A Beverage in Bloom
In its most basic form, the 8,000-year-old recipe for mead consists of nothing more than honey, water and yeast. Thanks to brewers like John Harris of Harris Meadery in Orange Park, recipe-driven meads using local flavors are changing the way we perceive the world’s original fermented beverage. They also happen to be his brewery’s specialty.
Harris focuses on melomels and methlegins (fruited and spiced meads, respectively) which are but two of the legion of mead categories whose names read like the inventory of a chemist’s lab. Pyments are brewed with grape juice, rhodomels with flowers and acerglyns with maple syrup. The list also contains capsicumels, omphacomels, oxymels, morats, cysers and more. There are quite literally as many kinds of mead as there are adjuncts to mix them with.
Likewise there is a different kind of honey for every flower that blooms. “Honey itself is a seasonal crop depending on what the bees are feeding on at any given time throughout the growing season,” says Harris.
Beekeepers follow these seasons, physically relocating their hives to infuse the honey with a desired flavor. “To bees a flower is a flower is a flower,” Harris says. “Wherever they can find the nectar and the pollen is where they seek it out. It’s all good for the hive.” In that way, honey exhibits its own kind of terroir with the resulting product taking on the essence of its source. It also makes for a stunning variety of material to work with and experimenting with different kinds of honey is what a mead brewer lives for.For the past 15 years, Harris has had the opportunity to brew with many exotic honeys, ranging from straight blueberry honey to palmetto to mangrove. Even something as seemingly commonplace as wildflower honey can achieve a surprising level of complexity. “You can have some wildflower honeys that are very floral, that almost smell like patchouli or rose, hyssop or whatever they’re collecting,” Harris says.
Harris gets most of his honey from local apiaries but when it comes to fruit, not only does he source locally, he also picks it himself. Harris will pack up the whole family to pick fresh blueberries from Seamark Ranch in Green Cove Springs or peaches in Dade City. They are regulars at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival.
From there, it’s all about pairing the right honey with the right ingredients.
For his signature Key Lime Pie Mead, Harris starts with a base of orange blossom honey whose floral, citrusy notes play nicely with fresh key lime juice. Meanwhile, whole Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans, Ceylon cinnamon and allspice evoke the flavor and aroma of a fragrant graham-cracker crust. Juicy first-crop peaches are fermented with gallberry honey in The Teaches (whiskey peach mead) before spending time in Palm Ridge whiskey barrels.
These meads tell the story of flavor in Florida, capturing the unique character of a particular time and place. It’s a story John Harris is delighted to tell.