Joshua Steckley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the commodification of nature and how capital accumulation both shapes and is shaped by biophysical processes. He is also an avid urban beekeeping in Gatineau, Quebec, which explains his fondness for mead.
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Explain how alcoholic drinks were historically a means for consuming calories and nutrients.
- Name the basic biochemical reactions that occur during fermentation.
- Ferment honey into mead using simple ingredients and equipment available from their own kitchens.
How to turn honey into mead
Your kitchen is a laboratory. It is the setting for daily chemical reactions that we often take for granted. Sautéed onions, toasted bread, and seared barbecue meat, for example, produce their cacophony of flavours when sugars and proteins are broken down through what is known as the Maillard reaction. Frying an egg initiates the process of ‘denaturation,’ in which heat unspools the egg’s intricately folded proteins to produce those deliciously spongy tastes and textures. Kneading bread smashes glutenin and gliadin together to produce gluten, while the baker’s yeast consumes carbohydrate sugars, expelling carbon dioxide and causing the dough to rise.
But today, we are going to use your kitchen laboratory to set of a biochemical relation that will produce a special drink—so special that the Norse god Odin claimed it bestowed the gift of knowledge to all those who drank it. We are going to turn honey into . Mead is perhaps the oldest alcoholic drink known to humankind, and it was (and is) everywhere. Archeologists have found remnants of mead in Northern Chinese pottery dating to 7,000 BCE; in Europe and Egypt, they date mead consumption back to 2,500 BCE. While other fermented drinks like wine, sake, and beer require particular environments to produce the grapes, rice, or grains, mead can be made wherever honeybees have access to flowering plants, bringing the nectar back to their hive, and regurgitating it back and forth to one another until it is transformed into honey.
Mead is nothing else but fermented honey. It is also how we acquired the word honeymoon, since family and friends would make sure the newlywed couple had enough of this ‘honey wine’ to last a month. And yes, mead contains alcohol. While we might connect mead with drunken medieval feasts, much like a keg of beer at a house party, we often forget that fermented drinks have historically provided all sorts of nutrients and enzymes, as well as packing a hefty caloric punch. Alcoholic beverages were not simply a means to a drunken end, but rather a means of sustenance. Beer, for example, was considered essential to pre-industrial English households and thought to be a caloric necessity for anyone engaged in arduous agricultural labour. In addition to the calories, fermentation also synthesizes B vitamins, which are necessary for human health. When some puritanical colonial forces, for instance, forbade Indigenous populations from drinking traditional fermented drinks, they began to suffer nutrient deficiencies.
Mead’s long history—as well as its calories, nutrients, and alcohol—are available to you right now; you only need two simple ingredients and some patience. The first thing you will need, unsurprisingly, is honey. But not just any honey. You need “raw” or unpasteurized honey. is the process of applying heat to liquids to eliminate potentially harmful microorganisms. Unlike milk, however, for which pasteurization is meant to destroy potentially harmful pathogens, pasteurizing honey is largely a means to keep honey in its liquid form, prevent crystallization, and thereby increase shelf life in grocery store aisles. (As a side note, crystallized honey has not gone bad; it has only changed its form. If you want it soft and syrupy again, simply heat it up.) Raw or unpasteurized honey has many health benefits, as it possesses natural yeasts and antioxidants that have been shown to reduce stress, treat wounds, and reduce cold symptoms. For our mead, we want those natural yeasts; they are the microorganisms that will eat up the honey’s sugars and ferment our drink.
But if honey contains yeasts and other bacteria, you might be thinking, doesn’t it ever go bad? Honey’s moisture content is typically around 17%. At this low level, the yeasts lie dormant, unable to eat all the sugars that envelop them; it’s as if you were surrounded by chocolate cakes after you’ve just come back from a long run—you’d probably rather have a glass of water before you cut yourself a slice. The bees, however, need this low water content to preserve their honey stores. Inside the hive, they will actually use their wings to fan the honey, evaporating the moisture to just the right amount, at which point they will seal the honey with wax capping, and keep it stored as food throughout the long, flowerless winter. We humans have figured out bees can produce more honey than they need for the winter, and thus essentially steal their excess throughout the summer and fall. Once in human hands, we slice off the wax caps, spin out the honey, filter it, and bottle it. That’s the unpasteurized honey we want.
So, how are we going to set off this biochemical reaction? Ingredient two: water. Boost the moisture content above 17%, and the yeast will start to feast on the sugars around it. There is no specific measurement of water to add, but I’ve found a ratio of four parts water to one part honey makes delicious mead. Find a nice jar that will hold the quantity of mead you are making.
I am not a proponent of bottled water, but you may want some for this experiment. Municipal tap water will have traces of chlorine in it, which may prevent the fermentation process. Also, we will re-use the plastic bottles later when we bottle the mead.
Stir the water and honey together until well mixed. Take a coffee filter (or some kind of cloth) and an elastic band and cover up the jar. This will protect our concoction from the curious fruit flies that will be attracted to the fermenting scent.
What’s going on in our bottle? Very soon, the yeast will start to devour the sugar. And we all know that whatever goes in, must come out. Fortunately for us, yeast excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide. You may be thinking, wait, does that mean when we use yeast in a bread dough, we’re making carbon dioxide and alcohol? Yes! The same carbon dioxide that makes your drink fizz is the same carbon dioxide that makes your bread rise. And that musty smell of your rising bread? That’s the alcohol. Fortunately—or unfortunately—when you bake bread, you also evaporate the alcohol.
Our mead is not going to have a high alcohol content, only one or two percent. We are making what is called a “green mead” or a “.” This means we won’t have to wait months or years, but can enjoy it after ten to fourteen days. Honey contains two types of simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Once the water is added, the yeast will spend the next few days or so eating up the glucose which is evidenced by the carbon dioxide bubbles you’ll see drifting to the top. If you want to boost the alcohol content you will have to wait for the yeast to consume the fructose, but it will only do slowly under anaerobic conditions. This requires some more equipment like carboys and air locks. But the point of this video is not to teach you how to increase alcohol content! You can do that research on your own.
After a few days you should see some bubbles rising to the top and may notice a fermented scent. If you don’t see any bubbles or smell any smells, give the mead a good stir.
Stir the mead every day or two and listen for the beautiful fizzing chorus of yeast excrement. Don’t hesitate to take a sip to see how the flavours are changing.
After ten to fourteen days, depending on the temperature and your own personal taste, your mead is ready to drink. If the mead tastes like you basically mixed honey and water together, something probably prevented the fermentation. If by chance it tastes vinegary, it means the has transformed into where other bacteria and oxygen are now turning your alcohol into vinegar. Either way, you will have to start again. If, however it has a deep, rich, slightly tangy, effervescent taste, then you’re ready for the next step: bottling.
Grab those empty plastic water bottles and, using a funnel, pour the mead into the bottles, leaving about an inch of air space at the top. Ever so slightly, squeeze the bottle and fasten the lid tightly. Leave the bottles on the counter for another two or three days and let the yeast continue to produce carbon dioxide. Your bottles will re-expand and become firm. (You can use glass “swing top” bottles to bottle your mead, but the increasing carbon dioxide will pressurize the glass bottle, and if you’re not careful, it will explode. Stick to plastic bottles for now.)
After a few days, place the plastic bottles in the fridge. The fermentation will slow considerably, and you can enjoy the mead at your leisure. Or, if you are impatient, you can skip bottling all together. Pour the mead from the jar into a bunch of glasses for your closest family and friends and relish in the knowledge that you are imbibing a drink of the gods, thousands of years old, and it all came from your kitchen.
Watch the video:
Allsop, K.A. and Miller, J.B. 1996. “Honey revisited: a reappraisal of honey in pre-industrial diets.” British Journal of Nutrition 75 (4): 513–520
Blasa, M., Candiracci, M., Accorsi, A., Piacentini, M. P., Albertini, M. C., & Piatti, E. 2006. Raw Millefiori honey is packed full of antioxidants. Food Chemistry 97 (2), 217–222.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. 1998. Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation. Boulder, CO: Siris Books.
Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon Books.
Steinkraus, K. 2013. “Nutritionally significant indigenous foods involving an alcoholic fermentation.” In C. Gastanieu, ed. Fermented Food Beverages in Nutrition. Elsevier. 36–57
Vidrih, R., Hribar, J. 2016. “Mead: The Oldest Alcoholic Beverage.” In K. Kristbergsson and J. Oliveira (eds.) Traditional Foods. Integrating Food Science and Engineering Knowledge Into the Food Chain, vol 10. Boston, MA: Springer.
a fermented drink made from honey; also known as ‘honey wine’, although some forms of mead contain very little alcohol.
the process of applying high heat to food substances over a relatively short period of time, in order to eliminate potentially harmful microorganisms; named for Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist and chemist who lived and worked in the 19th century.
mead that has fermented for a brief period of time, usually under 30 days.
the process by which yeast converts sugars such as glucose and fructose into alcohol, acid, and carbon dioxide.
the process by which bacteria such as Acetobacter convert oxygen and alcohol into acetic acid or vinegar.