Make Mead like a Viking: Traditional Techniques for Brewing Natural, Wild-Fermented, Honey-based Wines and Beers
Chelsea Green Publishing 2015
Perhaps it is the Nordic blood in me (if there is any), or the fact that the author is a Kentucky native, the state I currently call home, but few books have brought me as much delight this year as Jereme Zimmerman’s contribution to reviving the ancient art of fermented beverages. On all counts this book is most enjoyable and engaging, and especially so in its emphasis on traditional, natural brewing techniques and tactics. Indeed, the latter perspective is what sets this book apart from most others, and makes it a must-have for any traditional fermenter. Books abound that describe the use of modern equipment such as airlocks and carboys and all the other gadgets and gizmos that tend to make getting into brewing intimidating and expensive for the novice. Make Mead like a Viking turns away from modern refinements and looks back at thousands of years of tradition when people brewed beverages with simple inputs and simple equipment.
The book weaves together two goals—not only how to, but also why to make these beverages—as it roams history to inspire and equip the reader. The organization of the book aids this endeavor, along with the artful admixture of myth and history into the story’s brew, adding flavor and effervescence at just the right spots. Whether you brew kombucha, Jun tea, water kefir, or some other assortment of fermented drinks, Zimmerman’s book will enhance your understanding, magnify your awe of the alchemy in making such elixirs, and excite your sense of possibilities when it comes to the power of fermentation.
Many of the chapters are applicable in ways far beyond the mere making of mead. The discussions of herbs and varieties of honey, for instance, are of value to any food preparer, brewer, or forager. Zimmerman does an excellent job explicating the health benefits of herbs and honey, noting how microbes amplify these benefits.
The book also explores some technical issues related to fermentation, and makes mention of multiple resources that even in my many years of brewing and reading I was unaware of, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health (page 18)! That sounds like a superb use of research dollars and scientific energy. Modern and archaic resources are deployed throughout the book, all sure to whet the reader’s appetite for a nearly endless banquet of brews.
The later section of the book covers basics like equipment, techniques, and recipes. His discussion of water is useful for fermenters of any foods (page 61). In an age where writers too often shill expensive and convoluted processes to create dependence on complex gadgets and inputs, Zimmerman is a refreshing voice. He reminds readers that our ancient ancestors didn’t have commercialized, industrialized strains of yeast, industrial brewing vessels, certified kitchens, and the like, yet their products were far more nourishing, flavorful and friendship-building than anything the industrialized world has to offer. Indeed, he takes time to point out that the industrialization of traditional beverages was the result of the strange mix of “religious fervency, political manipulation, and mercantile/bigbusiness interests [that] supplanted a variegated ancient brewing tradition with laws that greatly minimized the ability of the masses to produce and ingest what they desire, all in the name of ‘public health’” (page 33).
Zimmerman kindly includes do-it-yourself instructions for constructing some of your own home-brew equipment and where to source the necessary parts affordably. And he practices the ancient techniques that he preaches: often starting batches of brew outdoors near apple trees and other biologically diverse locations to capture wild yeasts and other helpers that make his meads marvelous as well as magical.
Zimmerman’s recipes are detailed in both ingredients and instruction, yet he continually reminds us that fermentation is a journey, and each of us, in our unique environments, will want to obtain ingredients from small local farms and also forage when possible. His brewing instructions are therefore marked by wise suggestions and experienced guidance yet cannot promise certain outcomes. Thank goodness for that, since all the fun comes from making one’s own discoveries along the way.
In summary, I cannot say enough good things about this book, other than to recommend that you get your hands on a copy and immerse yourself not only in the ancient mythology of mead, but in the wider history of food preservation and fermentation that our forefathers and mothers mastered to imbue their lives with pleasure, robust health, and a bit of magic. My only regret after finishing the book is that I have not tried brewing traditional mead sooner, but I hope a few phone calls will remedy my delay.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2015