Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Friday, May 1, 2015

Honey Wine - Mead Philosophy

In the comments section of my last photo update I told a commenter that I was making mead that afternoon - whole hive mead, specifically.  The whole hive version is still on my list, I'm afraid, 'cause I just made plain ol' mead.  But plain ol' mead is a beautiful thing - as much medicine as it is an adult beverage.  (And I imagine the whole hive version is even more so.)  All indigenous fermentations, like wild mead, are taken very seriously by everyone in the community, and they are always wild fermentations.  And in areas of the globe where people don't have constant access to a wide variety of foods from around the entire planet, wild fermentations often serve the role of transforming a less nutritious food into something far more substantial.  B vitamins in particular increase significantly in many indigenous brews, but the concentration of protein and other important nutrients rise as well.  If you drink it whole, that is, as a living beverage.  Not filtered, pasteurized, and zapped for good measure before being sold by the case to people who don't have any connection to the drink.  I personally think that the more you remove yourself from the substances you put in and on your body, the more likely they are to hurt you.  Drinking cloudy beer on its lees that I made fosters a wholly different attitude in me toward the drink than swilling a six pack of Budweiser purchased at the local stop-n-rob.  For a really interesting read on this subject I recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner's book on herbal beers.

In my experience (admittedly only 2 years) the imbibing of mead is self-limiting, too.  It delivers a light, comfortable, and somewhat dreamy buzz, and cuts you off when you've had enough.  It's a lot like eating really nutrient-dense organic food (from your garden of course;) - you tend to not need to eat as much because your body obtains the vitamins and minerals it needs a lot sooner.  I strongly believe that nutrient-density (or the lack thereof) is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic in the United States.  But that's another discussion.

For now, let's just talk about mead.

At my buddy's cabin putting a new batch of mead on.  The bucket on the counter is the last of the previous round, and is mostly good for inoculant at this point. (Although, believe me, I didn't let anything I considered drinkable go to waste.)  I've made six generations of mead on the same lees, and at this point I think about it as something more like a sourdough, something alive, that I feed and maintain.  It's always been fermented with wild local yeast and bacteria that blew in the window while I was making it, and, like sourdough, the suite of microbes selects itself to optimize the fermentation of its substrate, in this case honey water, generation after generation.  This mead is still not for the unadventurous, but the flavor and fermentation qualities have gotten better every generation, and now I'm ready to tighten up the product a little.

So I just warm up enough water to dissolve all the honey (1 qt honey/gal of finished wort), and make it easier to pour into the carboy.  I'm not pasteurizing here.  I want the microbes in the next round of raw honey to try to add something that might fit in with the resident fermentation ecology.  I think when you wild ferment you stop thinking of yeast as an ingredient, to be controlled, and start thinking about it more as an ally, or group of allies - something you want to take care of and propagate, like a sourdough starter, something to be coaxed into participation instead of ordered about.

Adding their own brand of coaxing, my children are calling in the brewing man to activate the fresh wort, get it "boiling."  (Then we explain in simple microbiology terms how the yeasts do their work...but the brewing man always has to be called!)  They really enjoy the mead-making process and like to check on it when fermentation is just getting going, watch the bubbles get faster and faster.  (When they start to slow down they lose interest and stop checking on it...)

Quietly working its magic in the cool (this time of year) wood stove corner.  The old batch behind is tilted in advance to settle the lees, and give me just a little more of that sweet nectar before I have to go into a waiting period for the new batch to get ready.  Now that I have a tasty and reliable starter, I plan to brew a 5 gal carboy like this every month.  Should be enough to satisfy us and (for now) the growing number of our compadres who enjoy a glass as well. Making mead has significantly cut the amount of alcohol we buy, as well as slashing the overall volume of alcohol imbibed.  Win-win.

Mead is the oldest fermented human beverage - made for at least 10,000 years, and possibly 30,000.  But 10,000 years is long enough to contribute a very similar word for mead in all Indo-European descended languages. From Scotland to India and Russia to Greece and Portugal, mead, or something sounding a lot like "mead," is our traditional drink.  Like most cultural treasures, the industrial version of us has neglected and marginalized mead, tossing one more really wonderful thing into a growing hole in our homogenized hearts.

Tonight, on May Day, I assure you I will lift a glass of wild mead in honor of the summer and a new growing season!  And then I'll load up a wheelbarrow with compost and go plant tomatoes...

Happy May Day.
Tripp out.


  1. Dang it- so many things to try and learn. I'm curious whether the natural/unmediated fermentation results in congeners that cause hangovers or other unintended physiological side effects?

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  3. Steve, as with anything if you overdo it you will get a hangover. You just have to drink a lot more and be a lot more dedicated about your drinking only the alcoholic beverage and no water nor any other food. Two of my friends are now married to each other; we were on a group campout and she decided to mix home brewed beer (made with mugwort, not hops), home made lavender rose mead, and Captain Morgan. She threw up on her (now) husband's shoes as he was holding her hair back.

    We have not tried wild fermentation yet though I do for sourdough and sauerkraut. I guess maybe we should. I always want to keep the yeasty goodness in the bottom of the carboy but DH thinks it's silly. We've been brewing for nearly 20 years and have only ever had one batch go off, our vapor lock failed.

    Stephen Buhner's book is AMAZING. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to try the beverages of our ancestors!