Get your buzz on

Hollie Stephens, on the delicate art of honey beer


In Maine, nestled in a forest surrounded by farmland, head brewer at Oxbow Brewing Company Mike Fava brews beer with honey that is very local indeed. “We’ve been keeping bees since 2013” he says. “Honey collected at our 18-acre farm is the perfect complement to our farmhouse ales.” Honey is a great adjunct for brewers like Mike to experiment with. It is much more than just a sugar substitute; it is a complex substance which contains minerals, vitamins, prebiotics, and acids. The concentration of multiple sugars gives honey its unique properties, such as stickiness, resistance to spoilage, and the tendency to granulate. “We love incorporating honey in our beer recipes. It is a highly fermentable natural sugar that provides unparalleled floral character to any beer style” says Mike. Oxbow’s beer “Dance Language” is named for the waggle dance that bees use to communicate the location of the best pollen and nectar.

Honeybees are important to our ecosystem and have been a part of it for a very long time. In fact, palaeontologists have discovered ancient nests which confirm the presence of modern bees in Patagonia (a region encompassing the tip of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile) 100 million years ago. A Queen bee – the sole layer of eggs for a hive - can lay up to a million eggs in her lifetime, and the only time that she ever leaves the hive is to find a mate. It takes just four days for a honeybee egg to hatch into a larva, and within five days, the larva will grow to more than 1,500 times its original size. These hard-working and highly efficient critters are quick to get to work. A bee can travel 500 miles before its wings fail, which enables it to visit approximately 20,000 flowers. Despite this gallant effort, a typical bee will produce just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during its lifetime. 

The use of honey as a fermentation source goes back to ancient times. References to the use of honey as part of brewing can be found in the Hymn to Ninkasi, a song of praise to the Sumerian goddess of beer, which was recorded in approximately 1800 BC. During the Middle Ages, honey was used to make Braggot, a Celtic drink which derives its fermentable sugars from both honey and malt. It might sound sickly, but the resulting beverage could be anything from very sweet to slightly tart. Braggot has been referenced in historic texts such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales.

Due to the acidity of honey, the bacteria and wild yeasts remain dormant

When it comes to brewing beer with honey, there are a few different ways to approach the use of this extra ingredient and depending upon when in the brewing cycle it is added, it could yield vastly different results. Due to the acidity of honey (ph 3.9), the bacteria and wild yeasts in honey remain dormant. However, once diluted in wort, honey can support the growth of microbes which could lead to beer becoming sour. For brewers choosing to brew with honey, the challenge is to avoid the potential for this kind of contamination, whilst preserving the delicate flavour of the honey. 

Adding honey to wort shortly after pitching yeast could mean that the essence of the honey is scrubbed by a robust fermentation. By adding the honey when the beer is at peak fermentation – that is, with the yeast in a highly active state – the yeast is more likely to be able to handle the sugar profile of the honey without entirely drying out the beer. When beer containing honey is aged in barrels, the honey may become more floral and complex over time. “Late additions in the kettle is where we started” says Mike. “Next, we started using it as a priming sugar for bottle conditioning. Two years ago, we experimented with adding it directly to our coolship for a special version of our spontaneous farmhouse ale.” 

For Kevin Osborne, owner and brewer at Cellador Ales in California, part of the appeal of brewing with honey is that it enables him to use a quality – and locally sourced - ingredient. “When I started making these longer aged sour beers it felt like a shame to add sucrose to a product that we tried hard to source the best malt, hops, barrels, and fruit for. Honey seemed like a great alternative that was locally produced and added its own unique flavours.” He explains that the brewery has most recently been sourcing honey locally in southern California. “To me, the honey leaves the perception of sweetness or fulness in the finished project even after all the sugar is fermented out. We mostly use orange blossom honey which adds a subtle floral complexity to the aroma of the beer.”

There are thousands of varietals of honey, all dependent upon where the bees forage for nectar. When we talk about terroir – the environmental factors which affect the character of a crop – we might most often think of wine, but it is also applicable to honey. Bees forage pollen and nectar from the crops that are near to their hive, and the floral source can impact aroma, flavour, viscosity, colour and mineral content. Single source honey varietals (honey produced by bees that are only exposed to one source of nectar) taste very different when compared alongside one another. Whilst orange blossom honey is floral with lingering hints of citrus, buckwheat honey has a nutty aroma, and a funky, almost barnyard taste. Single source honey from alfalfa plants (also known as lucerne) has notes of almond and vanilla, whereas honey from eucalyptus (native to Australia) can smell fresh and almost grassy, with an aftertaste that is deep and rich, laced with lasting notes of sticky treacle and spices.

So, when beer is brewed using honey, can the terroir of honey really be tasted in the beer? Hannah Rhodes, managing director and founder of UK-based brewery Hiver, certainly thinks so. Hiver has three different honey beers; a blonde beer, a session IPA and an amber beer. “We do use different varietals of honey in each of those beers” says Hannah, explaining that different honeys do complement the hops or the malt base in different ways. 

Hannah says that she first became fascinated with raw urban honey after visiting a sustainability event in London prior to starting her business, and now she loves working with beekeepers to discover the vast varietals of honey available. Hiver sources all of its ingredients and packaging in the UK, working closely with the British Beekeepers Association and the London Beekeepers Association to connect with independent beekeepers. She points to the Hiver Session IPA, which uses tree ivy honey, as an example of how a certain honey varietal might work in one style of beer but not another. “We were quite hesitant to go down the road of doing an IPA originally” she says, explaining that the team was concerned that the notes from the honey might simply be swamped by the hop aromas and flavours. She says that tree ivy honey is very unusual, with a bitter marmite character. “That one (honey varietal) was on the back of a shelf somewhere, and (we thought) ‘hang on a minute, we might just have found a use for you!’”

The complexity and depth added by honey can work to enhance hop aroma and flavour, though the subtle differences of a honey’s terroir is something that drinkers might not necessarily notice unless two beers have been brewed with exactly the same ingredients and using an identical process, with honey source as the only aspect that differs between them. “Even the type of yeast… between lager and ale yeast… can also make a really, really big difference to the way that the honey shines” says Hannah. “There’s lots to play with.” 

Honey from independent beekeepers is well worth seeking out

For homebrewers keen to have a go at adding honey to their brews, Hannah suggests a methodical approach, by picking two very different honeys that are completely distinct from one another and trying each of them in several different beer styles. “Once the natural sugars have fermented out of the honey it’s amazing what flavours you’re left with, and it’s not always what you think.” Hannah emphasizes that honey from independent beekeepers is well worth seeking out and stands head and shoulders above mass produced honey in terms of aroma and flavour. “(With raw honey) you get so many more funky esters, some ‘farmyard’ stuff going on in it, the same as with beer.” 

For Hannah, working with small beekeepers is enjoyable, and she cites the level of detail that she can obtain as a huge positive. “To be able to talk to a beekeeper about the nectar source, and for that to be so specific; it could be a herb or a tree or a flower… that is really, really fascinating, and there’s something nice about being part of that cycle.”

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