Monthly Archives: August 2013

Steps in interpreting a period recipe for brewing

Commonly called redaction. As we redact, so shall we brew!

This is the method that I use to deconstruct a period recipe and write my interpretation of the ingredients and method.


  1. Obtain a reliable copy of the primary evidence.
  2. Translate the primary source from the original language into English. If translation is out of your skills set, get as many different interpretations of the recipe as possible and look at them in parallel, noting any differences.
  3. Cut out any irrelevant information from the recipe.
  4. Identify the who/what/when of the evidence. This way when you are looking at the contemporary information you will be able to see how the recipe fits into the larger societal picture.
  5. List the ingredients used in the recipe and then research and make notes on them. Using period sources that are contemporary to the recipe will help you to understand how each ingredient was used. IMPORTANT! Use modern herbals AND Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for any ingredients and chemicals that you do not recognise. This way you can make sure that what you are planning on making (and drinking) is safe. The modern sources may also offer a safe substitute. Wikipedia is a useful repository for modern information on food/herb safety as a first step, but follow up the sources to make sure they are legitimate.
  6. Using a conversions table change the ingredient measurements into metric. Where possible turn the volume measurements into weight ones and units of weight into volume. The conversion of liquid measurements into weight and vice versa can highlight differing ratios that may not be apparent otherwise and may negatively impact your brew.
  7. List your newly-metric ingredients in the order you are going to use them.
  8. Break the period instructions down into a series of steps to create a method.
  9. What modern or non-period knowledge do you need to insert to make the pieces fit? An example of this is fermented beverages that make no reference to yeast. We know that without yeast we cannot have alcohol production. So if a recipe makes no reference to yeast we have to assume that we are going to add some. Make a note of this here.
  10. Write your method and enter into your brew log.
  11. Brew.

Now that I’ve given you the theory, here is the method in practice:

Recipe From The Closet Of Sir Kenelm Digby


Take 18 quarts of spring-water, and one quart of honey; when the water is warm, put the honey into it. When it boileth up, skim it very well, and continue skimming it, as long as any scum will rise. Then put in one Race of Ginger (sliced in thin slices,) four Cloves, and a little sprig of green Rosemary. Let these boil in the Liquor so long, till in all it have boiled one hour. Then set it to cool, till it be blood-warm; and then put to it a spoonful of Ale-yest. When it is worked up, put it into a vessel of a fit size; and after two or three days, bottle it up. You may drink it after six weeks, or two moneths.

Steps 1-3 Find a reliable copy, translate it, remove irrelevant information

This is a primary source, translation is not needed and there’s no irrelevant information.

Step 4 Who, What and When

Looking back, Sir Kenelm Digby (July 11, 1603 – June 11, 1665) could be considered one of those larger than life characters that history throws up from time to time. Being at different times a physicist, courtier, theologian, philosopher, naval commander and diplomat. One of the curious things that he has contributed to history is a collection of notes on brewing and cooking that was published by his family posthumously, simply titled The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. These notes provide us a look at what was being consumed by the wealthy English of the late Tudor and the beginnings of the Stuart period.

For more information have a look at:

Step 5 List the ingredients and make notes


Water covers the majority of the earth’s surface and is foundation to all life. The role that water plays in period can be seen in Physica by Hildegard “Waters springing forth from their source wash away all filth.” In other words what you need to drink is also where you dump your waste. On some level the problems associated with sourcing drinking water from the same place you dump your waste was realised by the people of London.

In the mid-13th century, the city of London acquired the springs near Tyburn and built an underground conduit to bring clean water into the city for consumption by brewers, cooks, fishmonger and those who could afford it. By the time that Digby would have penned this recipe there was a pump installed under London Bridge that helped with a wider spread water supply. Of interest is the fact that access to the water from the conduit was one of the ways that the Brewers Guild of London restricted brewing by non-guild members.

More aquatic information here:


Honey is an energy rich food that is produced by bees from pollen and nectar from flowers. It is stored inside their hives and forms their primary food. Honey is also one of the most ready forms of sugar that is available for humans to use as a sweetener.

The religious significance of honey is not to be underestimated in all cultures, but for this recipe we are particularly interested in its role for Jews and Christians. Honey was considered a gift from God that not only represented physical sustenance but was also a linked with their relationship with him. For example, the Book of Exodus says the Promised Land was “…filled with milk and honey” (3:17) and that the manna that God provided to the Jews in their travels tasted like “wafer made with honey” (16:31).

More sweet and sticky information:


Ginger is the root of the plant Zingiber officinale, it is readily available in most grocery stores in powdered, liquid and fresh forms due to its popularity in Asian cooking. It is grown and cultivated throughout most parts of the world.

Despite its use throughout history I have not been able to find an entry in an herbal or other descriptor other than Hildegard. Hildegard sends mixed messages about ginger first warning her reader off consuming it saying that it is “injurious as food” and it makes people “ignorant, languid, and lewd”. However, she then goes on to prescribe it as a thirst quencher, a cure for eye and stomach irritation, constipation, acne and as a purgative.

An interesting story about ginger which is contemporary to this recipe is that Queen Elizabeth I would have likenesses of dignitaries and those of her court that pleased her made from gingerbread and served to them.

Ginger up your research here:


Cloves are the dried flower bud of the tree Myrtaceae, (Syzygium aromaticum) and are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. The uses of cloves in cooking are known throughout the world and are used in both savoury and sweet food. They have been known to be used by the Romans since 1 C.E.

When Digby penned this recipe the trade in cloves was controlled by the Portuguese but by the time this recipe was published the trade was controlled by the Dutch.

Faintly spicy links


Rosemary is a small perennial shrub of the mint family. This compact evergreen, with clusters of small light blue flowers and leaves that yield a fragrant essential oil used in making perfume and to flavour food, is native to the Mediterranean region.

There are records of Rosemary being grown in England from the mid-14th Century, when Queen Phillipa (wife of Edward III) received some cuttings as a gift from her mother and had them planted in the garden at Old Westminster.

By the time that Digby had penned his work it is thought that Rosemary was a common garden plant with many medicinal properties. Culpeper says that among other things, Rosemary will help with head cold, dullness of the mind, dumb palsy, loss of speech and flatulence.

It’s more than something you use with lamb! Check out



Step 6 Tabulate your ingredients, compare conversions for any inconsistencies

Step 7 List them in order


Original Measure

Metric Volume

Metric Weight.


18 Quarts

20.4574 L

20.4574 Kg


1 quart


1.542 Kg


One Race



4 cloves



1 sprig



1 spoonful


Step 8 Break the period instructions down into a series of steps to create a method

1.    Take 20.5 of spring-water, and 1.55 kg of honey; when the water is warm, put the honey into it.

2.    When it boileth up, skim it very well, and continue skimming it, as long as any scum will rise.

3.    Then put in one Race of Ginger (sliced in thin slices,) four Cloves, and a little sprig of green Rosemary.

4.    Let these boil in the Liquor so long, till in all it have boiled one hour.

5.    Then set it to cool, till it be blood-warm; and then put to it a spoonful of Ale-yest.

6.    When it is worked up, put it into a vessel of a fit size; and after two or three days, bottle it up.

7.    You may drink it after six weeks, or two moneths.

Step 9 – Not applicable.

Step 10 Write you method (and put in your brew log)

Rurik’s Redacted Mead


  • 21 l of Water
  • 1.5 kg honey Honey
  • A knob of Ginger, sliced
  • 4 Cloves
  • 1 sprig Rosemary
  • Ale-yeast


1.    Place water in pot on heat of stove.

2.    When warm add honey. Temperature is not important: the heat is to help dissolve the honey.

3.    Bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer. While it is simmering scrape off the scum that rises to the top. This will help produce a clear mead.

4.    Once the scum stops rising add ginger, rosemary and cloves to the pot.

5.    Simmer for 1 hour.

6.    Remove from heat and cool. This can be done with some sort of cooling device (like a heat exchanger) or if small enough by placing the pot in a sink with cold water.

7.    Clean and sanitise fermenter.

8.    Add must to the fermenter and pitch the yeast.

9.    Rack when the visible signs of fermentation go away.

10.    Bottle and let it age for at least 6 weeks.


Acton, Bryan Making Mead; Heheglin, Hippocras, Melomel, Pyment and Cyser. G.W. Kent Inc, 1984.

Adamson , Melitta Weiss Food in Medieval Times, Food Through History Greenwood Press, 2004.

Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Beer and Brewster in England. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Digby, Kenelm; The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opend: Newly edited, with introduction, notes, and glossary. Introduction by MacDonnell, Anne. Published by Philip Lee Warner London, 1910.

Culpeper, Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2009.

The Bible New Revised Standard Version. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. 1989.

von Bingen, Hildegard Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing Translated by Priscilla Throop. Inner Traditions Bear & Company 1998. (Kindle Edition.)



Filed under Class, Class Notes, Medieval Brewing