By Rebecca Gorski and Billy Gilgenbach | September is the month of eating local, but don’t forget about your drinks! With the harvest season in full bloom, it just makes sense to try to use and preserve everything available for the long winter months ahead. Can you imagine sipping a nice refreshing glass of homemade wine while you’re sitting by the fire and remembering the sunny warm days you harvested the ingredients? Enter Mead.
If you’ve ever tried mead yourself, or know anyone who has, you’ll understand that making it and drinking it would be a real treat. Not to mention that mead comes with an interesting history, dating back into ancient times, covering parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It’s one of the first known fermented beverages.
If you are a locavore — or just enjoy good local food and drink when you can — you may have heard of mead, or honey wine. The process of making mead is relatively simple and low-energy, and enjoying the beverage provides you with another great way to use and preserve what the season has to offer. Another incentive to brewing your own is that commercially produced mead is at best, difficult to find, and if you do find something labeled “mead,” often times it is just a white wine that has been sweetened with honey, not the real deal.
For those of you who have never heard of mead, it is an alcoholic beverage made from honey and water, which is fermented using yeast. The possible flavors you can come up with when making mead are endless. The flavor can vary depending on the source of honey; you can alter its taste by adding fruits and spices; and the yeast you use for fermentation and the aging procedure all play a key role in what type of mead you produce.
As honey harvest is upon us, so is the end of berry season. Two things that go well together: honey and berries. Source yourself some local honey and talk a walk in the woods to gather berries (if you miss berry season, go with straight honey). Then, forage for your supplies. This can be made much easier if you head over to a home brew shop, like Cap-n-Corks in Eau Claire. They have all the supplies you’ll need and they are a family-run business who can provide you with all the friendly wisdom you’ll need for making your own beverages. For a pretty low investment, you can get a wine-making kit that contains everything you need to start making mead: buckets, glass carboys (the 5-gallon glass container that holds the wine during fermentation), corks, the tool you need to place the corks, even a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content of the wine (sugar content controls the alcohol volume).
The process for making mead is rather simple and is best explained by the modo: “keep it local; keep it simple.
As mentioned earlier, the first step is to find a source of raw local honey. Raw meaning it has not been heated over 103?, which ensures all the enzymes are still healthy; local, to keep the bees and farmers busy, and it just makes for good mead. It’s best to get honey that is unfiltered. Local honey can be found easily at the local farmers market or on Craigslist. To make a batch of mead, you will need about five gallons of honey.
Next, find out what fruit is in season and either go harvest some, or purchase what is accessible in your area at the time. However, if you want to keep it real simple, skip the fruit altogether, as plain honey mead is just as good. If using fruit, some say it’s best not to wash it, as fruits have naturally good yeasts on them, which along with the raw honey, help to ensure that your fermentation gets off to a good start.
Then find a clean vessel, usually glass or ceramic (plastic food-grade works as well), and make the honey water solution of 4 cups of water to 1 cup of honey (4:1). Dissolve the honey in the water. Try to avoid city tap water, as it most likely contains chlorine, which may affect your fermentation. The amount of the honey water depends on how much fruit you choose to use. At the least, use one quart of fruit to one gallon of honey water. The fruit can be increased depending on how much you want it to shine through. Before adding the fruit to the honey water, make sure to wash your hands well. Then squish and squeeze the fruit right in the vessel. This will really get the fermentation going quickly, usually in 3-5 days.
After the fruit has been added, cover the vessel with a towel or cheese cloth, and secure with a rubber band. Stir with a clean utensil at least twice a day.
Once it becomes bubbly and fragrant, transfer to a clean jug and attach an airlock (which is attached using a cork). If the jug is not full, add honey water mix until roughly 80% full. Leave room for the yeast to dance around, or they will move the party out of the jug.
Leave for a couple of weeks until the bubbling has stopped. You can either enjoy now or transfer to another jug to help clarify and age the mead. You can do this a few times over the next several months to clarify and age the mead. If you so choose, bottle and enjoy over time. However, a great mead can take up to two years.