Pawpaw Mead Making

Foraged fruit + fermentation = funky firewater.

| August/September 2017

I’m a pawpaw man. I’ve been hooked since my first taste of this fruit. The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the United States, and it has a texture and flavor similar to a mango-banana custard — unparalleled in the eastern woods. Ranging from eastern Oklahoma to the Atlantic, and from southern Michigan to Louisiana, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is like a tropical fruit adrift in our temperate climate, with a history as beguiling as its flavor.

For the past seven years, I’ve researched the pawpaw tree and its fruit — from Native American wildcrafting to frontier foodways — and chronicled its revival among wild-fruit enthusiasts, permaculturists, amateur plant breeders, and professional scientists. Along the way, I’ve definitely eaten my share of pawpaws. I’ve consumed them fresh (my preference), and I’ve made puddings, smoothies, and delicious pawpaw ice cream. As I’ve gathered the fruit from forests, farmers, and fellow gardeners, a question kept coming to mind: Just what am I going to do with all of these pawpaws?

That led me to discover an overlooked American tradition — pawpaw booze. Pawpaw brandy, beer, and wine were mentioned during the Civil War and into the 20th century. West Virginian Roy Lee Harmon once wrote, “[Pawpaw] brandy was a drink without peer. You could take a few snifters of it and feel like you were floating on a pink cloud eating ice cream and viewing some beautiful scenery.” A Kentucky newspaper proclaimed in 1896, “The paw-paw is ripe and the mountain man is in his glory brewing paw-paw beer.” With this tradition in mind, I decided to make a country wine and find my own glory. A number of my contemporaries have experimented with pawpaw brewing. In Ohio alone, a dozen breweries make a seasonal pawpaw beer each September when the fruit is ripe. Pawpaw wine, beer, and mead can be found in a number of states, from North Carolina and Kentucky to Missouri and Indiana.

Although I’ve likely eaten as many pawpaws as anyone alive and sampled dozens of unique pawpaw brews, I knew very little about mead making before starting this project. But the fermentation revival assures us that the process is far easier than we’ve been led to believe. Emboldened, I got started. After a bit of experimentation, and consulting several books, friends, and the Web, I decided to make a pawpaw “cyser,” which is a mead or honey wine made with apple cider. Mead is one of the world’s ancient alcohols, and I chose it over beer because mead requires less equipment and exactness. Also, I liked that I could use locally produced honey. But I’d been warned that using pawpaws to make mead wasn’t going to be easy. To begin with, separating pulp from seeds and skin is time-consuming and can be difficult. I also learned that the flavor, after fermentation, often contains a prevailing note of pawpaw funk. The results — depending on the ripeness of the fruit and a host of other factors — range from subtle tropical hints to caramel and molasses, with an overwhelming kick of pawpaw.

Pickin’ Up Pawpaws …

To make pawpaw mead, you’ll first need to locate the fruit. If you live in the eastern United States, consider going on a hunt. Pawpaws are often found along creeks and streams, growing in the well-drained alluvial soil of American bottomland. They’re a joy to find — trees with lush, foot-long leaves, growing in dense thickets. If pawpaw trees remain elusive, you can order fresh fruit or frozen pulp from a handful of online distributors. Alternatively, you should ask at local farmers markets and co-ops — there’s been an uptick in folks growing pawpaws.

I wanted to brew with fruit I’d also enjoy eating fresh. So, I used the highest quality fruit available to me, its pulp frozen when flavor, color, and texture were, in my estimation, perfect — firm but absolutely fragrant, with peak floral and tropical notes.

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