How to use natural ingredients and historical techniques to ferment mead and just about everything else
For this newsletter, I will focus less on mead and more on other historical beverages, both fermented and not. Many of the techniques explored in my book can be used to make a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic historical beverages. Recently I presented on some of these techniques at the Berea, Kentucky Farmers Market and promised attendees who signed up for my newsletter some recipes. Since the recipes are simple, and share techniques and ingredients, I'll touch on the basics here and offer additional avenues for experimentation. I've blogged on some of these at Earthineer.com (as RedHeadedYeti), and plan on writing future blogs on the rest. You're going to get a sneak peek of a few of them. Aren't you lucky?
Switchel, AKA shrub, AKA haymaker's punch
Prior to the commercialization of soda and the insidious absorption of high fructose corn syrup into Western culture and beyond, the non-alcoholic drink of choice for hot summer days wasn’t Coca Cola or Pepsi but rather something much healthier. Some call it switchel. Some call it shrub. It is also known as haymaker’s punch, as it was traditionally made by the gallons to keep workers hydrated and happy while busy harvesting hay and doing other farm tasks in the hot summer sun.
From the several recipes I’ve read for each, I’ve found that they are essentially variations of the same theme. At its heart, it is simply equal amounts of vinegar (usually cider) and a sweetener such as honey, sugar-water, molasses, or sorghum. Like any good homemade beverage, this blueprint can be adjusted infinitely to match your taste preferences and available ingredients. Generally, ginger or other roots (such as sarsaparilla or sassafras) and fruit were infused in the mix for extra flavoring, with berries and ginger being the most common.
I’ve made several using only ginger, berries, honey, and cider vinegar. Although other flavors are certainly enjoyable, these flavor combos make for some of the best switchels. To make a one-gallon batch, start with the following ingredients:
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sliced fresh ginger root
1 gallon of good, clean water
2-4 cups fresh or frozen berries
Mix the honey and vinegar in a large pitcher or wide-mouthed jar. Add enough water to make about a gallon, warming some of it to help work out any remaining honey from your measuring cup. Add berries and ginger and cover with a towel to keep fruit flies out. Leave the mixture out at room temperature overnight. Within 24 hours the stronger flavors of the ginger and vinegar will have mellowed, balancing with the honey and berries. At this point, you can simply drink it at room temperature (the traditional method), chill it in the refrigerator, or add ice. If you want it to taste more like a soda, you can either mix in some sparkling water or (my preferred method), pour it into flip-top bottles or a jug with a lid, add ½ teaspoon of sugar per half gallon, seal, and let sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours. When you open a bottle (or jug) and hear a fizzing sound, you have carbonation! If you take a sip and want it to be more carbonated, leave it sit out for a while longer and refrigerate when you like it. Take care not to leave it out at room temperature for too long or you risk exploding bottles.
Now that you’ve got a feel for the basic recipe, the sky is the limit. Sometimes I’ll make mine with only strawberries, or use strawberries and bananas. I also like to add molasses either along with, or instead of, the honey. The beauty of this is that you can have a pretty good idea of the final flavor by taste testing as you mix ingredients. This is not a fermented beverage and requires no aging, although giving time to allow the fruit to fully infuse into the liquid will draw out more of the fruity flavors. Some recipes say to add half a cup of oatmeal for body. I’ve tried this but can’t say this it did much for me. I’ll add oatmeal when I’m brewing beer to add body, but I don’t feel this drink needs it.
This needn’t be only a summer drink. You can warm it up as a hot toddy in the winter. Just add a bit of bourbon or even mulled wine and some extra spices (such as cinnamon and cloves) and it’ll warm you up quick! You can also concentrate it into a syrup to which you can simply add water when you’re ready to drink. The process is a bit more involved. I’ve never seen the need to do it since I pretty much always have these ingredients on hand. You can visit this site for details on how to do this.
While some of the historical beverage recreations I cook up don’t appeal to everyone, this is one that pretty much always pleases both kids and adults. After a hard day’s work in the field (or garden), reward yourself with an ice-cold glass of sweet, tangy switchel!
Water kefir and fruit soda
Kefir is a fermented beverage made from SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) “grains.” I’ll be discussing water kefir here. Milk kefir is related only in name and due to its similar looking SCOBY. Both have a granular appearance, resembling cheese curds or small brains, but the types of bacteria and yeast residing on each are different. Each can be used to make highly nutritious, probiotic drinks full of beneficial bacteria. Although either can be used as starters for other ferments, milk kefir grains will only reproduce in milk and water kefir grains will only reproduce in sugar water. For information on making milk kefir, you can go here for a simple tutorial.
I like to use my kefir grains to make healthy sodas. Although by itself water kefir can be drank as a tangy beverage akin to kombucha, I use mine to ferment fruit juice and whole fruit for a delicious fruit soda. If you know people who enjoy fermenting and eating healthy, you may very well be able to find some grains from someone in your community. Otherwise, there are a few trustworthy websites that offer grains for a minimal price (such as www.kefirlady.com and www.gemcultures.com). Many people are willing to pass their grains along for little more than the cost of postage. Personally, I received a very small amount of grains from a friend. They have now multiplied to the point that I have enough to pass around to people I know via a “pay it forward” ethos. Mine were given to me and I don’t see why I shouldn’t pass the favor along. While grains can be mailed, I am notorious for avoiding the post office, or even taking the time to put a stamp on an envelope and put it in my mailbox. If you’re in my community (Berea, KY), let me know and I’ll meet up and share some with you. If you want to skip the kefir grains and make a healthy fruit soda using ingredients that are more readily available, try making a simple lacto-fermented fruit soda using a ginger bug starter.
Now that you have acquired some grains, it’s time to start feeding them. All you need to do is prepare a sugar-water mixture, to which you will add the grains. Any de-chlorinated water and any type of sugar will do. I generally use either boiled and cooled tap water or spring water and an unprocessed sugar such as cane sugar. Other than avoiding chlorinated water (chlorine can inhibit yeast growth), you needn’t limit yourself. Keep in mind that fermentation is a natural detoxifying process, which is why fermented foods and beverages were standard fare in the days before refrigeration. Most water was fermented and flavored in some capacity to prevent illness from drinking contaminated water.
The best gauge for determining the proper ratio is taste. Take a quart jar, add about two cups of water and mix in a tablespoon or two of sugar. It helps to warm the water just a bit to help the sugar dissolve. If you have just acquired grains, this is enough to feed a tablespoon or two. If you have more grains, try upping the ratio and using a gallon or half-gallon jar. Although not absolutely necessary, a slice or two of ginger and a bit of fresh fruit will give the kefir additional feeding materials. Oxygen isn’t required to ferment kefir, but I will sometimes place cheesecloth over mine as I would any other open-fermented beverage. Most times, I simply place a loose lid on the jar and let it sit in a cool, dark corner for a couple days. It’s best to not tighten the lid too much, as the pressure from fermentation and carbonation could cause the jar to burst if left too long unattended. The warmer the space, the quicker the fermentation. Hence, you will need to feed it small amounts of sugar water every 2-3 days in warmer areas and 3-4 days in cooler areas. Over time, the grains will die if not fed, dissolving into the liquid.
Making beverages from kefir is simple. I would be doing you a disservice if I tried to narrow it down to specific ingredients and ratios. You can customize your beverages to fit your palate, so experiment away! I usually take about a cup of kefir, strain it into a half-gallon jug, add more fresh water, a bit of juice, and some fresh or frozen fruit (berries, peaches and mango are my favorites). Then, I close the lid tightly on the jug, let it sit for 12 hours or so and carefully “burp” it to see how carbonated it has become. I’ve taken to doing this outside, as results can range from a slight bit of fizzing, to a geyser of fruit soda. If it tastes too “fermenty” or carbonated, adjust the amount of water and juice you add or simply allow more air to enter by loosening the lid or removing it and covering the opening with cheesecloth or a towel to keep out fruit flies. It’s best to drink this soon after you make it, but still holds up well after a couple of weeks. Keep in mind that, given enough time, it may develop trace amounts of alcohol. My four-year-old daughter enjoys drinking it young and freshly made, while a young relative of hers who shall not be named handed the glass back to me and politely told me “this is disgusting.” Kids, like adults have varying taste buds, and have been accustomed to heavily processed foods. Just because you don't like it on the first try doesn't mean you won't grow to love it.
But wait, there's more!
Since I promised the attendees of my last workshop several recipes rather than wasting paper by printing them out, I'll provide some links and attachments to some additional recipes below. Some readers may already have these, so feel free to pass them over. If you have problems downloading the file for my Primitive Mead Makingbooklet, simply send me a message (email@example.com) and I'll forward it on to you.
- Sima: Finnish Sparkling Lemon 'Mead'
- Sweet Potato Fly
- Yard Beer and Weed Mead
- Wild Fermented Mead
- Pour Me One of Those Pin Board
- Alternative Brewing and Fermentation Pin Board
- Primitive Mead Making
- Fire Cider
Finally, if you're interested in a fairly simple method for making bragot (a mead/beer hybrid), check out the current issue of New Pioneer magazine for my article. Otherwise, wait for my book to come out, as I discuss a couple of bragot and honey beer recipes in it.
Well, there you have it. If you find yourself devoting large areas of your house (or even your entire house) to bubbling ferments and crazy concoctions, I take full credit.