost for centuries, until it was rediscovered around 2009.
Fermentation in general has been around for millennia, and mead (“fermented honey drink”) in particular was brewed throughout ancient Europe, Africa and Asia. Perhaps the first known reference to such a drink (soma) is found in a sacred Vedic book called the Rigveda, circa 1700-1100 BCE. Mead was the drink of choice in ancient Greece; Danish warriors in the epic poem in Old English Beowulf frolic in King Hrothgar’s mead hall; the Welsh bard Taliesin (c. 550 AD) is credited with having composed a “Song of Mead”; and mead is very present in Norse mythology.
There are many varieties of mead from all over the world. But the bochet is a special variety because it calls for caramelized honey; additional spices are optional. This makes it appealing to craft brewers looking for something a little different – brewers like Gemma Tarlach, who recently detailed her bochet-making experiences in a fascinating article for Atlas Obscura.
Tarlach was keen to be as historically accurate as possible and, during his research, came across a 2020 article by independent researcher Susan Verlag. Verlag is a beekeeper and mead producer interested in recreating historic drinks, taking into account the appropriate historical context. “Modern recreations of historic drinks often appear to be influenced more by the poplar hypothesis than by historical scholarship,” Verlag wrote in his article.
Verlag found the first complete bochet recipe in a French recipe collection from 1393, The Menagier of Paris. This recipe began to circulate widely among craft brewers after the publication in 2009 of The Good Wife’s Guide: A Medieval Household Book, a translation of the original treaty. Here are the translated instructions, according to Verberg’s article:
Bochet. To make 6 bochet septiers, take 6 liters of fine and sweet honey and put it in a cauldron on the heat to boil. Keep stirring until it stops swelling and has bubbles like little blisters that burst, giving off some blackish vapor. Then add 7 septiers of water and boil until reduced to 6 septiers, stirring constantly. Put it in a tub to cool to lukewarm and strain it through a cloth. Decant into a keg and add a pint of brewer’s yeast as this is what makes it hot, although if you use bread sourdough the flavor is just as good, but the color will be paler. Cover well and warm so that it ferments. And for an even better version, add an ounce of ginger, long pepper, grains of paradise and cloves in equal amounts, except for the cloves of which there should be less; put them in a linen bag and throw them in the keg. Two or three days later, when the bochet smells of hot and is hot enough, remove the bag of spices, wring it out, and put it in another barrel you have in progress. So you can reuse these spices up to 3 or 4 times (Greco and Rose, 2009, p.325).
According to Verberg, most of the bochet brewed today follows this basic recipe, although she cites a handful of other recipes dating from 1385 to 1725 that are more vague as to whether caramelized honey (or even a fermentation ) is necessary. Verberg suggests that the medieval definition of what constituted a true bochet was much less rigid than the current definition: like a mead flavored with caramelized honey.
“The defining characteristics of a historic bochet are that it is made by boiling water sweetened with spices and allowing the concoction to cool slowly, infusing into a wonderful tasty drink,” she wrote, adding that based on his research, “This is probably the drink evolved through the ages from an alcoholic spicy honey beverage to a sweet and spicy non-alcoholic herbal tea.”
One of the first things Gemma Tarlach did while conducting her own bochet experiments was to answer the burning question: what is a “septier”? She searched the Parisian archives and concluded that a septier is roughly equivalent to about four gallons. If we follow the 1393 recipe, this translates to a honey / water ratio of one liter of honey (about three pounds) to four pounds of water. However, “most modern interpretations call for a ratio of 3 to 4 pounds of honey per gallon of water,” she wrote, which is four times as much honey as the 1393 version.
Tarlach had easy access to raw honey, since she is also a beekeeper. From Verlag, she learned that medieval mead producers did not extract honey from the wax comb like beekeepers do today. Instead, they crushed the comb, which meant medieval honey contained both beeswax and a few crushed bees. So that’s what Terlach did, using the comb from a dead colony.
It was also difficult to find a historically suitable yeast for fermentation. Most modern mead makers use commercial wine yeast, according to Tarlach, but the 1393 recipe called for brewer’s or bread yeast. Tarlach opted for several different commercial brewer’s yeasts for their experimental batches, as well as a batch using a variety of white wine yeast, plus a batch using wild yeast. Instead of using a nutritious powder derived from the lab to start the yeast, she added a few organic raisins, believing that medieval mead makers would have had access to dried fruit.
The caramelization process is the most delicate step. You need a very large pot (unless you have a very large pot handy), as honey can double or even triple in size when heated. If you screw up the process, you might find yourself burnt by a “sugar volcano” when the honey concoction explodes. And because boiling sugar sticks to the skin (unlike boiling water), these burns can be serious. It is also important not to bend over the jar once the honey begins to bubble, as this can scald your eyes.
Bochet needs to age for about a year, so the final verdict won’t be delivered until then. But Tarlach proclaimed her experiments a success after sampling some of the month-long lots while she transferred them to new jars:
They were finer and less sweet than the other meads I’ve made, thanks to the lower honey / water ratio. The different yeasts gave each micro-lot its own distinct character, from a dry, astringent white wine yeast drink to the milder, milder concoction that used English ale-style yeast. The dominant notes of Kveik were bitter and medicinal – perhaps appropriate, since Verberg’s research suggests that bochet may have been drunk to balance his moods. The wild yeast strain was sweeter overall, similar to English ale, but not as sweet … all taste like caramel, honey and history.
Those wishing to try their own batch of bochet can find Tarlach’s complete recipe suitable here. Just be sure to use a large pot “at least three times the volume of honey” during the caramelization step, lest you get scalded by the dreaded sugar volcano.