12th Century Chinese Mead

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Full Recipe Name
Zhang Bangji's 12th Century Recipe for Su Dongpo's Mead
Recipe Source
Random Notes from the Scholar's Cottage
Brewer
Þórfinnr Hróðgeirsson
Panel Information
Panel Location: Brew U
Panel Date: April 22, 2017
Score: 85
Beverage Information
Period: High Middle Ages
Division: Division 2: Mead, Hydomel, Melomel, Metheglins
Origin: Chinese

Lord Þórfinnr Hróðgeirsson translated a recipe for mead from a 12th century notebook, and a recipe for yeast starter cakes to make it from a 544 CE farm manual Qímín Yàoshù, made the yeast cakes, and brewed the mead.

Background

Mead was never a popular drink in China, with rice and millet wines being much more common, but the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo (1037-1101) wrote at least one poem[1] praising mead, and triggered a brief fad for the beverage. Unfortunately, he didn’t write down his recipe[2]. But a near-contemporary of his, Zhang Bangji (張邦基, born c. 1131) wrote in his book Random Notes from the Scholar's Cottage (墨莊漫錄) that he had gotten ahold of Su Dongpo’s recipe. Mead is also mentioned in some Tang dynasty (618-907) pharmaceutical texts, although I’ve only got that information second hand, and the 1578 Compendium of Materia Medica 本草綱目[3].


Redacted Recipe

  1. First, make wheat yeast cakes. I followed a 6th century recipe of my own translation. See supplement for more details
  2. Dissolve by stirring 1013 grams of honey in enough boiling water to make one gallon of total volume. I used a wildflower honey from New Jersey. Let cool.
  3. Crush 32 grams wheat yeast cakes (about one cake in my case), and 16 grams of commercial yeast cakes in a mortar, and grind them well.
  4. Put the powder into a clean bag of fine cloth such as a nylon brew-in-a-bag bag.
  5. Transfer the cooled must to a one-gallon fermenting vessel with a wide mouth, and immerse the bag into the must.
  6. Close, and let ferment at a moderate temperature.
  7. When bubbling begins, optionally add 8 grams of honey. I did not do this for the beverage before you.
  8. When finished, after at least two weeks, remove the bag and package. I aged this mead for about two months.

Because I was concerned that fermentation was not proceeding, I additionally added another crushed yeast cake about a week into fermentation.

I used a one-gallon glass jug for a fermenter, topped with a bubbler. A period fermenter would have been much larger (the original recipe called for a 10 liter batch), and would have been an earthenware or stoneware urn seasoned with animal fat. While period sealing of the vessel would have been less complete, the smaller volume of my batch means that the oxygen present in the headspace probably caused similar (low) levels of oxidation. I haven’t yet experimented with the clay vessels, but my expectation is that their impact on flavor is also low.

While the wheat yeast cakes contribute somewhat to the final alcohol content, most of the fermentable content is from the honey, so we can estimate the alcohol content using initial and final measurements. I measured the must at 22.2°B, the final alcohol at 7.8°B and the final gravity at 0.990. This results in an ABV of 13.5% based on the gravity change, and 13.8% based on the error between the final refractometer and hydrometer readings.

Deviations from Period Practice

My biggest deviations are around the yeast cakes. I followed a 6th century recipe to create the wheat yeast cakes, but I’m making two assumptions: that yeast cake technology did not fundamentally change between 550 and 1150, and that “good wheat yeast cakes” correspond to the “exceptional yeast cakes” that I made. I think these are reasonable guesses, but would like to have a more explicit match. A different yeast cake recipe would carry a different microbial cocktail, which would change the flavor profile of the mead, although it would probably not change the sweetness or alcohol content much.

I used commercial yeast cakes (the same ones I started my yeast cake culture with) to replace “southern white wine / baijiu yeast cakes” because I thought that using two kinds would more closely follow the recipe, and because they are hard and dry, and might better match the kinds of cakes someone would be buying over some distance. Zhang Bangji lived in eastern China, so southern yeast cakes must have been imported, unless he only meant southern-style. It’s unclear how this substitution affects the beverage, but probably changes the flavor profile somewhat without substantially transforming the beverage.

Other minor concerns that I want to mention:

  • I used a nylon strainer bag rather than a new silk bag because it’s easier to clean, and because, since I siphon the liquid out of the fermenter, clarity is not as big of a concern as it was to the author of the recipe.
  • The honey I used tends to leave a strong honey aroma in the final beverage. This is not so much a period deviation as it is just a little unusual.
  • I packaged the mead in flip-top bottles for transport, which is not at all period, but necessary to comply with open container laws, and to transport it without spilling.

Presentation

I present this beverage to you in a ceramic cup which mimics the shape of several extant cups from China, although most of my examples are Han dynasty, substantially earlier than this beverage. I would have liked to pour it out of an ewer for you, but have not yet acquired one.

Footnotes

  1. 蜜酒歌 Song of Mead. Translation
  2. He did write down a recipe titled “Honey Alcohol,” but it doesn’t contain honey. He probably meant that this recipe was for a wine that tastes like honey. 東坡志林, scroll 8
  3. Particularly the section 穀之四.