A little less than a year ago, I made a potion as part of the 31 Days of Magic blogging project. Mead.
Mead is a beverage based on honey. It’s a fermented (alcoholic) drink based on a relationship of about 15 pounds of honey to 5 pounds of water. I learned how to make it from the chapter on Fermentation in Kevin M. Dunn’s book Caveman Chemistry. (This, by the way, is an awesome book detailing the chemistry behind a number of simple processes, and accompanied by projects more-or-less time consuming that teach these chemical concepts through projects that our human ancestors mastered thousands, and hundreds, of years ago). This time, I took it up a notch and risked a good deal more materials and time and money by making five gallons at once.
Today I decanted my expensive (about $150 in honey and equipment) from the carboy (a large five-gallon jug) to a series of bottles. I ran out of bottles before I ran out of mead. It’s OK — the bottom of the bottle is usually filled with sediment anyway, and you’re unlikely to get five gallons of mead out of a five gallon carboy. It’s more like four gallons and then some.
There are a number of things that I like about mead. One, it’s alcoholic. That’s nice in and of itself. But more than that, it’s dependent upon the unseen world of microbes — without yeasts and similar, mead doesn’t happen. It’s also dependent upon bees — without bees, honey doesn’t happen, and mead doesn’t happen without bees.
It’s beeatific, if you’ll pardon the pun, what yeast and bees do together. Pretty much all I did was put the two ingredients into a carboy, seal it with a vapor lock, and leave it alone for eleven months. The result?
Delicious. And alcoholic. I had about a glass and a half in the process of testing the batch, starting the siphon, and enjoying the first fruits of my (mostly non-existent) labor (other than patience), this afternoon while conducting bottling. And I can’t say it’s the tastiest mead I’ve ever had. But neither is is frail and weak.
Best of all, I feel like I’ve mastered an understanding about chemistry, and about alchemy, that I didn’t have before. I have the equipment, and I think I could do this again (with the right bottles, and some encouragement). There’s enormous power in the knowing, in the doing, and in the daring… and this was quite the dare, let me tell you — the first time I did this, it was a 2-liter Coke bottle and a vapor lock made with a balloon and some rubber cement!
We’ve come a long way since then.
Obviously, you don’t want middle schoolers or high schoolers learning to brew alcohol. But Kevin Dunn’s book is a pointer to the nature of genuine hands-on education. It isn’t Project Based Learning (PBL); nor is it strictly Maker Education, nor is it Design Thinking. It’s not any of these. It’s really hands-on learning, or learning through the hands. What the hands make, the mind knows. It’s hard to argue with the reality that every time I walked through the kitchen for months, my eyes lighted on the huge brown-gold carboy bottle in the outer corner of the pantry door in the place of greatest darkness in the apartment. It occupied my thoughts frequently… was it alcohol? Was it very expensive vinegar? Was it poison? I didn’t know… and opening the bottle wouldn’t necessarily tell me. The longer I went without opening it, the better… but every day was a calculation.
The closer we got to a year, of course, the more likely that it was essential to remove it from the carboy and transfer it to bottles. At last, the calculus of acquired bottle-quantity-and-volume appeared to match against the quantity of time-fermenting-in-the-carboy, and an impending move to a new apartment weighed heavily in favor of bottling. Today was the day. And so it’s done.
And we have to ask ourselves, “is this a living problem?” That is, does the process of making cheese or making vinegar (deliberately), teach a group of students to understand chemistry more effectively than simple book-reading alone?
I must say that it does.