Foraged fruit + fermentation = funky firewater.
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.
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.
I learned that one of my winemaking friends cooks his pawpaw pulp to kill any wild yeasts that could produce off flavors, but I wanted to avoid heating my pulp because I prefer the flavor of fresh pawpaw. So, I decided to gamble with wild yeasts. You can’t predict what these wild yeasts will create — and they may be the source of the notorious pawpaw muskiness. But I was willing to take a risk to explore the essence of this fruit. I imagined my Prohibition-era forebears in the Ohio Valley might’ve done the same when they produced a beer in 1921 reported to “have the hardest kick of any of the homebrew drinks.”
To make the cyser, I needed some equipment. I sourced a 3-gallon glass carboy from a corner store specializing in Italian foods. From another store, I bought airlocks, and was gifted two 5-gallon buckets. I pulled a bit of cheesecloth from a kitchen drawer, grabbed a hand-carved wooden spoon, and borrowed a siphon. With these simple tools, I was ready to get started.
My inspiration was a persimmon cyser technique I found in Sandor Katz’s first edition of Wild Fermentation. I liked the simplicity of the recipe — mix the ingredients, cover, and wait. It also seemed appropriate to try brewing pawpaws by adapting a technique used for brewing another American fruit. For the honey, I chose a locust varietal. I chose this varietal simply because locust and pawpaw are eastern American trees — companions, if you will — and locust honey is described as having notes of vanilla, deepening the temperate-meets-tropical profile.
• 4 cups pawpaw pulp
• 1 pound honey
• 1/2 gallon apple cider
• 1/2 gallon water
Here’s how I made my first batch of pawpaw mead with frozen pulp. I thawed the pulp at room temperature. Next, I dissolved the honey in the apple cider, stirring vigorously (the cider was free of preservatives and had already begun to ferment in my refrigerator). I then added the pawpaw pulp to the bucket and stirred again. Finally, I mixed in the water and covered the vessel with cheesecloth.
The next day, I lifted the cheesecloth and discovered a thick froth of pulp floating on top, pushed to the surface by rising carbon dioxide bubbles. Throughout the following week, I stirred the mixture (known as “must” in brewing terminology) twice a day because stirring will prevent mold and ensure optimal flavor infusion. The mixture occasionally bubbled lightly on its own, but when I activated it by stirring, the must would bubble vigorously and even hiss. I enjoyed watching the must bubble and hiss and smell like budding alcohol.
After a week or so, the bubbling slowed considerably. I then siphoned the mead into a carboy. Because my batch was small, I later siphoned the mead from the carboy into a smaller, more appropriately sized gallon jug to finish fermentation — reserving a bit to drink while young. Yield: about 1 gallon.
Although a bit cloudy, the resulting mead was everything I wanted a pawpaw alcohol to look like, with a pale yellow-orange color resembling ripe pawpaw.
Appearance is important, but the success of any mead, of course, hinges on flavor. I wanted to know what others thought, so, after two months, I invited over a friend who has been making mead for 10 years and has experience with pawpaw mead specifically. In our tasting, we noted a lemony tartness followed by a distinct pawpaw finish. Most importantly, we decided it was simply a good — yet funky — pawpaw mead.
In time, my pawpaw cyser may clarify, meaning the liquid will become less cloudy. My friend suggests that although the flavor will likely unify with age, I may lose some of the distinct pawpaw notes currently found in the finish. With that in mind, I’ll bottle some for aging to unify the flavors, and so it might clarify and look a little more acceptable to my drinking buddies. But as I write this in early spring, I’m enjoying the mead cloudy, as my backyard pawpaw trees awaken, their flower buds swelling with the promise of even more fruit.
These nurseries sell pawpaw trees:
Kentucky State University’s Pawpaw Program offers growing information.
Andrew Moore is a writer and gardener in Pennsylvania with a penchant for pawpaws. He’s the author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.
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