Instead of dividing the year into seasons, I think of the time of year in terms of what I have a lot to harvest at that time. Early fall, in my world, is basil season–a bright spot of fl avor during an otherwise lean time when my garden is recovering from summer. Late fall is salad season, full of lettuce and salad greens. Winter is cabbage and kale season, and spring is root vegetable season, with bountiful carrots, beets, and parsnips to roast. Early summer is honey season.
Honey season requires the most work. For all the other crops I harvest, I fi rst cultivate the soil and then plant seeds, water them as they grow, and look out for pests that might undermine their progress. With the bees, I have to do all of the same things: provide them with housing, then add to it when they need room to grow and look out for pests as the hive matures like wax moths and hive beetles. But it is all at greater expense– bee boxes and frames and materials, in addition to the gear I wear, add up to a lot more than soil and seeds and water costs. I also get stung, often, at this time of year.
After five years of keeping bees, I still feel like a novice. I am under no false pretenses about who runs the show in the backyard–the bees are in charge. I just try to provide them with a place they like to live, and in exchange for several stings throughout honey season, I get repaid with the sweet rewards of the bees' labor: a few gallons of honey.
To fully appreciate all of the sweet goodness that is my honey season, I make alcohol with it. Sometimes my honey wine (mead) is deliciously dry, and sometimes it tastes like syrupy sweetness with a hint of damp cellar. Since I naturally have a weakness for anything I grow or raise (or in this case, keep), I will consume it no matter how it tastes. It is a perfect refl ection of the season.
Mead (Honey Wine) - One Gallon
• 1 gallon water • 2-1/2 lbs. honey
• 1 crushed campden tablet, crushed in 1/4 cup of water
• 1 packet champagne yeast
• 1/8 tsp yeast nutrient
*Homebrew equipment and ingredients can be purchased from Brewstock, at 3800 Dryades St.
Combine honey and water in a large stainless steel stockpot and heat over medium-low heat, stirring until combined. Remove from heat, add the crushed campden tablet to the honey and water mixture, and let sit, covered over night. (The campden tablet will help kill any wild yeasts that might affect the fi nal fl avor of the honey wine. It will also kill the yeast you want in your wine, so don’t add it yet).
In the morning, pour the concoction from the stock pot into a one-gallon carboy. (You’ll probably want a funnel). Add the champagne yeast and yeast nutrient and seal with an airlock, which allows gases to escape without letting any outside contaminants in.
The mead should have vigorous fermentation for the fi rst week, gradually slowing down over the next 6 weeks. After 30 days, a layer of sediment will settle on the bottom of the jug. At this point, it’s best to rack the wine off the sediment (the must, or the lees), so that it doesn’t give the wine an off fl avor.
For racking, it’s best to use a pump and tubing that will pump the liquid off the sediment at the bottom without disturbing that must. Pump it into a clean stockpot or food grade bucket, then wash out the carboy and pump the honey wine back into the clean and de-mustifi ed carboy, resealing with the airlock.
In a few more weeks, once the wine has stopped off-gassing (there will be infrequent-to-no bubbles escaping through the airlock), it’s time to bottle. When bottling, all equipment must be sterilized fi rst, so boil your bottles for fi ve minutes, or use a specifi c sanitizer solution, and let them air-dry.
Ad one teaspoon of sugar to each bottle (if you enjoy carbonation) and rack the wine out of the one gallon carboy with a pump and into the bottles, careful to avoid disturbing the must on the bottom of the one-gallon jug (go fertilize a plant with that sludge).
Seal the bottles and store in a cool, dark place. I like to taste it once a month until I enjoy the taste of it too much to age it anymore. Even when my honey season is over, I can still enjoy the fruits of the bees’ labor, chilled, over ice.