Pine tea mead

A steel soup can--holes punched in the upper edges and a wire pushed through, was hanging from a stick above a little fire I'd made inside a ring of stones. I'd read that Native Americans always kept their fires no bigger than necessary, so this one was small--just enough to boil a Campbell's soup can full of pine tea. 

The smallness of the fire also suited the location--this little teepee I'd built out of fallen logs and pine boughs in the midst of glacial boulders, in a stand of white and red pine. 

The tea that was simmering over the fire was nothing more than water and a handful of needles of white pine (Pinus strobus) that grew all over this hill. This was the tree that defined my childhood. 

I grew up roaming the woods and fields of this hill that rises from the valley of the Quinebaug river of northeastern Connecticut. The hill and valley was, and is, an island in a sea of encroaching suburbia, and the pine and oak woods were my true home those days. They were my escape, and the only place I felt peace. I was just a kid, but I connected with those hills and trees like I was part of them. 

I had a Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, and it was my bible. I learned about cattail roots and sassafras, sweetfern and staghorn sumac, but white pine was my go-to. I even drew a five-needle cluster of white pine needles in red crayon inside the front cover. I still have the book, crayon drawing and all. 

And I made pine tea. The needles are high in vitamin C, I read. You can eat them raw, right off the tree, but they don't taste very good that way. They do, however, make a great tea. And they make a great mead.

Fast forward 35+ years, and you'll find me here in my yard, on the same hill as before, plucking fresh pine tips from a big old, storm-scarred white pine right behind my house. This was my uncle's house while I was growing up. This tree has multi-stemmed trunk--probably the leader was damaged by a white pine weevil in its younger years. Lately its been losing trunks and branches, one by one, broken off by increasingly windy storms. But it's still there.

I don't make the tea as much anymore, but I love making mead. Brewing has become my way of connecting with the trees. I want to taste the trees, and brewing makes it possible.  

Groennfell Meadery in Vermont, was my original inspiration for brewing session meads, and I can't be grateful enough for their generosity in sharing their homebrew recipes. By modifying their recipes--adding locally foraged herbs and fruits and experimenting with new yeasts, I've been able to venture off in all kinds of interesting wildcrafted directions. 

Here's my best recipe for pine mead:

You can just throw the fresh needles into the fermenter, but it works better if you brew a tea first. Add 0.2 ounces each of fresh or frozen white pine tips, spruce tips and white fir tips to 1 quart boiling water. You can substitute all pine, mature needles, or any combo of edible conifers for a total of 0.6 ounces, but this was a particularly good recipe. Shut off the burner. Cover, and let it cool. Pour into cold water in a fermenter big enough to contain a bit more than 1 gallon. Add 1.45 pounds local honey and stir to dissolve. Add 1 tsp yeast nutrient. Add enough cool or warm water to bring to 1 gallon total volume and a temperature in the low 80s (Fahrenheit). Stir well and then sprinkle a packet of Lalvin D-47 yeast to top. Ferment in the low 80 degree range. It should finish within a couple of weeks with a final specific gravity of 0.998 or so. Rack it into a small bucket, mix in 1 ounce of honey, and bottle.

The subtle pine aroma and flavor you get from this is just awesome. I hope you enjoy, and I hope you'll be inspired to explore more of the connections between us and our plant friends through brewing!

I'd love to hear what you think and how yours turns out if you try it!