My first taste of the smooth fermented honey elixir, mead, was less than a year ago and I was instantly hooked. It left me wondering… Why hadn’t I heard of it before? and why aren’t more people making their own? It was good, really good and supposedly easy to brew. Since then, I’ve certainly been interested in making my own – stemming from my desire to play an active role in producing the foods I consume (for the purpose of this blog, let’s consider mead a food item). And that’s exactly what we’re doing up here on the mountain at Allegheny Mountain School! Returning to the land, growing our own food, kneading dough, making cheese and yogurt, and fermenting mead – among many other rewarding projects. It’s the kind of activity and life’s work that is making all of us fellows really happy, and I mean jumping for joy kind of happy, and we’re certain others could benefit from the same lifestyle change. That’s what phase two is all about – teaching the local community what we’ve learned up here … but for now, let’s get back to mead, that merry, merry mead.
Did y’all know that mead is considered by most historians and anthropologists to be the first fermented beverage consumed by humans? Honey collection predates human’s cultivation of the land! – rock drawings located in Valencia, Spain depict humans gathering honey all the way back to 15000 BCE. That is a really long time ago.
And here we are, in 2012, still making mead. Or at least some people are and luckily last Thursday the AMS fellows were blessed with the opportunity to meet and work with one of Highland County’s acclaimed mead-makers, Bernice Eubank. Arriving at her mead lab, known as Indian Pipe Meadorite (named after her favorite flower, the Indian Pipe), was an exciting event and we were all anxious to learn the process of fermenting honey. The excitement was only amplified by the fact that her home and mead lab is a wonderful space of creative expression – hand-painted floors, knickknacks from around the world, and imaginative mead bottles designed by Bernice herself.
Upon arriving, Bernice warned us that the kitchen was sanitized and we ought not to touch anything. We complied and sat attentively in her living room, listening to her talk about the magic of mead. We discussed the options for the meads we were making, what yeasts we would use, and if we wanted to add fruits or spices. The options for flavoring your mead are endless and Bernice certainly displayed that by allowing us to taste her ramp (wild leek) mead and black cherry mead. Both were fantastic and left us enthusiastic to get creative with our own mead experiments.
From the living room we moved to a room where we all washed our hands thoroughly, and then to the kitchen. She had two carboys (one 5-gallon and one 6-gallon) already filled with spring water so they were at room temperature when we arrived. We used iodine to sanitize the tops of the Nelson County’s Hungry Hill honey (http://www.hungryhillhoney.com/) that we brought and began to pour the honey into the carboys using a funnel. Watching the swirls of honey fall into the carboys captivated us all. Next, we pitched in the yeast that had been dissolved in warm water. Upon introducing the yeast to the honey came a moment of appreciation. A cloudy explosion appeared in the bottle and there began a intimate relationship between the honey and the yeast that would continue to grow and change for the months to come – turning sugars into alcohol and honey into mead. A process that has been enjoyed by humans for thousands of years, a process that we are all now a part of reviving. Many thanks go out to Bernice and her husband Roger for welcoming us into their home and sharing this beautiful craft with us. During the fermentation process the mead will be living at their home and we will be visiting periodically to check on it. In the meantime, we are all anticipating the end result, which we will get to try in the fall.