In a time of hipster food fetish where the most revered meal is the most primal and the most distilled, what’s the ultimate substance to fetishize? What’s left after the food culture exploration in current best-sellers like “Anything That Moves” (whether you’re a food fetisher yourself or a sneer-er from the sidelines, if you haven’t read this book, go get it now!)? What’s left after the green coffee bean (take a coffee course, coffee nerd!), the white cacao nib (be a sexy cacao cook with this course!), the mashy hand-crafted beers (take a beer course!), and bone marrow served so eaters can slurp it off the very bone it came from? What’s left after the constant rotation of new restaurants opening and then shuttering and then re-opening on the streets of Brooklyn and the Mission?
Hint: it’s currently thought to be the oldest fermented beverage, pre-dating the cultivating of soil. Bam. That’s what’s left. But not for long.
You can think of mead as a wine made with honey instead of grapes – it can be just as varied and nuanced. Perfect fodder for hipster foodies and palate junkies.
The Wine Comparison
While wine’s character is determined by its fruit and origin, honey mead’s flavors can be attributed to the honey that’s used. Therefore, mead’s terroir is captured in a way winemakers can only dream of: from the flowers whose pollen bees collect in a particular area at a particular time.
Mead, like wine, is of course, alcoholic. The alcohol percentage can in fact range from 8% all the way to 20% and even stronger. It is made by fermenting honey with water and adding fruits, spices, grains or hops. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey. Mead – like wine – may be still, carbonated or naturally sparkling; it can be dry, semi-sweet or sweet.
Evidence of mead-making and mead-drinking can be found throughout ancient Europe, Africa and Asia. “It can be regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks,” according to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, author of “A History of Food”.
Ancient and indigenous cultures in Mexico and Central America also made and enjoyed mead and the Yucatec Maya still imbibe. Their mead was made from bark from the leguminous tree which they soaked in honey and water and fermented. The interesting part? Apparently they used it in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect! I don’t think that fraternity boys have even gone that far . . .
As other fermented drinks were invented, mead took a backseat but in the current culture of foodie-ism, it’s making a comeback.
Another benefit of making mead over wine or beer is that you need much simpler equipment. Below are mead recipes, curated to give you a sense of the variety and history of the beverage.
Generally you will need the following for each batch (except for the “Most Ancient Mead Recipe”, of course. They didn’t have balloons!):
- A clean plastic 2-litre bottle suitable for food use – an empty 4-pint milk bottle works great.
- 2 x 340g bottle/jars of honey
- Desired fruit
- Desired spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice
- A balloon
- Warm water
- Yeast – Young’s all-purpose dried active yeast for wine and beer-making is easily purchased in many stores
To become an expert, you can take this short course on at-home food safety: Home Made: How to Start a Home-Based Food Business
But here are some general directions from A-Mazing Meads; you can use it as a blueprint for all of the recipes here:
Before You Make the Mead
The first thing to do is to make sure everything is clean; any dirt or organisms on the equipment or in the fermentation bottle will thrive in your mead and contaminate it. This is one of the most important things to remember when brewing; the only thing you want to grow in your mead is the yeast! So you have to keep everything clean – and keep unwanted contaminants out whilst it’s brewing. Normally this is done using an airlock, but for brewing such a small batch of mead we’re going to use a balloon.
- First, pour a couple of pints of warm water into your fermentation container, then add your honey. Put the lid on tightly, then give it a good shake to dissolve the honey into the water; this is the first stage in making the “must” which is what we’re going to ferment to turn into mead.
- Now, take your fruit and cut it into small segments; add them to the must, along with your spices – a cinnamon stick or small pinch of powdered cinnamon, a small pinch each of allspice and nutmeg. You could add one or two whole cloves, but no more as a little goes a long way.
- Honey isn’t very nutritious where yeast is concerned, so you also need to add the dessert-spoon of raisins – this gives the yeast a little extra to feed on. Wash them thoroughly before adding them to the must. Top up to the 2-litre mark with warm water, then add half a teaspoon of dried active yeast. You should get good results with pretty much any wine or beer yeast – even baking yeast will do if that’s all you have. This is a pretty unfussy recipe that’s pretty much foolproof.
- Cap the bottle then give it a thorough shake to aerate the must and give the yeast plenty of oxygen to work with. Now take the balloon and carefully prick 2-3 holes in the top. Uncap the bottle and stretch the neck of the balloon over the mouth of the bottle; this is going to be your airlock. The holes in the rubber allow carbon dioxide generated by the yeast to escape without letting in airborne contaminants.
- Set it in a warm place and within an hour or two the balloon should inflate and a foam develop on the top of the must as the yeast gets to work and gives off carbon dioxide. If the balloon seems to be inflating too much, carefully add a couple more holes with a pin, being careful not to burst it. The foam will steadily subside over the next couple of days; set in a dark warm place and leave it to ferment quietly by itself. Check the balloon every so often; sometimes the rubber can perish and will need replacing. Over the next couple of weeks the mead will start to clear naturally; at the end of 3 weeks you should be able to siphon off a dark golden clear mead that’s ready for drinking straight away – or you can rack it into a clean bottle or demijohn and let it carry on maturing for another couple of months.
This recipe will make a total of 2 litres of mead, drinkable in 3 weeks.
Honey Mead Recipes
Most Ancient Mead Recipe
Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius (one pint) of this water with a pound of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.
Short Mead (shorter time needed until drinking)
- 5 litres distilled water in plastic bottle
- 1.3 kg wild honey
- 2.5 tablespoons of yeast ( try Allinson Dried Active Baking Yeast)
- 1 teaspoon of nutmeg
- Place the honey in a sink filled with hot water for at least 15 minutes. This should help it soften. Alternatively, put it in the microwave for 30 intervals, stirring between. Be very careful when heating honey! It could result in a bad burn.
- Pour the water in the bottle into a pot for later. Pour the heated honey into the empty bottle a little at a time. We eventually resorted to a spoon and our fingers.
- Pour half the water back into the bottle. Now it’s time to aerate! Cap the bottle and shake it really hard for at least five minutes. The honey should dissolve and the mixture should be cloudy. Just for fun, do a giggly dance in the kitchen to make sure the bottle gets shaken up enough! This makes the pre-mead, known as ‘must.’
- Once the honey is dissolved pour more water back into the bottle, leaving a fair amount of headroom. Drink the rest or use it for cooking. Shake it up a little bit again, and add the nutmeg.
- Now it’s time to add the yeast. Put the dry yeast directly into the must. Cap it again and shake it up well. Now it’s time to set up the fermentation detector. Poke a small hole in the balloon so that it will not explode. Put it over the mouth of the bottle. Once fermentation begins the balloon will stand at attention!
- Put your mead into a dark, warmish place that is unlikely to be disturbed. Check on it every couple of days to make sure it hasn’t exploded, turned purple, or grown a yeast civilisation with advanced scientific research.
- In 7-10 days, the fermentation process will slow down. The balloon will sag and maybe even lay down. This is okay. Just let the yeasties do their business until it’s been at least three weeks.
- At this point, you can drink the mead! It will be cloudy and relatively low in alcohol percentage (ABV). Alternatively, you can ‘rack’ the mead into another bottle for secondary fermentation (which will make stronger) for unto a few months. You can put the mead into bottles and store it, and it will strengthen and get clearer with time.
Fit for Midas – Midus Mead Recipe from Lithuania (careful, with its high alcohol content, you may actually think you can turn things to gold)
- 1 handful juniper berries
- 2 nutmegs
- 1 handful hops
- 7 quarts honey
- 14 quarts water
- 1 oz yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- Break and crush berries and nutmeg. Tie with hops in cloth bag.
- Place in honey and water, boll about 1/2 hour, skimming off foam.
- Cool to lukewarm (about 100 degrees F.) Pour into a 5 gallon bottle.
- Do not overfill, allow about 4 inches space from surface to top of bottle.
- Cream yeast with sugar and 1/2 cup of honey-water liquid, set in warm spot for 10 – 15 minutes until it begins to bubble.
- Slowly pour into liquid in bottle.
- Stopper bottle with cork into which a glass tube (thistle tube or medicine dropper with bulb removed) has been set (to allow fermentation gases to escape).
- Allow to ferment at temperatures of 60 degrees no less than 6 months.
- At end of that period, filter off with rubber pipette or siphon, pour into bottles, cork.
- Ready to drink a month after bottling; however, aging improves mead.
- It is at its best 2 – 3 years after making.
Hot Mulled Holiday Mead
Serves 4 to 6.
- 750 ml mead (the short mead recipe above will work just fine)
- 1 medium orange, cut in half horizontally
- 8 cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks, plus more for garnish, if desired
- Pour mead into a large saucepan.
- Cut an orange half into thin slices and add to the saucepan.
- Squeeze the remaining orange into the mead.
- Add the cloves and cinnamon.
- Set over low heat and bring to a simmer.
- Turn the heat off, strain out the spices and serve with cinnamon sticks, if desired.
More Mead Resources
Not ready to commit to making your own before becoming a connoisseur first? Here is a compilation of interesting meaderies on both coasts and in-between:
- RABBIT’S FOOT MEADERY 1246 Birchwood Dr, Sunnyvale, CA 94089; (408) 747-0770;
- CHAUCER’S CELLARS 3535 North Main Street, Soquel, Calif.; (831) 475-2258;chaucerswine.com. Meads: Chaucer’s Mead, Raspberry Mead.
- EARLE ESTATES MEADERY 2770 State Route 14, near Penn Yan, N.Y.; (315) 536-6755; meadery.com. Meads: Semidry Honey Mead, Raspberry Reflections.
- MAINE MEAD WORKS 51 Washington Avenue, Portland, Me.; (207) 773-6323;mainemeadworks.com. Meads: Honeymaker Dry Hopped Mead, Honeymaker Reserve Dry Mead.
- MEDOVINA MEADERY 308 Third Avenue, Niwot, Colo.; (303) 845-3090;medovina.com. Meads: Stinging Rose (with infused rose petals) and Harvest Cyser (on a base of apple cider).
- REDSTONE MEADERY 4700 Pearl Parkway, Unit 2A, Boulder, Colo.; (720) 406-1215;redstonemeadery.com. Meads: Nectar of the Hops, Honey Wine With Juniper Berries.
Or if you are super-inspired, figure out how to make a Mead Food Truck. There’s not one in San Francisco – yet!