Herbal Medicinal Meads

by Lisa Ganora, CSCH Director

Mead is an ancient drink made by fermenting honey with yeast. Technically, if you add fruits to the mix, you have melomel; if you add spices, it’s called metheglin. Generally, though, I just call it all mead. Chemical traces of fermented honey have been found in 9,000-year-old Chinese pottery vessels, and in Scandinavia it has been made for generations (hence the title of the popular new book, Make Mead like a Viking). Today mead is enjoying new popularity – especially when well-crafted and not syrupy-sweet.

Making mead with medicinal fruits and herbs is one way our ancestors learned to preserve these plants for use over the cold seasons. Meads are not as alcoholic as tinctures, less sweet than syrups, and less concentrated than elixirs – sort of a cross-over between the more familiar types of herbal medicine and a delightful beverage! An average medicinal mead has an alcohol content of around 10-12% – and you can adjust this by starting with different amounts of honey or using different types of yeast. Mead is somewhat akin to a very-low-alcohol % tincture – enough alcohol to extract water-soluble constituents and a portion of the alcohol-soluble ones as well; and to preserve them when properly bottled, corked and stored.

I began learning to make mead about 25 years ago when we lived in Appalachians, and it didn’t take long to bring together my herbalism skills with my new hobby. Instead of starting with simple honey, I began experimenting with herbal-infused honeys as the basis for fermentation. My first attempt was with ripe, luscious Elderberries – I learned to preserve their fruity aroma and medicinal constituents (including the purple anthocyanins) using honey as an actual extraction fluid; then I used the Elderberry honey as the basis for my first batch of herbal mead. I learned to make semi-sweet, dry, and bubbly variations too.

There’s a great book that explains the “cold process” of making mead, which I now use exclusively – I’ve found it preserves the character of the fruits and herbs much better than the older methods using heat. It’s The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm. This book will guide you through the multiple steps that require close attention and patience in order to make a delicious mead. Right now at our farm in Paonia, Colorado (Elderberry’s), we have five gallons of Ginger-Peach mead in the later stages of brewing, based on a slight adaptation of one of Ken’s recipes – with an herbalist-strength dose of extra Ginger and both fresh and dried North Fork Valley organic Peaches! Already it has an absolutely divine aroma and I can’t wait to bottle it this May and sample it as it ages!

Rather than giving you a list of instructions on how to make your own Herbal Medicinal Mead (which would be too long and complex for our Newsletter – and really it’s an art best learned hands-on and in person), I’d like to let you know that we’re excited to offer our first-ever Herbal Medicinal Meads Workshop at Elderberry’s this May 11-13! We’ve been making several different types of meads since last Spring, so that we’ll have various stages available to learn from – initial honey extraction, setting up and starting fermentation, racking (a process that helps clear the mead), bottling, and of course guided tasting with organoleptics! We’ll have Spruce Tip, Elderberry, Ginger, Ginger-Peach, and our newest creation: Cacao-Cayenne-Cherry, to practice with. We’ll learn about equipment, types of yeasts, properties of honey, important aspects of sanitation, and all of the processes needed to craft exceptional medicinal meads that develop character and subtle healing powers as they age.

I love it that a well-made mead just continues to improve with age. I had always heard that meads keep getting better for something like ten years … so we managed to squirrel away and save three bottles of Elderberry that we started 20 years ago in North Carolina! For our first housewarming at the farm last year, we opened one of these 20-year-old bottles at night around the creek-side fire pit. And I’m not exaggerating when I say it was probably the most amazing, delightful, complex, and rich fluid I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. It far surpassed my expectations and carried everybody there into a subtle but magically altered state of community consciousness – just wow!

I hope you can join us for Herbal Medicinal Meads at Elderberry’s this May. The workshop will be limited to 20 participants. We have shady camping platforms and three tiny houses to rent, and a new outdoor bathhouse for our guests with lovely showers and high-tech composting toilets! You can sign up at the page linked above, or email Lisa.Ganora@ClinicalHerbalism.com for more information. I look forward to sharing my methods, tips and experiences with making herbalist-style medicinal meads with you!