I caught a buzz today. And it had a real sting to it. But it wasn’t the kind I usually blog about here (although I plan to catch that kind of buzz later tonight at a party in the neighborhood).
Mead may be the oldest fermented beverage on the planet, but for me it’s about to become the newest. This morning I installed a “nuc.” That’s short for nucleus, which in this context means a young beehive. Among the many things bees do that are useful to humans, one stands out for people interesting in fermentation. Bees make honey and honey makes mead.
I’m expecting beekeeping and mead-making to teach me patience. I’ve been warned not to expect to harvest any honey from the hive in it’s first year. Then once I do finally harvest some next year and make my first mead I’ll have to wait another year or so while it conditions. We’re talking about a couple years before I get to drink the fruits of my labor.
But truth be told I’m not really much of a mead drinker now so the prospect of waiting doesn’t seem that bad. My first tastes of mead came from some fellow homebrewers. Frankly I wasn’t so thrilled with it at the time. First of all, it wasn’t beer. And I was thoroughly enraptured by the craft brewing revolution that was just unfolding back then. The few homemade meads I tried were either too sweet, too alcoholic, or too phenolic tasting. And again, it simply wasn’t beer – the dominant preoccupation in my life at that point . . . well, okay, I guess it still is.
Years later, I moved to Ethiopia for a couple years and was exposed to a whole different kind of mead called t’ej, a style which is generally consumed very fresh, even while it is still fermenting. So it is incredibly sweet and much lower in alcohol than the dry, highly-fermented ones I had tried before. The sweetness required some getting used to, but I persevered and took to it fairly quickly. Ethiopians consider t’ej their national beverage, highly associated with culture and tradition. Its drunk from special phallic-shaped flasks and always served at what are called “cultural” or “habesha” restaurants. Traditional dancers and musicians provide excellent entertainment and drinking t’ej from the special bottles adds to the whole aura of the experience. Habesha restaurants are usually in round thatch dwellings where diners sit on short wooden stools covered with animals skins. The room is always thick with the smell of earth, grilled meat, and rich Ethiopian coffee. Man, those places were great. We went to one about once a week for over a year!
Earlier this spring I tasted some outrageously yummy meads from a pair of homebrewers who were in my beekeeping class. They were accomplished meadmakers and brought a variety of bottles for fellow classmates to sample, including some metheglin (herb or spice infused) and melomel (fruited mead). Wow, they changed my attitude right quick. Smooth, deeply complex, balanced. These are the meads I hope to brew myself in another year or two.
For now, I’m crossing my fingers that my hive doesn’t contract what’s being called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is a frightening phenomenon affecting hives all over the world. Bees are simply disappearing en masse. According to an article in News Target the domestic bee population has decline by 50% in the past fifty years. CCD has only been documented for the past couple years and is devastating the population at an even more alarming rate. Why is it alarming? Bees are responsible for pollinating about 30% of the U.S. food supply. Oh and plus, I think they’re really cool and I’m excited about my new hobby so I hope whatever the hell is causing CCD goes away but quick.
Assuming my hive doesn’t disappear or die from one or more of the many, many diseases and pests that cause chronic problems, I’ll be publishing occasional blog posts about bees and mead. I aim to keep my hive as free of toxic chemicals as possible so I’ll also talk about how to the challenges of that and the environmental benefits of beekeeping in general and organic beekeeping in particular.
The pictures above were all taken during the field day at the end of the course I took from the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association.