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Mead from Indian Forest Honey

Honey Mead in Sanskrit is called Madhu. Which incidentally is also the name for honey in India. I cannot stop being amused by the fact that Madhu is also a common name for girls. Kamadeva the God of Love or Cupid in Indian Mythology was a big fan of Honey alcohol because of its aphrodisiac properties.

Here is a simple recipe for making honey mead from raw unpasteurized honey. Let us also understand a bit about the raw material before delving deep into the making process.

Honey Mead Wine in 5 minutes at home | Moonshine sweet alcohol

Honey Production in India

While the honey production across the world is falling, in India it is growing at a very rapid pace. Bee-keeping employs over 4,00,000 farmers and India maintains over 34 Lakhs bee colonies in boxes.

India exported  59,536.75 metric tons of honey worth 88.65mn USD in the year 2019-20. The major importers of Indian Honey were the USA, Saudi Arabia, UAE (Dubai), Canada, and Qatar.

India categorizes honey with the flower from which the nectar is collected. The major types of commercially available honey are

  • Rapeseed / Mustard Honey
  • Eucalyptus Honey,
  • Lychee Honey,
  • Sunflower Honey,
  • Karanj / Pongamea Honey,
  • Multi-flora Himalayan Honey,
  • Acacia Honey,
  • Wild Flora Honey, (most expensive and sold under the name of forest honey)
  • Multi and Mono floral Honey (usually marigold and rose flower plantation inside greenhouses)

Bee Keeping Development Committee has set up offices across the country to train farmers on proper methods of beekeeping. Also, they help farmers gauge the yield improvement through natural bee pollination. Some of the crops that are recommended to keep beekeeping boxes in the farms are:

  • oilseeds (mustard, rapeseed, toria, lahi, safflower, sunflower, etc.),
  • orchard crops (apple varieties, pears, plums, cherry, mango, strawberry, raspberry, persimmon, litchi, citrus, grapes, cucumbers, squashes, melons, almond, peach, guava, gooseberry, mango, coconut, etc.),
  • legumes (alfalfa, berseem and other clovers, vetches, broad beans, dwarf beans, arhar, etc.)
  • vegetables (radish, cabbage, turnip, carrot, onion, cauliflower, gourds, etc)

Although honey mead can be fermented from any honey. The food of the honey has the bearing on the flavors and aromas exhibited by the end alcoholic beverage. Also, the species of honey bee reared has a bearing on the flavors.

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Indian Honey Bees Species

1. Indian Rock Honey Bee (Apis dorsata)

Himalayan forest honey bee. They produce the tastiest and most premium honey in the country. They constitute 20% of the Indian Honey production. However, their yields are shrinking fast due to reduced forest cover and the use of pesticides. Some Interesting facts about this iconic Indian Wild Forest Honey Bee are:

  1. They are the largest size honey bee in the subcontinent
  2. They are very vicious. If they sense an intruder the workers will mark you immediately with their odor. Then swarms of this honey will chase you for over the mile.
  3. They are rarely domesticated. So beekeepers need to harvest their honeycomb in the night when the bees are mostly inactive.
  4. They form the densest of the nest for any honey bee variety. Hence it is advisable to stay away from their honey hives.
  5. They have remarkable tracking ability. They can survive the lower Himalayas and high altitude. The bees are able to travel far and wide to collect nectar and rarely get lost.
  6. They are very aggressive in killing other bees that don’t belong to the nest. Also, they are very territorial. The same family is expected to occupy the same spot (branch or rock) year after year.
  7. Honey made from this bee is called Indian Wild Forest Honey. It produces the tastiest of the mead.
Apis Dorsata Honey bee India sitting on white flower
Himalyan Forest Honey Bee

2. Little Indian Dwarf Honey Bee (Apis florea)

These little red brown honey bee are 7mm in size and are the smallest of the common honey bee. They are found in the wild plains and forest of India and are much more docile compared to rock bee.

Dwarf Bees are migratory in nature and their nest shifts every 2-5 months. They build large densely populated vertical honeycombs.

Small Forest Honey Bee
Dwarf Forest Honey bee

They are prized for their medicinal values. Their honey, venom and jelly are sold at a premium in most ayurvedic pharmacy shops. However the whole hive can barely produce over 1/2 a kg of honey. So its demand always outstrips the supply. They are very good pollinators and impact the farm produce around their hives the most for any honey variety.

3. Domesticated India Honey Bee (Apis Cerana)

This is the most common and ubiquitous honey bee in the Indian peninsula. They are very popular across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Odisha, and North Eastern States. They are very hardy and can survive a variety of climates.

Honey for Mead India
Domesticated Honey Bee India

Their biggest advantage is that they are not aggressive to other honey bee of the same species. As a result farmers and bee keepers can make parallel hives next to each other in a box. A box can yield 7-10 kg every year with minimal maintenance. So not only it boosts the farm income but also yield of the crops in the vicinity.

4. Italian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

They were introduced in the 1970-80 when the native honey bee colonies were collapsing in India. This honey bee is primarily farmed in the Northern India. Almost all floral honey that is commercially sold is produced by these bees.

Italian Honey for Mead India
Floral Honey for Mead in India

These honey bees don’t feed on rice flowers and prefer sunflower, marigold, mustard and safflower. The unique taste of honey mead from Punjab is because of this honey bee.

5. Damar Stingles Bee (Tetragonula iridipennis)

This is the famous acclaimed stingless honey bee of North East Himalayas. Dammer gets its name from the black raisin that is used to tar the roads. This honey bee is the smallest of all honey-producing bee in the world and is sized ~5mm. Sikkim it is called Putka, Nepal: ngapsiwor, ngaphamang, and ngapkhyndew. Meghalaya, it is called cherutheneecha and arakki in Kerela. English, it is commonly called as stingless bees. Their small size and underdeveloped stingers is the reason for this name. However, they protect their comb from intruders using their mandibles.

Stingless honey bee India
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetragonula

Although they can be domesticated, their honey yield is very low. They are primarily used for beeswax, royal jelly and resin (honey comb). Several traditional Indian Medicines are prepared using honey from this species.

Medicinal Properties of Honey

Ayurveda and vedas are full of praise about honey.

मधुशीतंलधुस्वादुस्ख्याही विलेखम / चक्षुभ्यंदीपनंस्वयं व्रणशोधनरोपनम् ॥२॥
सोकमार्यकर सूक्ष्म परम स्वीतौविशोधन कपायानुरस हल्लादि प्रसादजनकम परम ॥ ३॥
हवनेशकर वृष्यं विशदम रोचनम हरेत । कुष्ठाश:कामपितास्त्रकफमेहक्तमकिमीन ॥४॥
मैदस्तृष्णावमिरवासहिक्काडतीसारविडग्रहान दाहक्षतक्षयास्ततुयोगदाहाल्पवतासम् ॥ ५॥

Bhavpraksh sanhita

Honey is easy to digest, tasty, beneficial for eyes, a cooling agent for the body, removes cough. It is advantageous for hunger and improving your voice (sur). It is an anti-bacterial healing agent and softens the skin. Madhu can reach up to the smallest blood vessels. Honey is sweet in initial taste but astringent towards the end. It improves the power of the brain by providing clarity. Mead develops sexual strength and is a delicious rub for mating rituals. Honey is used in the treatment of piles and acidity. It has been found helpful in treating blood disorders and diabetics. It is beneficial for weight loss when taken in the morning. For asthma patients, local honey helps cure pollen allergy.

चक्षुम्ययंछेदि तृटश्लेष्मविषहिष्मास्त्रपितनुत मेहकुष्ठकृमिच्छदीश्वासकासातिसारजीत
व्रणशोधनसन्धानरोपण वाताल मधु रुक्ष कषायमधुरं
, तातल्या मधुशर्करा ॥ १२ ॥

 ashthang haday written by mahrshi vagbhatt

Honey is beneficial for an eye, removes excessive thrust, cure cough, anti-venom, cures hiccup, useful in the treatment of diabetes, worms, vomiting, respiratory problems, coughing and diarrhea. Honey is antiseptic for wound, beneficial for fractured bones, arid, astringent and sweet. The quality of crystallized honey is same as liquid honey.

Honey improves

  • अग्निदिपन (Stomach)
  • वणर्यं, सुकुमार, प्रसादन (beauty and skin complexion)
  • स्वर्य (depression and stress)
  • वाजीकरण (aphrodosiac)
  • लेखन (writing: Ability to express oneself)
  • हृदय (heart)
  • संधान (as a base for ayurvedic preperation)
  • शोधन, रोपण (cleansing of blood and toxins in the body)
  • सुक्ष्ममर्गानुसारी (sharpness of mind, improving determination)
  • चक्षुषय (vision and eye sight)

Bee Products

There are several bee products that India produces and exports to the world. Some of them are

1. Bees Wax

It is the waxy secretion by bees. It is used primarily to seal the honey combs. Beeswax is very important ingredient for cosmetics industry.

Bees wax being melted.
Bees wax being melted.

2. Royal Jelly

Royal Jelly Jar India
Royal Jelly Jar India

As the name suggests, it is the food for the queen. Royal Jelly is fed to select larvae to help them mature into queen bees. It is an emulsified product that is always kept in the freezer. It has a short shelf life and is often converted into medicinal capsules.

Unfortunately, most beekeepers are not trained to collect the royal jelly and it is not harvested. The Italian Honey bee is the main source of the royal jelly.

3. Honey Pollen

In each trip, the honey bee carries back about 10mg of pollen. bee keepers place pollen traps at the entrance of the bee hives to collect this pollen.

Bee Pollen India
Bee Pollen India

It is primarily used for anti-allergic medicines. It also has anti-fungal, anti-microbial, and anti-viral properties. Most hives collect as much as 20kg to help it fend off infection and pests.

4. Bee Venom

It is used to treat healing back pain, musculoskeletal pain, and skin diseases. Each worker produces about 100 to 150 microgram of venom. To collect bee keepers attach electrically charged strings outside the hives. When honey bee comes in contact, they get a mild shock and discharge the venom. This venom is now collected in glass plates and sold to pharmaceutical companies.

5. Propolis

It is a Greek word which means Defense of the City. This is produced by stingless bees and by Italian bees to some extent. Propolis helps honey bee seal the crack. it is a repellant for ants and other pests that get attracted to the sugary honey. It is also collected for medicinal purposes.

The Honey hunters of India
Forest Honey being extracted

Honey Mead Styles

Madhu (Indian Mead) might be popular in name, but it is hard to get an authentic Indian style mead anymore. I was hoping that some traditional brewers could help us in expanding the mead category to include indigenous variants as well.

  1. TRADITIONAL MEAD
    • Dry Mead
    • Semi-Sweet Mead
    • Sweet Mead
  2. FRUIT MEAD
    • Cyser
    • Pyment
    • Berry Mead
    • Stone Fruit Mead
    • Melomel
  3. SPICED MEAD
    • Fruit and Spice Mead
    • Spice, Herb or Vegetable Mead
  4. SPECIALTY MEAD
    • Braggot
    • Historical Mead
    • Experimental Mead
mead style guidelines
https://www.arishtam.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Mead_checklist.pdf

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Meadery vs Winery

Winery in India
Winery in India

Brewery is a factory where Beer is brewed. Distillery is a factory where Distilled spirits are made. In Sanskrit, it is called सुनोति (sunoti). Winery is a factory where wine and ciders are made. However, Meadery is a place where honey meads are made. In Sanskrit, it is called मधुशाला (Madhushala or house of mead). Similarly, fermentary is a place where probiotic ferments like Kombucha, Kimchi, sauerkraut etc are made.

Although the science behind all these products are similar the raw material, process and equipment are very different. Hence it is often good to understand the distinction between these similar sounding names.

Honey Mead in International Traditions

Honey mead is popular amongst apes living in rain forests. So it is believed that mead is the oldest form of beverage known to mankind. It probably pre-dates human evolution. No wonder honey mead is popular across various cultures and mythology across the globe.

Viking Mead mjǫðr

Like any warring tribe, Vikings used to love strong beverages. The war The raiding party chieftains would compete with each other for the strongest able bodied soldiers. They would host drinking parties in their longhouse and the brewer with the strongest brew would end up with the biggest fleet. Honey was the purest form of fermentable sugars available at that time and was hence the key ingredient in most brews made for troop recruitment.

Viking Mead: Loki's drinking Horn
Viking Mead: Loki’s drinking Horn

As per Norse mythology: Loki the trickster god loved playing tricks and mind games. Mead and hallucinogens were the center of many of his pranks. Ragnarok, a popular TV series on Netflix, has a reference to mead as a drink for gods.

Greek Mead

In Ancient Greece Mead was called hydromeli (honey water). Like Kamadeva & Rati in Indian mythogy and Cupid in Roman, Greek had their own god Eros (God of Amor and lust). Honey Mead was essential for the spells of this god.

Cronus, (Cronos or Kronos) was the Greek God of Agriculture. He was later on adopted by Romans as Saturn. As per mythology, his son Zeus tricked him to rule the World. He fed his father with honey mead and castrated him.

English Mead (Saxon Honey Drink)

In old English Mead was called: meodu or medu. In Celt, it was called Celtic Druid and in Ireland Mebd . Pre-Roman Celtic Britons referred to their island home not only as the White Island but the Isle of Honey. Thanks to the strong blend of Viking, Saxon, Roman, and Celt influences English Mead are very different.
One of the most famous would be Braggot. It was the most popular drink around Wales until 1800s. brach and brag respectively, for the words “to sprout”. It was a mixture of Honey with malt to get its balanced mouthfeel.

Germanic Mead

Germans drank their mead in silver-tipped Bull Horns. These bovine horns or cornucopia is a symbol of plenty throughout Europe. Odin (oʊdɪn), the German god who is revered as the founder of German people. Odin used to love mead. The poets were called Bearers of Mead in Odin’s court and bad poetry turned mead to urine.

Polish Mead

Mead is called miód pitny which means drinkable honey. Historically it was hard to grow Grapes in Poland and hence honey mead was the most widely drunk beverage.

Wine comes from the earth muddy and grey,

Mead must be sent down straight from the heavens

Sebastian Fabian Klonowic 16th Century

Polish Mead Styles

  1. Czwórniak (Four parts) A dry mead made from 1 part honey and 3 parts water.
  2. Trójniak (Three Parts) Semi-sweet honey made from one part honey and 2 parts water
  3. Dwójniak (Two parts) A sweet honey that is made from one part honey and one part water. Due to high sugar concentration, this honey required a minimum of 2 years to ferment and age.
  4. Półtorak: (one and a half part) This extra sweet honey had one part honey and 1/2 part water. It had barely enough moisture for the yeast to survive and takes 3 years to ferment. It was consumed as a dessert wine for special occasions.

Summary

Polish Trójniak (one part honey and 2 parts water) is probably the most widely acceptable taste of forest honey in India. Don’t heat or pasteurize the honey and embrace the wild microbes and flowers from the forest to make your beverage rich and smooth. Honey needs a minimum 6 months of aging before it is clear and drinkable. I find slightly warmed honey on a winter night along with a good book to be the best.

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