I’m pretty lazy when it comes to wild food recipes. Maximum deliciousness for minimum effort is the forager’s way. So here are some ideas on making small batch mead that require next to no equipment or effort and no added yeast – just what is floating around naturally. Its a general technique that allows for all manner of personal flourishes and tweaks of your own using whatever happens to be in season. Being small batch, you needn’t invest lots of time, equipment or honey-money.
If you thought mead was just for people who wear capes and/or think they are Vikings, then think again. Before I made my own I thought all mead was sickly sweet. Most commercially made ones are. But it can be as sweet or dry or bitter as you like. Never one to pass by eager guinea pigs, I served one of my first meads to a group of high-end Edinburgh barmen and they loved its balance of sweet, bitter and sharp herbal aromatics. This was through no great skill on my part. Every batch i’ve made has been adorable in some way but this is thanks to the bees and plants, and the magic of fermentation, not me. Look on it as making a cocktail, slowly, and with several thousand small helpers. It is one of my favourite way’s of imbibing the landscape.
Basic mead couldn’t be simpler. All you need is:
- A jar of unpasturised honey. Essentially this means non mass-produced honey from a trusted local supplier. A 454g jar of honey represents 22,700 bee trips (at 0.02g pollen per trip), which to my mind represents astonishing value. You could also befriend your local beekeeper…or start a hive of your own..?
- Unchlorinated water. I prefer to gather mine from the stream that runs near my house, but bottled still mineral water will do. You could use tap water if you boil and cool or leave it to stand in a large tub for a day or two until the chlorine evaporates. Maybe try to avoid hard water.
That’s it. Now just mix the two in a kilner, or other non-reactive container, in proportions of 1 part honey to between 3 and 8 parts water. The higher the proportion of honey, the more alcoholic your mead will be. I recommend starting with about 1 honey to 4 or 5 water for a pleasant wine-strength of 10-15% ABV. (I’m guessing there – i’ve never measured it – but it tastes thereabouts). It helps if your honey is warm before mixing – just a little above room temperature – but not hot.
There is a lovely rhythm and routine to mead making. Mix the honey and water vigorously on at least a daily basis, preferably more often. Use a cyclonic stirring motion that draws air down into the liquid. You should notice it forming a frothy head. Keep it at an ambient household temperature without sealing the lid. This allows natural wild yeasts to colonise the solution, and prevents the build up of pressure. If you scale up, demi-johns and airlocks become useful, but I prefer to stick to tiny batches, each one an experiment.
My friend Andrew “Meadmaster” McFarlane, who keeps bees and makes (and drinks) a lot of mead, recommends stirring with a piece of heather root. (Check out his blog here). This will soon become your “magic fermenting wand”. As it takes on the natural flora of the ferment it can be used to pass helpful yeasts from batch to batch. I store my wands in the ferments between stirs. It will become, in every way, your magic wand, so Harry Potter fans may wish to make one braided with phoenix feathers or unicorn pubes. A fat heather root feels mythical enough for me.
Within a week you should notice the mix fermenting away. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t seem to be doing anything – just redouble your stirring efforts and ensure it is kept at a warmish temperature. I’ve never had one fail.
The mead is ready when you say it is – which will depend on your tastes and patience. As the sugar turns to alcohol the mead will taste less sweet and more boozy. Mine (usually about 1:5 proportions) reach a reasonable balance of booziness and dryness after about 3 to 4 weeks, at which point I put them in sealed flip-top bottles and refrigerate to slow further fermentation and prevent explosions. Do remember though, that unless you have fully fermented it to a standstill, the mead will continue to ferment and evolve, so keep checking and relieving the pressure, and open bottles with care so you don’t lose half of your precious elixir.
While the mead is still “live” the mouth-feel should be effervescent and full of life. You’ll like it. Once fully fermented, it won’t have the same vigour, but i’m told meads generally improve with age. Good luck with that, I prefer to drink mine when they are full of pizazz and have never managed to hang onto mine for more than a couple of weeks. Too tasty. Take care in opening them though
All of this will make you “basic mead”, and very fine it is too. But the real pleasure and foraging fun comes when you start infusing your mead with wild plants – at which point you can mysteriously refer to it as an “Herbal Elixir Mead”, grow a very long beard and start wearing capes.
There are two ways of going about this. Cold infusion and hot infusion.
- Cold infusion means just adding whatever herb you fancy to mead while it ferments.
- Hot infusion requires you to heat the water to boiling point before and infuse your chosen plants (ie. make tea), then let it cool, before mixing with the honey and fermenting as above.
Strain out the plant matter before bottling. Play around and see what works best for you. Your failures will be delicious, and your successes too good to share!
My best results have come from bitter plants with strong aromatic flavours like tansy*, hops (both of these taste like candy shops in mead), meadowsweet (that actually gets its name from its traditional use in mead-making), mugwort, meu (aka spignel) and young conifer needles.
These suit my palette, but you could play around with anything you like, including soft fruits, roots, seeds and fungi (chaga and coconut milkcap mead was interesting). I’m particularly fond of a cold infusion of spring shoots and blossoms, and a hot infusion of noble fir needles – which is perhaps one of the tastiest liquids i’ve ever tasted.
You can also turbo-charge your mead by using birch sap instead of water. With birch sap being at least 98% water, some may say that it makes no difference to the taste. Most who say this will have just read it in a book, others may be missing the point: all the joy, energy and goodness that is in birch sap is now in your mead, whether you can taste the difference or not. Personally, that makes me very happy.
Many of my favourite meads have resulted from what I call “alliterative brewing”. So mugwort, meu and meadowsweet came out great, as did heather with hops and spruce with sorrel. Do let me know of any alliterative meads you are fond of.
Pilchard and pomegranite?
*Tansy should not be consumed in large quantities. This is unlikely to happen, as its jolly bitter
- Wild Food and Drink Recipes
- Wild Spices of the UK
- Wild food guide
- Edible wild plants
- Learn to forage
- Foraging Events calendar
- How to ferment wild greens