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Ancient Mead Making Meets Modern Science
Part 1: Wild Yeast Culture from Honey (Honey Bug)

This article is the first of a series that combine the ancient ways of making mead with modern science. The first article demonstrates how to generate a wild yeast culture from honey (honey bug). The second article teaches a method for purifying a pure yeast strain that specializes in making mead from the honey bug. These two guides will allow you to generate an authentic “mead yeast” directly from honey!

After your personal house mead yeast is generated, the next series of articles will focus on ancient mead recipes for your newly generated mead yeast. As usual, I will use scientific methods to research and update the approach to these ancient recipes.
Better mead making through science!

Supplies Needed
1. Honey – The more fresh and raw, the better your chances. You can also mix multiple honeys to improve your chances of getting viable yeast.
2. Jar with a lid – Mason jars are great for this.
3. Bottled spring water

Wild Yeast Culture from Honey (aka Honey Bug)
Yeast naturally exists in honey as well as most fruits. Below is a method to cultivate yeast from pure honey. It is critical that you use raw, unpasteurized honey for this to work! You can also mix multiple honeys to improve your chances of getting viable yeast.

1. To a jar add the following:
-1/5 cup of honey from raw, fresh honey or a mixture of various honeys you have on hand.
-4/5 cup spring water
2. Mix until the honey is in solution completely. Loosely place the lid on top and store in a dark place. Swirl occasionally.
3. First, it will become cloudy, and then it will clear. This can take 2 days or a month. You will likely see filamentous fungi (mold) growing on top. This is normal. Do not throw it out no matter how nasty it looks!

  Funk OExample of Mold on Top of Wild Honey Bug

4. Once clear, observe the bottom for a fluffy layer of yeast. If present, move to step 5a and/or 5b. If there is no yeast or it hasn’t cleared in a month, start over with a different honey or mixture of honeys. Your honey likely doesn’t have viable yeast.
5a. If you want a wild ferment, you can pitch at this stage for a batch of wild mead! I do suggest removing the mold on top, but you don’t have too. Your results will be variable with this method hence the term “wild”.
5b. Purify the yeast according to the next article.

Scientific Explanation
As I stated, yeast naturally exist in raw, unpasteurized honey. They don’t ferment because of the extremely high sugar content and low water content in pure honey. This combination produces such a high osmotic pressure that the yeast can lie dormant, but cannot actively metabolize honey. By adding water, we reduce the osmotic shock enough for the yeast to begin fermentation. In this case, the gravity is still very high (~1.100), so not just anything is going to grow here. This is very much on purpose to avoid too much bacterial growth.

Since the starting number of yeast is likely very low, this generally takes a while to kick off. It will also be a mixed population of multiple strains of yeast, filamentous fungi, and bacteria – hence some of the “funk” you may see growing. Don’t worry! This is the nature of wild cultures; the next article will explain how to generate a pure yeast strain from this mixed culture.

Adaptations
While I focus on yeast from honey in this article, honey is by no means the exclusive source of yeast. Adding ginger (with the skin on) to the mixture will yield a ginger bug. Virtually all fruit contains yeast, so fruit skins can be used as well. Some yeast strains have even been isolated from the gut of a bee!

 

Bray Denard

Bray Denard is the inventor of Bray’s One Month Mead (aka “the BOMM”), one of the more popular mead styles among home mead makers. He provides help to mead makers around the world through forums such as Got Mead? and his personal website, www.denardbrewing.com. Research scientist by day, Bray is never afraid to experiment and is always striving to improve mead making through science and innovation. He currently resides in McKinney, TX with his wife, daughter, and son.