Turning Honey into Mead, with Jennifer Holmes

25 August 2020

Our latest How It’s Made features Jennifer Holmes, President of Florida State Beekeepers Association, and Co-Chair of Slow Food Treasure Coast, who teaches us how to make a wonderful and traditional alcoholic drink from fermented honey: mead.

Was there a specific moment or event where you had a realization of your calling as a beekeeper?

I have always loved nature and derived so much joy from my family honoring their traditions with food and culture from a young age. As an adult I took a lesson to learn about honeybees, and was instantly aware I would have a lifelong relationship with them; it brought me to the same feeling of joy I felt when I was younger, cultivating a connection to everything that is alive. I could not imagine my life without my relationship to honeybees.

Can you tell us a little about the biodiversity on the Treasure Coast? Particularly with regards to the flowers that the bees have access to.

Here in South Florida on the Treasure Coast, we have a rich diversity in plants that thrive in our very hot and humid climate. Due to climate change, more and more sub tropical and tropical plants are able to grow here. Because of the warm temperatures, pollen and nectar from willow and oak trees are available as early as late January. In the early spring bees forage on many varieties of palms and into summer a favorite source of nectar, where its availability is not reduced by construction, is the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). In late spring they enjoy Gallberry, which is on the Ark of Taste because of the dwindling amount available due to construction. Its survival is also threatened by the systemic use of pesticides on the low-lying plants which grow around the more “valuable” pine trees.

Food for the bees along the Treasure Coast of South Florida, USA. Photo: Jennifer Holmes

In the summer they also enjoy the coastal mangroves, and buttonwood; you can actually taste the salt the brackish water contributes. In the fall they rely on an invasive species: Brazilian pepper. There are many lesser nectar sources that are important year around, one being Spanish needles which is a very nutritious pollen source for growing colonies of bees. Our hope is we can replenish native plants that thrive here and not depend on citrus, or invasive plants, but unfortunately the forage conditions are not great and all pollinators are in need of better nutrition.

What about your first experience of mead? How did you get into it?

Fermentation is a great love of mine, as well as preparing, sharing, and enjoying food. I knew what mead was prior to becoming a beekeeper but had not really tried any that I recall being memorable until I started making it myself. I was really impressed with sampling meads I thought had come out well and even better with age. Then I started meeting others that also made mead, and became a Honey Judge. I’ve have had the opportunity to try so many delicious and unique meads through judging honey shows. They are all so different because of the yeast, the bees and honey, the method of preparation, and the person making it.

Are there any honeys you can’t make or which you don’t have access to that you’d like to make mead with?

The only honey I wouldn’t make mead with is one of poor flavor to start with or is already overly fermented. Some high-moisture honeys tend to ferment quickly and many wish to save them by making mead, but it does not usually turn out well. I’d still encourage anyone to try though, especially if the honey has a nice aroma and flavor. If I could, I would love to make a batch of mead with some Ling Heather Honey. It is such a unique Honey with a beautiful Rose bouquet, a unique flavor. My second choice would be a Honey from Meliponia from Brazil (note: there’s an examples on the Ark of Taste: Mandaçaia Honey) . I tasted some Honey from there at Terra Madre 2018, and have been dreaming of it since, it was amazing.

Jennifer Holmes working with her bees. Photo: Jennifer Holmes

What advice would you give to people who are eager to start making their own food products but don’t really know where to begin?

Don’t be afraid to try, it might not turn out perfect or you may even have to discard it, but each time you try you will learn and you will be so thrilled when it does turn out. Find others that are interested to work together so the ingredients are easier to gather and not a big expense. Use what is abundant in your area, and supplies you can easily get without having to spend much on new things. See if your family has any recipes you can keep making so as not to loose the beautiful tradition and pass it on to others.

What do Slow Food and Terra Madre mean to you?

Slow Food means so much to me. It means passion, for food, people, culture. It means fairness, for all. It means life, rich with tradition, discovering, sharing, savoring. It is about us all, how we connect, work together, like the bees, for the good of each other and all life on the planet. I truly believe this. Terra Madre is a way of living what Slow Food is, and continuing to grow and support one another. The experience of having people from all over the globe, with shared interest in the value of this life, all life, and the interactions, relationships developed, sharing and preserving of culture, honoring traditions, has and will continue to be such a positive part of my life. I am always wishing everyone has the opportunity to experience Terra Madre, and am so thrilled to be able to share it with anyone who I meet.

by Jack Coulton info.eventi@slowfood.it

Jennifer Holmes is the protagonist in an episode of How it’s made, a new format for Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2020 dedicated to jobs related to food, cooking techniques and recipes. The full episode will be released on October 9, together with the other episodes in the series.

Not just honey! The beeswax is used to make a variety of candles. Photo: Jennifer Holmes