Was it possible to age medieval mead and beer? The oldest bottle used to store, presumably, an alcoholic beverage was discovered in 1867 in a 350AD Roman noble’s grave near the German city of Speyer. It was stoppered with a seal of hot wax and is still liquid after all this time. As historic glass was too fragile, the norm for storing and transport was first ceramic vessels like the amphorae and later wood barrels.
Not until the invention of the coal burning furnace in the 17th century did the hotter temperatures allow for a darker, thicker, and harder to break glass suitable for storage and transport, especially after the rediscovery of the cork. Before the cork wine had already been bottled in glass for a few decades, but stoppered ineffectively for carbonation or longer term storage (as attested by many a wine cellar worker with only one eye), for instance with wooden pegs wrapped in hemp soaked in olive oil. It is doubtful such a closure would withstand the carbonation pressure of two month old working mead “soe makes it brisker” without loosing its cap.
The invention of the cork as a bottle stopper is often contributed to the French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon who was the cellar master of Abbey Hautevillers from 1668 to 1715. The myth goes he met two Spanish monks on their way to Sweden whom stopped at the Abbey of Hautevillers in northern France and was inspired by their water gourds stoppered with cork from Catalonia. Except the Duke of Bedford’s household accounts for March 25, 1665 clearly list the purchase of champagne wine, glass bottles and cork; three years before Dom Pérignon entered the monastery.
Interestingly, the use of cork to close wine jugs was widely practiced in Antiquity: the earliest evidence of the use of cork to seal an alcoholic beverage container is from the early 5th century BC in Athens . The technique seems to have been lost in conjunction with the use of oxygen impermeable ceramic amphorae; a perfect combination to make it possible to store and age wine. Throughout the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, aged beverages were an oddity as storage and transport used (oxygen permeable) wood barrels. When the new years’ batch of French wine would arrive in English port, the barrels leftover from the previous year would be put on sale, to make room for the better, fresh wine.
- McGovern, Patrick. Uncorking the Past. The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages. California: University of California Press, 2009 (p. xiv)
- Taber, George M. To cork or not to cork. Tradition, Romance, Science and the Battle for the Wine Bottle. Scribner, 2009 (p. 14)