Mead has been a passion of mine ever since my husband and I started our homestead in the beautiful rolling hills of New York’s Finger Lakes region. Another of my passions is medieval history, and while these two might seem worlds apart, learning how mead was brewed historically can offer insights into natural brewing techniques. One of the tricks I learned from medieval beekeeping manuals is how to wash honeycomb to harvest every last drop of honey. While modern combs built on frames can typically be cleaned with an extractor, sometimes the honey has solidified because of cold temperatures or long storage. In such cases, many modern beekeepers will choose to melt down and salvage the wax, but this causes them to lose the honey. By washing the comb, you won’t waste any honey — and that frugality tickles my homesteading fancy.
Harvesting Honey Water
Historically, bees were kept in hives that lacked an internal frame system. This meant that the combs were free-hanging, and the waxy comb structure would have to be processed to harvest the honey. Modern extractors are especially useful because, by uncapping the comb cells and extracting the honey through centrifugal force, the empty, comb-filled frame can be given back to the bees to refill. Bees consume up to 8 pounds of honey to produce a single pound of wax, so giving back the empty comb is an excellent way to increase the honey yield for bees and beekeepers alike. But when an extractor can’t be used, either because you want to collect only sections of a frame, or because the honey has crystallized and won’t budge, then the ancient method of washing comb can be used to make a honey solution that’s perfect for fermenting into mead.
Last year, my bees didn’t use all of their winter stash of honey, and the cold caused most of the liquid to crystallize. In early spring, I packed up the two supers — boxes that hold frames of comb — of my ex-hive in heavy plastic. It was late spring before I unwrapped these supers and noticed bubbles on the surface of the liquid honey in open cells, indicating it was already starting to ferment on its own. These crystallized frames gave me the perfect excuse to make some mead!
When you uncap a comb (I cut off the lids of the cells with a large knife), it becomes clear where the honey is crystallized and where it’s still liquid. The liquid honey can be dripped out of the uncapped comb. In medieval times this gravity-harvested honey from removed but uncrushed comb was regarded as the best quality, and called “life” or “virgin” honey.
As the beekeeper uncaps each frame, the cappings are collected in a capping tub. The tub has a floor grate to hold the cappings while any extra honey stuck to them slowly drips off and collects at the bottom of the tub. When I washed my pile of cappings before melting them into clean wax, I was rewarded with nearly 4 gallons of fermentable honey water, called a “must” in brewing terms. Cappings are the highest quality wax in a hive, so while they’re an easy way to get honey water for washed comb mead, you might have to promise to return the wax to the beekeeper right away!
After extracting the liquid honey, only the cells with crystallized honey remain to be cleaned before the wax can be processed. Here’s how to extract the crystallized honey by washing the comb.
Put the comb you plan to wash into a clean bucket — if you don’t intend to boil the honey water, sterilize the bucket and any tools you may use to break up the comb. Add warm water (about 140 degrees Fahrenheit), aiming for about one-third comb and two-thirds warm water by volume. Break up clumps of wax to make sure the warm water gets into all the nooks and crannies.
As my primary interest is recreating historical recipes, I like working with scraped comb, which is the closest modern equivalent to free-formed whole comb. I’ve found that washed honey takes on a subtle flavor from the comb — a wonderful, delicate spiciness. This comes from contact with the warm wax, propolis, and pollen, and makes for unique and wholesome mead. This added flavor is probably why first-grade honey was historically so well-regarded. It would taste only of the honey itself, as it hadn’t had any contact with heated wax during processing. It’s similar to maple syrup; grade A is the most valuable not because it has the most flavor — quite the opposite! It’s most valuable because it has the least flavor, and won’t make everything it’s used in taste like maple syrup (or wax and pollen, in the case of first-grade honey).
When all sugars are dissolved and the empty wax rises to the top, I scoop out the wax and squeeze out the honey liquid, being careful not to burn my fingers. Some medieval texts claim the liquid from squeezing makes for crude honey must (probably because more contact with the wax imparts more of the wax and pollen flavors to the must), some find it appropriately frugal, and others use this liquid separately, as a lesser-grade must. The flavor imparted to honey by comb was apparently well-known in history, and not always appreciated. I enjoy the comb flavor, so I squeeze my wax to maximize my must yield. To get the last bits of wax out of the honey water, you can pour it through a strainer lined with sterilized cheesecloth into another clean or sterile bucket.
The First Ferment
Before you can ferment your must, you need to know the sugar concentration of the liquid; brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) prefers a sugar concentration of 15 percent or less. I test my must by floating a fresh, washed chicken egg in the liquid. If the egg floats sideways, the sugar concentration is too high for brewer’s yeast, although you could allow the must to ferment with the help of the naturally occurring, osmophilic honey yeasts. If you opt to make mead from raw honey with a low-heat method, your mead will also have maximum immune-system-boosting properties! If you prefer to boil your honey water for sanitary reasons, do so for about 10 minutes. You’ll lose some of the health benefits of the raw honey, but will still end up with a more wholesome product than you could buy in a store. Boiling will also kill any endemic honey yeast strains, so if you heat your must over 150 degrees, you’ll then need to lower the sugar concentration below 15 percent and inoculate your must with standard brewer’s yeast after it’s cooled.
In my case, the honey water fresh from washing the comb was too strong for traditional fermentation, but I still wanted to use brewer’s yeast for my mead. I added more water, and checked the sugar concentration again.
I added only a little extra water to get the must to the perfect sugar concentration: The egg floated upright, showing only a bit of shell above the surface. Honey water at this sugar density will make a semi-dry to sweet mead if you ferment it with standard brewer’s yeast. Montrachet or D47 yeast would work well for this mead; both are used for full-bodied wines and are readily available at most brewing supply stores. Commercial baker’s yeast will also work for a basic mead. Gently sprinkle one teaspoon of yeast per gallon over the surface of the honey water (still in its sterile bucket), and then close the lid. Don’t use an airtight vessel, because the yeast produces carbon dioxide as it works, and the resulting pressure can blow off a sealed lid. Stir once a day or so to give the yeast some extra oxygen during the first ferment. If you don’t have a fermenting vessel with an airlock to relieve pressure, you can create your own by covering the neck of a crock with cheesecloth and resting the unlatched lid on the opening, or place your fermenting mead in a glass 1-gallon jug with a balloon over the neck. Always make sure everything that touches the mead is sterile: Run your tools and containers through an extra-hot dishwasher cycle; wash them with iodine or grain alcohol; or boil them for 10 minutes.
Finishing Your Mead
After about two weeks, gently decant the mead into a freshly cleaned glass container, leaving behind the accumulated sludge at the bottom. The sludge is called “lees” and is made of honey sediment and dead yeast. This decanting is called “racking,” and if you use a rubber tube to siphon off the liquid without disturbing the lees, you can get most of the fermented liquid out with very little lees. Rack the mead a second time if sediment builds up at the bottom; otherwise, let it sit undisturbed for at least six months for the secondary fermentation. At this stage, you want to keep extra oxygen from entering the mead, so keep an eye on your airlock. You’ll know when fermentation has completely finished because a traditional airlock will stop bubbling; if you’re using the balloon method, the balloon will stop inflating. Then, you’ll bottle your mead — in corked, capped, or screwtop bottles — and let it age another six months to a year. You can drink your mead immediately, but like most fermented drinks, it will improve with age. Wassail!
To cap off my mead-making project, we put the cleaned-off frames outside for wild bees to plunder. It took them a few days to empty every drop of honey and crumble of wax from the frames, and then it all went back into storage. Hopefully next year I’ll find another swarm, and make even more of this delicious fermented bounty!
Susan Verberg lives on a 5-acre homestead in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where she gardens, keeps goats and bees, and makes soap for her shop, Far Mountain Soap. Find her online at www.MedievalMeadAndBeer.Wordpress.com