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Bottles of mead brewed by Wilson

Foraged finds: Student learns fermenting during projects' off-seasons

A handful of years ago, Russell Wilson was getting ready for deer season. 

Walking through the woods near his home in Northwest Georgia, he stumbled upon a vine dripping in purple fruit. “I just started shaking the branches and I got a ton of muscadines,” said Wilson of the native grape variety. “And then I made some muscadine wine.”

The discovery became a past time for Wilson, now a master’s student at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Part foraging, part ingenuity, part experimentation, fermenting beverages pairs nicely with work in the natural resources that tends to be seasonal or project-based.

“I’ve had a lot of wildlife-related jobs that are seasonal. And in the seasons where I’m not working, I needed to find something to do,” said Wilson, who studies sturgeon under assistant professor Adam Fox. “Most of this starts with outdoor things and food that is relatively free. Fermentation just expands that.”

Over the years, Wilson has learned from a popular YouTube video series from Bon Appetit and devoured Reddit threads devoted to fermentation. He’s created kombucha and wine, and more recently embraced mead. 

When he’s not working with yeast and beverages in the kitchen, Wilson is focused on Gulf sturgeon recovery. He’s one of several researchers in Fox’s lab studying sturgeon in the Apalachicola River system.

“They are very charismatic, but also very threatened,” said Wilson, who worked as a technician on the Apalachicola project for three years before entering grad school. Before coming to UGA, Wilson worked at a hatchery in Northwest Georgia, where the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is working to restore the formerly extirpated population of Lake sturgeon in the Coosa River. He’s also spent time working in Wyoming, where the advisor on his project also had a background in sturgeon.

For new fermenters, Wilson recommends starting with tepache, a pineapple-based fermented drink that originated in Mexico. “It takes three to four days to get a finished result,” he added. “It gets you enough of the tangy flavor but isn’t overwhelming like kombucha can be.”

That’s one reason why he’s moved from kombucha to mead. But also, mead is more forgiving than most fermented beverages—you can adjust it to be dry or sweet, depending on your taste. And the anti-microbial properties of honey mean there’s a lot of leeway for user error.

He’s now brewing a batch for his upcoming wedding. It’s been in the works for about a year—the mead, not the wedding—and includes honey sourced from Georgia as well as a Tupelo Honey festival near his sturgeon research site in Florida.

It’s an interesting mix of his past and present, now waiting in glass containers for the right moment. Although, he’s quick to admit, that’s his only fermenting project at the moment.

“I usually have at least one thing going, and right now it’s the wedding mead,” he said. “But it definitely has hit a peak and mellowed out since I started graduate school—I don’t have a lot of time and honey’s not cheap.”


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