Making Mead The Roman Way


This is Columella’s recipe for the alcoholic drink called mead; it is found in his Res rustica, XII.41.

Mead is a fermented drink made from honey, to which may be added spices and other aromatics.  Wines of various types as well as mead were the principal alcoholic drinks in the days of ancient Rome.  Beer, although a staple drink in the ancient Near East, Egypt, and among the Gauls and Germans, was known to the Romans but not favored.

Mustum optimum sic facies, says Columella:  Here is how you make good mead.  Let us follow his prescription, and hope for the best.  I am simply summarizing Columella’s recipe here, and have not prepared it myself.

It is interesting from a historical perspective, but I would like to hear if anyone actually tries to make mead this way.

1.  Remove from the “wine vat” a quantity of must (He calls it mustum lixivum, which is simply the juice of crushed grapes).  Must is grape juice that been partially fermented, or not fermented at all.  Since the average person does not have a wine-vat, we assume that any must will do here.

2.  Columella advises us to use the juice of grapes that have been picked on “a dry day.”

3.  Put ten pounds (X pondo) of honey into a large urn (urna) of must, and carefully mix them together.  We assume here that one can reduce the volumes proportionally, if a smaller batch of mead is to be made.  How much must should be mixed with the honey?  Here we must use some detective work.  The text of Columella only uses the word “urn” (urna).


An urn was both a generic word for large storage vessel, and also a unit of liquid measure.  I am assuming here that Columella meant it to indicate unit of liquid measure.  According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the term urna signified half of an amphora.  So one urna was about 13 liters, or nearly “3 imperial gallons.”

4.  Pour the must and honey mixture in a large vessel and “seal it up with plaster.”  (I am assuming here that we can safely omit the plaster, and use any reliable form of sealing that permits the gases of fermentation to escape.  I include it only to show how things were done in Columella’s day).

The sealed vessel should be placed in a cool, dry loft, for fermentation.

5.  The vessel should be retrieved after thirty-one days, opened, and strained.

6.  It should then be placed into another vessel, sealed with plaster, and then put where “the smoke will reach it” (in aliud vas mustum eliquatum oblinire, atque in fumum reponere).  Notice how plaster sealing is used again here, as an efficient way to permit gases to escape from the jar.

It is not clear why Columella thinks smoke is a good thing for the mead.  Perhaps it was a way to give it some flavor.  The mead could be drunk at any point after this time.


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