Ana Gaspar pulls down a mason jar from the cabinet filled to the brim with deep red liquid. At the bottom is dried ginger from her farm, plus cloves, hibiscus flowers, and a dash of cinnamon. She pours a bit in a glass and hands it to me. It's heavy on the cloves, with hints of berry and cinnamon. The ginger is subtle. The spices have only been steeped for two days in a month-old honey wine substrate, and yet it tastes fully infused. The tropics, I have learned, has a way of speeding things up.
"This is the radiance elixir," she says. "The hibiscus is a rich source of antioxidants and it's quite good for the skin."
"Honey wine used to be a substrate for giving people medicine," adds Ian Macaulay, Gaspar's husband. "Ancient recipes call for using rainwater, which is what we use."
While it seems a little too good to be true, my doubts become completely irrelevant the moment I take a swig. It is flavourful, sweet, and incredibly alcoholic. Honey wine was once regarded as the beverage of the gods, considered by many as a potent aphrodisiac.
I feel the buzz almost immediately.
Macaulay and Gaspar are the owners of a permaculture farm in the depths of the Costa Rican jungle. I am here on a six-week internship and permaculture design course, where making honey wine, also known as mead, is on the to-do list. Bees are not easily raised in the Caribbean jungle, and so the honey is bought—raw—in five-gallon containers from the Pacific Coast.
Mead is made entirely from scratch and the process is simple. One gallon of honey makes five gallons of mead. To one gallon of honey, you simply add five gallons of rainwater, a packet of Champagne yeast (even though raw honey contains its own naturally occurring yeasts), and five cups of brown sugar. Give it a good stir, cap it with an airlock so that oxygen does not get in, and store the beverage in a cool and dark place. Four weeks later in the humid tropics, the brew is sufficiently alcoholic. Wait six months, and the mead takes on a colour and taste akin to white wine. The herbs can be put in as soon as the mead is ready and certain ingredients, like hibiscus and cloves, infuse fully within two days.
Macaulay and Gaspar started making mead about three years ago as an experiment, and today, they are in the process of selling it to local hotels and restaurants in town under the label "Magic Natura."
"I always had equated alcohol with being bad for you, and then I tasted some honey wine and it felt good," Macauley says. "I looked into it some more and found studies that pointed out that mead has antibiotic properties." Recent research has indeed suggested that mead made with fresh, raw honey can help fight off infections.
With that in mind, Gaspar started developing an ingredient list of tropical medicinal herbs to infuse in the honey wine, most of which can be found on her farm.
As a sleeping aid, mimosa (the plant, not the drink) is combined in the mead with lemongrass and tilo (Justicia pectoralis), which is a relaxant. For the complete opposite effect, Gaspar created a mead infused with raw cacao and coca leaves that she calls "High Journey." She has an overabundance of turmeric on her farm, and blends that with chanca piedra (effective against kidney stones), cuculmeca (which is used as a diuretic), black pepper, and cinnamon for an elixir with detoxifying properties.
A love potion is crafted with hibiscus flowers and leaves, baby lemon leaves, wandering Jew (a common houseplant that the duo claims to help "strengthen the blood"), and oregano.
"The combination of those ingredients is an aphrodisiac," Gaspar says, grinning. "One day I had a lot of menstrual cramps and made this and it was amazing. It took out my pain, and it also made me super horny."
She also has a formula she calls the "Smart Blend," with sacha inchi (an Inca nut that has the highest levels of plant-based omega-3s), gotu kola (good for memory), and purslane (also high in omega-3s).
"It's good for the brain," she says.
It seems like a contradiction—mixing memory-enhancing herbs with alcohol—but that's how it was traditionally done. After all, alcohol used to be medicine before it ended up in a martini glass. Everything should be taken in moderation, of course; the appropriate dosages are a few tablespoons a day.
"Alcohol was always used as a vessel to preserve medicine. And so we said, if we're making an alcohol that is fundamentally medicinal, let's make it into an elixir using the potent tropical herbs that we grow," Macaulay says. "With medicinal mead, you can have a buzz and feel healthy."
The mead, however, was a little bit too delicious for us interns to resist and drink in conservative, medicinal sips. Part of the reason why making honey mead was eventually put on our agenda was that we had downed an entire five-gallon jar, courtesy of the previous interns, and had to replace it. It was the only alcoholic spirit available in the depths of the jungle and inspired many spontaneous singing and dancing sessions in a place with limited internet access and roaring evening rainstorms.
Few things in life, I've learned, are better than a mead-infused evening blanketed underneath a canopy of stars and the sounds of boisterous howler monkeys. Honey wine has a way of enhancing the magic of the tropics.
"Now you know where bees get their buzz from," Macaulay jokes.