Last fall the kitchen I was working in was buzzing about the subject of fermentation. Not the normal kitchen fermentation conversations which is usually about what someone will be enjoying post service but the actual process and of how to create a fermented beverage. These conversations were mainly about making kombucha and kefir water, both of which almost all of us in the kitchen consumed on a regular basis. While I am one of those who does enjoy kombucha it was not the type of fermentation I was interested in. For some reason mead came to mind and it was all I could think of.
My first introduction to mead was when I was asked to write a forward for a series of books that were to be republished by my friend Jimi Hatt who is the founder of Guerrilla Cuisine in Charleston, South Carolina. The first book I worked on was titled “Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine” and contained a brief mention and recipe for two types of mead. Ever since then making mead has been in the back of my mind. And as luck would have it I happened to have a pint of raw, unpasteurized honey.
Since the old cookery book had a rather archaic recipe I decided to reference a better source on how to ferment my honey. The best, and easiest recipe I found was in the book, “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz. In this book Katz explains that raw honey contains loads of natural yeast that are unable to ferment the honey as is because of the lower water content of honey itself. Raw honey usually contains 17% water keeping the naturally occurring yeast at bay. With a simple 2% increase the yeast will activate and start the fermentation process.
So by simply adding water in almost any quantity the yeast are free to do what they do best, produce alcohol. It is important to note that the honey you wish to ferment has to be raw and unpasteurized for the fermentation to happen with out the addition of an outside yeast source. This doesn’t mean that you can not make mead from store bought honey. Should you want to try out mead production yourself and have no source for raw honey you can always purchase a mead yeast from your local brewing store or online.
Following the guidelines set up by Katz I dissolved the honey in room temperature water. I did not take the time or steps to dechlorinate my water, though he did advise to do so. I started with an 8:1 water to honey ratio. After dissolving the honey completely I whisked it vigorously to aerate the liquid as much as possible and then covered it tightly with cheese cloth.
Each day I whisked (stirred) the solution twice a day, again to introduce oxygen to to it which is key to stimulate strong yeast growth. Much to my surprise after only a day and a half the honey was already rapidly fermenting, indicated by the amount of foam produced when I whisked it. By the end of the two week long first fermentation period the foam was almost an inch and a half tall, it blew my mind. At this point the mead was still very sweet with the distinct taste of the honey I made it with. It also had a nice effervescence to it. According to Katz, at this point the glucose in the honey has fully fermented. You can choose to consume the mead as is, or like me continue on to completely ferment the fructose as well. At this point to complete the fermentation I racked the mead into a gallon size cider jar with a small mouth and sealed it with a CO2 air lock. This simple contraption allows the CO2 produced by the fermentation to escape while not allowing any outside air back it. This is a crucial step if you want to continue fermentation. If outside air is allowed back into the container there is a very high chance that our friend acetobacter will enter the picture and create a beautiful vinegar out of your mead. For this reason you want to limit any outside air contact.
I started this project on the 1st of October last year. After the first two weeks I racked the mead into the cider jar. From there, every two months, I would rack the mead into another cider jug and reapply the air lock. This quickly oxygenates the liquid giving the yeast more air to breathe and ensuring the continuation of the fermentation. It also gives you a chance to taste the mead as it progresses. You can of course bottle it or drink it at any time you feel it is perfect. Should you choose to bottle the mead before fermentation is complete you do need to keep in mind that the fermentation process is not yet complete thus CO2 is still being produced. This will create pressure in the bottle and unless the proper lid is used (one that can be secured such as a champagne cork with the metal guard) the pressure will eventually pop the cork or lid off and you could have a real mess on your hands. I decided at the beginning that I was going to see the fermentation all the way through to the end. Once there were no more bubbles present when the mead was agitated, just over six months, I bottled it. I of course tasted it at this point to see what I had just made 2 gallons of. What I discovered was that the mead had lost almost all of it’s sweetness. With a very subtle honey flavor the mead was very dry with a sharp finish. Fearing the worst I quickly tried a taste of some white wine vinegar I had in the pantry to compare the two. Fortunately the two were distinctly different with the vinegar having less of a dry finish with that acidic bite we all love vinegar for. The mead was dry, very dry, but had none of the acidic qualities the vinegar had. I was also trying it at room temperature so that may have had something to do with it. I bottled the mead in 375 ml bottles assuming that I would probably not want to drink an entire 750 ml in one sitting. My plan is to allow the mead to age and mellow for another 6 months in the bottle and then to start trying it.
My mind is also already planning my next batch. Figs, thyme, possibly even fresh bay leaves will be involved in the next production. Who knows maybe even some fresh coriander seed and Meyer lemon zest will make an appearance. It all depends on what the garden is producing at the time. As fall approaches again it will be time to enjoy the fermented nectar of the honey bee.
– matt bolus