By Susan Verberg
My fascination with honey fermentation, as well as my frugal inclinations, led me down some unexpected paths: learning to keep bees for easy access to raw honey seems pretty straightforward, but that quickly devolved into boiling-wax-comb experiments, dead bees and all, to make plausible medieval must, and culminated in winning a bronze medal in the National Homebrew Competition. Who would have expected that! And why did I go down this rabbit hole? The combination of my avid interest in medieval brewing techniques with keeping the occasional hive and growing many types of fermentable fruit on our small homestead culminated in my rediscovering traditional brewing techniques not part of our modern brewing tool kit. Sure, boiling dead bees sounds like an excellent reason not to emulate the past, but careful examination of medieval and renaissance texts suggested that was not what they were doing, actually, contrary to popular fiction!
What they did do is not only interesting from a historical point of view, it also tickles my frugal fancy. In our modern times, honey frames can be easily emptied using specialized equipment, which uses centrifugal force and results in very pure honey. In addition, the contemporary extractor is extra helpful by only uncapping the comb cells. The empty comb frame can then be given back to the bees to refill. Bees need to use precious resources to make wax – bees consume up to eight pounds of honey to make one pound of wax – and giving back empty comb wax helps them make even more honey for us to ferment!
But what if something unforeseen happens, and the modern method of extraction cannot be easily used? Many beekeepers write off partially spoilt or crystallized frames and give them back to the bees to rob out and recycle. Even if a beekeeper has no spoilage or crystallization, the process of extraction generates leftovers. To get the honey out of the comb, the outer edge of the frame is carefully cut off to open all the storage cells. These lids, called cappings, are dripping with honey but generally only used for their superior wax. But what if this honey could be still be used?
It seems obvious now, but it had never occurred to me to wash the comb with warm water to dilute the sugary goodness of leftover honey. And that is precisely what medieval beekeeping manuals teach. Back then, bees were kept in hives without an internal frame system, which means the combs were free-hanging. When harvesting the honey, the waxy comb structure would have to be processed as well. If an extractor cannot be used–either because you want only to collect sections of a frame or the honey crystallized and won’t budge–then the old and trusted method of washing comb can make a honey solution perfect for fermentation.
How to wash honeycomb for mead fermentation
In the past, I have used the washed comb method for a variety of reasons, but I find it most handy with honey that has crystallized within the comb. Unfortunately, I do not have good luck in keeping my hives over winter for several reasons. After a long winter in a hive, the honey storage a surviving hive would have needed in early spring is now up for grabs, albeit in primarily solid form. As I do not have another hive to give the remnants to, I make leftover mead instead. And I must say, it is not at all a leftover choice: I find washed comb mead is much richer and fuller in fragrance and flavor than straightforward honey mead.
Whether you start with commercially bought honeycomb, with a couple of honey frames from a backyard hive, or a bucket of honey-dripping cappings (likely with the wax on temporary loan from the apiary), the process is pretty simple. Start by cleaning your equipment – this includes your hands and lower arms. Then gently break up the sugary comb into a food-safe bucket. When all broken up, liquid honey could also be harvested by letting it drip out of the comb on its own due to gravity (similar to the grated cappings bin). In medieval times this honey–from hand-crumbled but not mechanically crushed comb–was regarded as the best quality and called ‘life’ or ‘virgin’ honey.
To make a fermentable must, cover the sugary comb with warm water straight from the tab, taking care to use water that is neither too cold nor too hot. Emulating the medieval brewers, I aim for water warm enough to dissolve but not so hot it hurts my hands (no more than 140F). Because, as I found, if it hurts our skin, it will also melt the wax of the comb. I generally find about 1/3rd comb and 2/3rds warm water in volume, enough to submerge the solids, to make a good start.
When all sugars dissolved and the empty wax rises to the top, scoop out the wax by hand and squeeze the honey liquor out. Some medieval texts feel this liquor makes for crude honey must, probably as more contact with the wax imparts more wax/pollen flavor. Others find it appropriately frugal. Comb imparts a flavor to the honey, and this effect was apparently not always appreciated. I enjoy the spicy comb flavor – and apparently, the Homebrew judges did as well – so I squeeze my wax to maximize my must yield. To remove the tiny wax bits, finish by pouring the must through a strainer lined with cheesecloth.
I then float a fresh chicken egg in the must to check my gravity. Indeed, fresh eggs make for great hydrometers, and as we’re making medieval must might as well stick to this golden oldie! I aim to make the initial must extra strong, as it is easier to dilute than to strengthen, and then the egg should float high and sideways. Extra-dense must could still work when fermented with endemic osmophilic honey yeasts, as these prefer sugar concentrations over 15%. If you did not heat the must over 140-150F, then it will most likely spontaneously ferment within a day or two due to those. But osmophilic yeasts are not as vigorous and do not ferment to as high an ABV as traditional beer/wine yeasts.
The perfect fresh-egg density float is when the egg is bobbing upright and showing only a bit of shell above the surface. This density reading would make a semi-dry to sweet mead with a standard wine/beer yeast. Pitch a sturdy yeast strain like Montrachet, the D47, or KV1116, then proceed with your preferred mead brewing process. Washed comb mead fermented with osmophilic yeast should be consumed fairly quickly; it would be good and sweet in a few months when fermented with bread yeast. Fermented with a wine-strength yeast strain, it would be like any other mead and best after a year or so.
Why go through this sticky process? At first, my interest in recreating historic recipes was the driving force behind working with scraped comb, as this is most similar to free-formed whole comb. But when I found washed honey receives a slight flavor from the comb, a wonderful delicate spiciness, I got hooked! This contact with propolis and pollen, part of the waxy comb, makes for a unique and wholesome mead. And if you opt to make mead with low heat using raw honey, which already contains bee pollen, your mead would also have maximum immune system boosting properties as well! As if we need another excuse for our nightly wassail, right?
About the Author
Susan Verberg lives with her family, furry and human, on a small homestead in upstate New York. She enjoys growing European variety fruits for fermentation, especially wild ferments, in summer and researching traditional meads and herbal beers in winter. She enjoys sharing her exploits in mainstream homesteading magazines, as well as the occasional medieval brewing-oriented academic journal. Visit her website to learn more: medievalmeadandbeer.wordpress.com/