BY JAMES ASKEW
Before the French chemist Louis Pasteur, there were the gods, and the mysterious means of turning honey into wine was seen as a gift from the heavens. Long-ago English speakers, both enamored of and bemused by the act of fermentation, dubbed the process simply “god is good.”
We have come a long way from the work of Pasteur and his unlocking of the mysteries of yeast, and yet the making of mead (commonly called honey wine) remains the same as it has been for millennia — a complex act of nature, held in reverence around the world.
In Vermont, mead makers, from amateur home brewers to small-scale commercial producers, are experimenting with the age-old elixir, adding a touch of Green Mountain flavor.
It’s part of a recent renaissance for the brew, says Todd Hardie, owner of Honey Gardens in Ferrisburgh, which produces raw honey, mead and other natural honey products. In a climate ill suited to grapes for wine and barley for beer, mead — like Vermont cider — holds a particular appeal.
Some 1,200 beekeepers large and small tend 9,000 hives and produce 700,000 pounds of honey a year in this state, according to the Vermont Beekeepers Association.
“I think people are hungry for the old traditions,” says Genevieve Drutchas, a mead maker in Putnamville, just north of Montpelier. With the honey produced locally and the process of fermentation unchanging, Drutchas thinks Vermont-made mead appeals to the “buy local,” back-to-the-land ideals that permeate the state.
“I think it satisfies that part of our selves,” she says.
Drutchas’ husband, Rick, is a longtime commercial beekeeper and the owner of Bee Haven Farm in Putnamville. For the past 18 years, he has collected, bottled and sold all his own honey, gathering it from hives spread across the Champlain Islands and distributing it to markets throughout the region. Lately, the recently married couple have been brewing up a new idea: their own brand of honey wine.
“Over the last couple of years,” says Rick, “we’ve worked out some pretty nice recipes.”
With just a few five-gallon jugs fermenting in their kitchen, the couple are still experimenting, perfecting their recipes and trying them out on their friends.
“It is a fun thing to do,” says Genevieve, “and it is fun to sample it and share it with our friends and try to make it better.” Within a year or so, the couple hope to have their new venture buzzing right along.
Like many people around the world, Genevieve Drutchas’ connection to honey wine is born from folklore and legend. Considered the oldest alcoholic beverage known to humans, mead appears in classic works from Plato to Dostoevsky. Genevieve smiles warmly as she remembers her own childhood images of red-capped, industrious gnomes brewing their elderflower mead. The images, she says, came from an old book her father gave her and have stayed with her through the years.
Over at Honey Gardens Meadery in Shelburne, herbalist and mead maker Andrew Wolf traces his modern meads back to ancient herbal medicines. “Methyglyn,” he notes, the Welsh word for mead, is derived from the combination of the Latin root of “medicine” (“medicus”) and the Celtic word for liquor (“llyn”), translated as medicinal liquor. Today, the term methyglyn refers to mead with spices.
“Right now,” says Wolf, “I am working on a heart-healthy combo, something that can be grown in Vermont.” Nettles, hawthorn berries and roses are just a few of the ingredients he’s considered.
Honey Gardens, which buys all its raw honey from beekeepers in New York and Vermont, presently produces several types of mead: traditional; blends with black currant, blueberry and elderberry; sparkling (dubbed Melissa); and sweet (called Melody).
Mead’s flavor can vary widely, from very dry like some white wines to quite sweet, like a dessert wine. It can be slightly malty, reminiscent of beer. It all depends on the yeast used, the amount of honey and the length of time it’s left to ferment.
In addition to his professional work, Wolf is an avid home brewer, cooking up concoctions from a chocolate oatmeal stout to a hard apple cider made from windfall fruit he collected along Main Street in Cambridge, near his home.
“Brewers are environmental engineers,” he notes, “making conditions just so, to produce just such an effect.”
Whether one is brewing mead, wine or beer, there is one other, very important player in this grand dance of fermentation, perhaps the most important player of all: yeast. Part of the plant kingdom, yeast is a microscopic fungus that uses enzymes to metabolize sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Enter, again, Louis Pasteur.
In the mid-1800s, Pasteur isolated yeast and determined that it alone was responsible for the illustrious elixir known as alcohol. Vermont Homebrew Supply in Essex has some 50 strains of yeast on offer, capable of producing everything from champagne to chardonnay, lager to pale ale and, of course, mead.
Before Pasteur, yeast was an unknown entity in the fermentation process, floating freely in the air we breathe. Many regional producers of wines and beers around the world still use this “ambient” or “wild” yeast to produce a flavor particular to that area. But, says Wolf, most brewers won’t take that risk. Even if local yeast is used, it is cultured, to give the brewer more control over the finished product.
“We have Shelburne yeast, here,” says Wolf, “but is it good? Maybe or maybe not.”
Along with converting sugar to alcohol, explains Dave Blumenthal, a home brewer in Montpelier, different strains of yeast metabolize sugar at different rates, creating a dry or sweet brew, while leaving behind varying levels of byproducts, such as ester, which also affect the taste.
Blumenthal laughs as he explains that he is a “certified beer judge,” tested and certified by no other than the Beer Judge Certification Program. To him, all the science of brewing comes down to one essential question: How does it taste?
Tucked neatly into the corner of Blumenthal’s kitchen, four plastic jugs, holding five gallons each, represent the entirety of his homebrew operation. The only other telltale sign of Blumenthal’s passion for his potions is the mildly incongruous sight of beer taps protruding from his kitchen counter.
Presently, Blumenthal is brewing up hard cider, rye ale, India pale ale and a merlot wine made from a kit containing juice concentrate and yeast. In the past, he has tried his hand at mead.
Wolf says making mead at home is reasonably uncomplicated. He first dilutes the honey with water (four pounds of honey to five gallons of water for one recent batch), then heats the mix to 160 degrees to kill the wild yeast. Then he lets it cool to about 100 degrees, pitches in the cultured yeast and transfers it to a bucket to ferment, leaving it for up to a year.
Brewing, Wolf says, can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. “All you really need to brew is a bucket,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I’ll do some fancy things, too, like shake the bucket.”
The rest is up to nature.