My fermentation obsession has reached new heights - on Christmas day I bottled my first mead, and it was delicious. My wife also gave me a book on mead making, and I'm getting ready to start a wild-ferment mead. So what is mead?
Mead is an alcoholic ferment of honey. All alcoholic ferments start with the same essential ingredients: a source of sugar dissolved in water, and yeast that metabolize the sugar into alcohol. The source of the sugar can be just about anything - fruit (grapes become wine, apples become cider), malted grains (as with beer), rice (think sake), and many others westerners generally aren't familiar with. Basically, if a thing has sugar, it can be (and probably has been) fermented into alcohol, and honey is no exception. In fact, honey is quite a bit easier to ferment than wine or beer - no crushing or sprouting required. If you just add water to raw honey, there are plenty of yeast present to get the fermentation going.
In fact, mead was likely among the first alcoholic beverages fermented by humans. The evidence for this claim comes from the study of pot shards - the earliest claim made in the scientific literature that I could find is this paper from 2004 that looked at shards collected from the Henan province in Eastern China that were dated to the 7th century BCE. Unfortunately, nothing of the actual beverage remained, and most of the chemical compounds that remained after eight thousand years of being buried are merely hints. These scientists found evidence of compounds called "n-alkanes" with between 23 and 27 carbons, which are indicative of beeswax, but could also be wax from certain plant leaves. They also found tartaric acid - a compound usually associated with grapes. However, the authors note:
...other sources need to be considered for China. Moreover, the scholarly consensus has been that grape wine was first made from the domesticated Eurasian grape (Vitis vinifera vinfera), which was introduced into China from Central Asia during the second century B.C. (5), some six millennia later than the Neolithic period at Jiahu. References to native grapes occur as early as the Zhou period (27) but are enigmatic. These texts do indicate, however, that grapes were appreciated for their sweetness and used in beverage-making.
An especially strong candidate for the source of the tartaric acid/tartrate in the Jiahu samples, instead of grape, is the Chinese hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida and Crataegus cuneata; Chinese herbal name Shan Zha). This fruit contains four times the amount of tartaric acid in grape (28), and the modern distribution of hawthorn encompasses northern China (29)
This passage nicely illustrates the difficulty in making scientific claims on such ancient samples - the chemical data are not sufficient, all of the evidence has multiple possible explanations. A combination of molecular analysis, anthropology and history are required to draw even preliminary conclusions. This leads to the greatest difficulty in assigning the title "first" to any alcoholic ferment: there is a woeful lack of historical or archaeological evidence for vast swaths of human development. The cradles of human civilization seem like good places to look for early human boozing, but there's every reason to think that humans have been consuming fermented drinks even before civilization, possibly even before we were human. Hell, even tree shrews enjoy getting buzzed.
Still, honey is as likely a candidate as any, and making mead at home is pretty easy. There are plenty of tutorials and kits online, but for my New Year's mead, I'm attempting a wild ferment. In other words, I'm not adding exogenous yeast. Most kits will council sterilizing everything, including your honey, and adding a packet of wine yeast to the mix. But raw honey has plenty of alcohol-fermenting yeast, and I'm trying it (sort of) the way our ancestors did.
32 oz (~900g) - Raw wild flower honey
1 tbsp - yeast nutrient (provides some organic nitrogen that the honey probably lacks)
13 cups (~3000mL) water
I mixed all this in a large open-mouthed jar, and over the next few days, I will rapidly stir or shake the jar to aerate it. Alcohol is only produced in the absence of oxygen, but alcohol fermentation doesn't provide nearly as much energy. What this means in practical terms is that, in the absence of oxygen, the yeast won't reproduce. Giving them a few days of abundant energy will make the subsequent fermentation go faster, and it's more likely to go to completion (ie - remove all the sugars).
Once this mixture is bubbling nicely, I'll transfer it to a gallon jug, and stop it with an air lock. This simple device allows gases to escape by bubbling through water (essential to prevent the jug from exploding as CO2 is produced), but won't allow any air in. This ensures anaerobic growth of the yeast (and therefore alcohol production), and also prevents the growth of acetobacter, which could metabolize the alcohol into acetic acid (vinegar). Then I'll wait. I'm not sure how long it will take before all of the sugars will ferment - it's an experiment! - but it will likely be a couple of months. Then I'll bottle it and save it for New Years Eve 2015... Hopefully to celebrate a good year gone by.