The Magic of Mead

My early brewing experiences kind of run together in my mind, but I have a clear recollection of first hearing the obvious lie that if you stir honey into water in a 1:4 mixture (or 2:4, or more:4), and then keep stirring here and there for a few days, it’ll spontaneously ferment on any old kitchen counter.

It was such an outlandish idea that I couldn’t help but try it, and sure enough, a few days later my little bucket of honey water had a layer of white bubbles on the surface.

Mead was my gateway brew. That batch, or one soon after, was poured into an emptied plastic gallon jug with a condom serving as an air lock. Soon I had a storage bin full of gallon jugs, some with fruit, spices, or berries mixed in, condoms at varying levels of inflation.

I learned a lot about wild yeasts in these early brewing experiments. Most of these batches never ended up with much in the way of alcohol, and some had distinctive off flavors, like a blueberry mead with the mildest hint of something like vinegar. I actually enjoyed the taste a lot and would sample it intermittently over about two years.

From here it was on to Champagne yeasts, those ultra-high-alcohol-tolerant beasties isolated in the Champagne region of France, turning my meads into undrinkable vats of rubbing alcohol more fit for cleaning engine parts than sipping for pleasure. I got over my fascination with high ABV, and got into crafting amazing drinks.

In 2009, my mom overbought pears and sent me home from a visit with 15 pounds of them. I chopped them up and simmered them in a stock pot for 24 hours, strained it, and added several pounds of honey and some cinnamon to make a one-gallon batch. I took bottles of my Spiced Pear Mead to my parents’ house for the holidays for two years, though for some reason we never opened it while I was there and I’d only get reviews months later. “This beer you brought is really good,” my Dad would say on the phone.

“The what?” I’d ask.

“You know, this spiced pear beer you brought.” Oh, Dad.

In 2011, I became a beekeeper. Mead is the smallest reason, but it was one of the reasons to add two hives of honeybees to my back yard. This year, in 2012, I was able to harvest enough honey to make two one-gallon batches of mead early in the summer. A blueberry mead went into bottles last week and should be ready for tasting in the spring. On my shelf, a peach mead has just finished a long primary fermentation (June 30 to around September 5) and went into secondary to take it off a lot of obvious pulp. It’s clearing beautifully and will go into bottles soon.

I think the reason mead captures my imagination so fully is that it’s such an obvious proof of alcohol’s persistent role in the world. Early humans probably first learned to craft an intoxicant when honey they were trying to store got wet. Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, has described early pottery making as the first technological revolution, and suggests that it was primarily driven by the need to have reliable fermentation vessels for the production of alcohol.

I can believe it. I still find myself peering into carboys and demijohns just after yeast is pitched, watching the strange geometries of yeast colonization, the halos that form on the surface and later, the obvious chaos inside the vessel as the yeast populations explode into primary fermentation. It’s mesmerizing and magical. For me, it all started with a bucket of honey water and a spoon.

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