Wild Honey ExperiMead

Before starting this article, I’d like to give a shout out to Krankies Coffee. I’m sitting here on their patio enjoying some beautiful North Carolina weather while sipping a delicious pour and munching on an apple butter biscuit. If you’re ever in Winston-Salem, you should give them a shot.

Wild Honey and Wild Yeasts

Brewing is a fantastic mixture of both artistic expression and various sciences. This mixture is what keeps me creating and pushing the bounds of my abilities. But once you’ve made beer out of probiotic capsules, what do you do next?

The answer was to play with wild yeasts, from where you ask?  Unpasteurized honey. I’d been doing some lurking in the group Milk the Funk and discovered an intriguing article talking about how yeast can cross-breed in the stomachs of wasps.

Wasps grape yeast wild honey
Credit: Stefano Turillazzi

My first thought was how long has it been since I’ve been stung by a wasp and is this worth it? I’ll let you know once everything thaws, but I’m never one to be patient so to keep my pipeline of odd things brewing, I decided to give honey a shot. My logic being that honey is essentially bee vomit, and if it can cross-breed in such a terrifying creature as a wasp, maybe it can also cross-pollinate inside of our friends, the bees.

Make Mead Like A Viking

I’ve long been a fan of the nectar of the Gods that is mead. My interest in wild fermenting it was not a new development as I’d done some digging after finishing the book Make Mead Like A Viking. If you’ve not read it, I cannot recommend it enough. For anyone interested in history, mead making, or just wild fermentation it is a great one to pick up. It was the combination of this book and the wasp article that finally made me stop talking the ears off of my friends about culturing yeast from insects and finally do something with it.

Make Mead Like a Viking Wild Honey

I began my adventure by purchasing a pound of local unpasteurized honey; it was still warm when my experiment started. There was something enjoyable about the honey feeling like it was alive, begging for the environment it needed to flourish.

I first grabbed my alcohol lamp, a face mask, and some gloves to try to avoid getting any of my natural flora and fauna into the honey. When 90% of what you consume is fermented, I’ll wager I’ve quite the ecosystem going on. With the lamp lit, I dawned my armor and began my adventure. Simply adding the honey to a sanitized Carboy and topping it up with water until the gravity came to 1.040.

In case you’re curious about why I wanted such a low starting gravity, the answer comes from the book Make Mead Like a Viking:

Imagine putting a horde of hungry Vikings into a Mead Hall that’s filled with boundless mutton and mead, they would gorge themselves and fall asleep.

I applied the same logic to the yeast. You want to give them enough food to multiply and become awake but not enough to tire themselves out.

Once I had the water and honey nicely mixed I added a bit of yeast nutrient and left my micro-Vikings in a warm place to allow them to come to life over the course of a week. Be patient, if you don’t see any fermentation agitate the vessel to try to kick any little yeasties that may be on the bottom back up into suspension.

Once I saw a little yeast cake at the bottom of the vessel, I pulled a small sample and tasted it. I was surprised when it tasted of lemon, fresh flowers, and a light tinge of a farmhouse ale strain. Eagerly I cooled the jug to force my new found warriors to slumber before their next battle.

Credit to Martinonline at da.wikipedia
Credit to Martinonline at da.wikipedia

I once again fetched my armaments against the wild yeasts that I didn’t yet wish to enlist: a face mask, an alcohol lamp, some gloves, and of course, Star San. Any brewers best defense against the dark arts.

I took some honey that I’d pasteurized and once again made a solution of 1.040 starter then placed my little slurry of wild Viking yeast into it and put the mixture on a stir plate. I waited and watched for another week. Marveling at all the weird developments that took place. I’d awoken some creatures in there, now all I had to do was give them one last challenge.

Beer + Mead = Braggot

I’m a huge fan of the style of mead: Braggot, a nice malty and honey forward brew. I also work at a homebrew shop and occasionally we end up with weird things that need to get used. In this case, it was a 3-year-old jug of Golden Light Malt extract. I’m not certain how familiar all of you are with the aging of extracts, but they get darker as time goes on and take on the character one expects from aged malt sugars. My logic was there will more than likely be some bugs in this horde of microbes I’ve gathered. So why not just feed them the old and weak first?

I prepared a batch of mead using 4 pounds of this ancient malt syrup and 5 pounds of honey. Typically I’d make up a wort for this sort of thing but given my complete lack of confidence in its results I went for the easiest and least time-consuming option. I also added once again more yeast nutrient and pure oxygen for about a minute and thirty seconds. My attempts were to give my warriors a fighting chance.

Throughout the fermentation process, the mead gave off crazy fermentation esters, things like Gushers candy and fruit punch. I was concerned but stayed resolute as the mead sat at 75°F. I assumed that was a “Viking“ enough temperature. After another two weeks of sitting on the yeast, I racked it and harvested the cake for later experimentation.

Saison Mead?

In tasting this wild mead, I was rather impressed. It manifested a lot of saison characters, some fruity bubblegum esters along with pleasant floral and spice notes. There was also a soft tartness that I’ve gotten from farmhouse ale yeasts in the past.

I intend to let the mead sit for a while to both clear and develop further. It’s finishing gravity was 1.028, far more attenuation than I expected. So I eagerly await an opportunity to put this yeast in a Farmhouse ale. I intend to order a Mead Horn to quaff this wild beverage. I feel like my micro warriors deserve that respect.

Future Experimeads

I enjoyed this experiment so much that I have lined up some random kinds of honey I found from different shops. The current is a Turkish whole comb variety whose fate is yet undecided as it is still resting on a stir plate. There’s a second batch of wild mead going with yeast from a spontaneously fermenting bucket in the back of Osborn Brewing. I forgot it there after doing a pitching rate lecture for our local homebrew club. The character was a cherry pie with no tartness to go with it along with a few esters I’d only smelled from French Saison yeast. So we will how that develops.

If you have an article topic I’ve not yet covered and would like to hear, please leave it in the comments. If you have any questions about a subject I have covered, please feel free to email me at johnaton.a.campbell@gmail.com and as always keep the beer flowing and your minds growing.

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