One of my friends from NYU, Cato Sandford, took an interest in homebrewing at about the same time I did. We both came back from winter break with freshly brewed beer in tow. Our paths in brewing have since diverged a little. Cato takes particular interest in wild and spontaneous fermentation, using discarded fruit he has recovered from grocery stores. He recently let me sample a delicious mead he fermented using only the yeast indigenous to the honey. I asked him to write a guest spot for the blog, and here’s what he came back with:
After an apparently disastrous flirtation with wild-yeast fermentation (of a banana wine), I wanted to experiment with something a little bit safer. Mead, or honey wine, presented a very attractive option: I read somewhere that yeasts suitable for alcohol fermentation already lie dormant in unpasteurised honey.
There would be no more fiddling about with wild yeast, hoping that the good guys would happen to reach the wort and begin to thrive before any nasties could establish themselves. Instead, I’d just have to add water and let the naturally-occurring yeast do their thing.
But there’s more: no more faffing about with coppers and fermenters and all that rubbish: everything happens in one vessel (I used glass mason jars). This is without question the most elegant of all possible brews.
First thing to do was track down some raw, unpasteurised honey. This was surprisingly easy — I acquired some from two different apiaries to test which one did better. Below is the (somewhat haphazard) procedure I came up with. After three weeks, the brew turned out to be utterly delicious: nuanced, slightly fizzy and — surprisingly, joyously — alcoholic: Dylan will attest to this. Of course, it should really sit for a few months to let the flavours develop. With a monumental exertion of will, I have kept about a litre behind which I’ll taste in a few months.
Since then, I’ve bought twelve pounds of raw honey, committing me to making a shitload of mead. The first batch of that (flavoured with apple) is now three weeks old, and will be tasted this weekend! Next, I’m going to try brewing it with ginger; or maybe I’ll find some blossoms to steep. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Orange Mead with Native Yeast
The following should give a flavour of what I did. In essence, I added water to honey (in jars) in the ratio 4:1, sealed the jars and shook them vigorously and obsessively three times a day for two weeks (relieving the pressure from built-up carbon dioxide every so often). After five days, there was noticeable bubbling, and a wide smile on my face.
Something you should bear in mind throughout the process: never put hot stuff on the honey, because you will kill the yeast.
Some more specifics about the recipe. I prepared all the water by boiling it with the peel of two oranges and a lemon: this removes some of the dissolved chlorine and flavours the water nicely. I stuck some honey into jars, squeezed some lemon and threw a small handful of raisins in for the yeast, added the flavoured water (once cool) and stirred until the honey dissolved. And you’re done — just shaking and pressure relief for a couple of weeks now.
I tried to more or less replicate Cato’s method myself about a month ago, but I didn’t get fermentation for two weeks, after which mold showed up on the surface of the must. This time I’m leaving a bit less up to chance. I agree with Cato that limiting the entire process to a single commonplace vessel is an elegant solution, and one that could be easily replicated by people who may be deterred from brewing because of the upfront equipment cost. My method follows Cato’s except that I use brewer’s yeast.
So I boiled my water, put it into a mason jar, added orange zest and juice, and let it cool. Once cooled to about 90 degrees F, I added a little bit of lemon juice and dissolved the honey. Be aware that if you are using packaged juice rather than juice from fresh fruit, you should check the ingredients list for sulfites. Sulfites are preservatives that deter microbe growth, and I have a hunch that my packaged lemon juice (which contains sodium metabisulfite) is what prevented the yeast in the honey from fermenting. However, if you’re pitching yeast, this isn’t such a big deal; it’s equivalent to using Campden tablets.
Today I discovered that my hydrometer isn’t quite calibrated, and measures 60 degree F water at 1.002. Correcting for this, my OG for a half pound of honey in about a quart of water was around 1.082. Since I’m shooting for something relatively mild that will be ready in weeks rather than months, I decided to double the batch volume. I cooled the jars to about 65 degrees F and pitched some US-05 reclaimed from the IPA fermentation (which was in turn reclaimed from the gold ale clone). I was planning to give each jar about an hour on the stir plate to introduce some oxygen and keep the yeast in suspension, but I can’t seem to find my stir bar, so I’m just periodically shaking up the jars. Cato and I will compare results in about a month.