Winter cooking (and to a more limited extent winter gardening) is enjoyable in its own right but realistically I spend more time thinking about the summer during the wintertime than the other way around. Therefore, this post is devoted to one of my favourite food experiments of last summer: Ethiopian Honey Wine (a.k.a. T’ej, or Mead).
Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation was the inspiration for a lot of what I prepared (“cooked” is the wrong word because almost all fermented food is raw) last July and August. I’ll probably deal with each of the fermentation experiments and likely the book itself in separate posts but when scrolling through photos from last summer I came across this one and remembered just how good the mead was to drink as well as to look at.
I”m not totally certain of the distinctions between various fermented honey drinks but even though the recipe from Wild Fermentations was titled “T’Ej” I called my concoction “mead” for the purposes of simplicity. Well, also because when you’re pouring a homemade alcoholic beverage from a Mason jar and asking friends and family to drink it you get more takers when you can call it by a name they might recognise.
The process is dead simple. Mix unpasteurised honey with four times as much water in a clean plastic, glass or ceramic container. Stir at least twice a day for two to three days. Then, stirring less frequently (maybe once a day at most) leave the mixture to start fermenting (bubbles will appear when this starts) for about a week. Transfer to a clean glass container and cap with some sort of airlock. I used washed Grolsch bottles and balloons or Mason jars with plastic bags and elastics–the more professional will want to use a carboy with a purpose-built airlock. Once the mead has spent two weeks in a cool-ish, dark-ish place for this second stage of fermentation it should be moved to the fridge and is ready to drink. The results were amazingly successful.
Tips that I offer:
- If you want to know exactly how strong your brew is make sure to use a hydrometer to measure its potential alcohol content just after the first stirring. Then subtract from this the measured potential alcohol content of the final product to determine the actual alcohol content. Roughly, the alcohol is the sugar present to begin with less the sugar that is not consumed by wild yeasts (that excrete carbon dioxide and alcohol). I didn’t realise that I should have been measuring at the beginning and therefore had to make a rough estimate by mixing a much smaller fresh batch when the main one was ready to drink (around 8 – 9 % alcohol).
- Pour the honey into the water; not vice versa. Honey sticks to the bottom and sides of the container so you’ll be more likely to get it all dissolved without too much effort this way.
- Either flavour the mead or consider a more time-consuming aging process. My straight mead was a bit sharp and a little cloying (possibly because of residual sugar leftover when I timidly stopped the fermentation a little early) but the lemon-ginger flavour was great. I added a handful of lemon slices and some powdered ginger to the mead as it went into the fridge and left it like that for a few days. The ginger flavour didn’t come through at all so I’ll omit that next time and Katz recommends using lemon-flavoured herbs (lemon balm, lemon thyme, etc.) so I might go that route this summer.
This homemade mead is definitely not as convenient as the liquor store but it is easy and it is inexpensive. As wtih all fermentated foods (and drinks) this is a “wild” process so be careful: If something doesn’t smell right don’t taste it; if it doesn’t taste right stop drinking it; and always proceed slowly until you know how it will affect you.
Adapted from Sandor Katz’s T’ej (Ethiopian Honey Wine) recipe
- 1 L honey (unpasteurised strongly preferred, organic is also better)
- 4 L water, filtered or left to stand at room temperature so chlorine evaporates
- ceramic crock, glass jug/carboy, or food-grade plastic container that is at least 5 L in capacity, very clean
- 2nd glass carboy or other glass containers that total 5 L, also very clean
- airlock(s) or substitutes like balloons or small plastic bags and rubber bands
- Mix honey and water in large container. Stir well to incorporate air. Cover with cloth (pillowcases work well) to keep out dust and insects and set aside for two days. Stir at least twice a day.
- After a week of standing and occasional stirring fermentation will have started and bubbles will start to appear on surface of mixture. Transfer mead to second carboy or to other glass containers and seal with airlock. Store in a cool dark place for 1 – 3 weeks.
- Once fermentation and carbon dioxide production have slowed mead is ready to be strained, moved to the fridge and consumed.