Brewing With Honey

Honey has been used in brewing for thousands of years. As far back as 700 BC, honey was used by at least one Iron Age tribe in a mixed beverage that might reasonably be called beer; a chemical analysis of residue from 2,700 year old drinking vessels found in modern Turkey revealed compounds from honey, as well as barley and grapes. Although honey is not a traditional ingredient in most modern beer styles, it can be used to add flavor and aroma to nearly any style — lagers, IPAs, cream ales, and imperial stouts, to name a few.

The Bee-ology of Honey

Honey comes from bees. Honey bees (of the genus Apis) produce honey to provide a year round food source for their hive. Evolution has seen to it that honey bees are attracted to the bright or highly contrasting colors of the blossoms of flowering plants, which signal that nectar — a sugary liquid excreted by the plants — is likely available. The bee ingests the flower’s nectar by sucking it through its tube-like tongue, known as a proboscis, and depositing it into a special “honey stomach.” Enzymes in the bee’s honey stomach convert the nectar into honey, which is then regurgitated into the hexagonal cells of honeycomb back at the hive. Honey is a good food source for the hive because it is rich in simple sugars. Other than sugars and water, just a small amount of other material, made up of more than 100 different compounds, is present. Many of these compounds, whose quantities depend on what type(s) of blossoms the original nectar came from, are the source of honey’s flavors and aromas.

The profile of sugars varies a little depending on the variety of honey, but an average breakdown of the total sugars would look something like this: 48% fructose, 40% glucose, 9% maltose, 2% sucrose and 1% higher sugars.

The Beer-ology of Honey

Ale and lager yeasts can ferment the first four sugars completely, and the remaining “higher sugars” may contain partially fermentable sugars such as maltotriose. Therefore the fermentability of the sugar component of honey is very close to 100%, and for convenience can be treated as such. In spite of honey’s high sugar content (and urban legend to the contrary), it will not add sweetness to beer. That’s because the sugars are converted to alcohol during fermentation, leaving only the other flavor and aroma compounds. It’s these flavors and aromas that make honey a useful ingredient in beer.

How much and what type of honey to use is largely a matter of personal preference. A good place to start experimenting is with one to two pounds of honey per 5-gallon batch (~0.5–1 kg/19 L) of mid-gravity beer. One pound (0.45 kg) will tend to impart a fairly subtle flavor, while two pounds (0.91 kg) will yield a much more pronounced and noticeable contribution. This also depends on the type of honey used, when the honey is added and other ingredients in the recipe. There are many honey varietals – ‘varietal’ meaning the type of blossom that provided the nectar — and each has its own aromas and flavors (see sidebar below.) For example, clover honey’s floral aroma can complement an English Brown Ale’s subtle, earthy English hops. Or the fruitiness of tupelo honey can further enhance the yeast derived fruity flavors of a saison. There are no hard and fast rules for usage because honey is not a traditional ingredient in most beer styles. In general, raw, unfiltered honeys are preferred over highly processed, pasteurized, filtered honeys, because raw honey tends to retain more flavor and aroma. Potential sources of raw honey include local organic or health food stores, as well as local and online homebrew supply stores.

It seems the majority of commercial breweries use locally produced wildflower honey. I polled a large number of commercial breweries who make honey beers, and a significant 68% of those who responded use locally produced wildflower honey. This makes sense for a few reasons, including lower cost and fresher product. For example, Joe Pond of Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company uses whatever varietals he can get from local keepers (mostly clover and wildflower) as they are available. His emphasis is on local ingredients and flavors, and he sees the slight honey character change from batch to batch as a positive thing.

As already noted, if honey is added to an existing recipe it will increase a brew’s gravity (OG) and alcohol by volume (ABV) content, but not the final gravity (FG) because honey’s sugars are essentially 100% fermentable. Sometimes a highly fermentable ingredient is desirable. Some styles, such as tripels and Belgian golden strong ales call for table sugar (sucrose) or other simple sugars for this purpose.

A good way to experiment with honey flavors in beers that contain simples sugars is to substitute honey for table sugar, at a rate of about 1.3 lbs of honey per pound of sugar from the original recipe. However, if we want to add honey character to beer that does not already use simple sugars, without increasing the ABV or drying the beer, there is a solution we can use to arrive at the same OG, FG and ABV as the original recipe.

Before we tackle the math, let’s walk through some theory, concentrating first on the ABV problem. Suppose we have a recipe for a nice 5.3% ABV brown ale, with OG of 1.053 and a FG of 1.013. It’s a great recipe, but we decide that two pounds of clover honey would really hit the spot. To hit the original recipe’s ABV, we can replace some amount of our base malt with the two pounds of honey. However, there’s the drying problem. Even after reducing the base malt (to make room for the honey) and achieving the same ABV, the beer will be drier than the original recipe. This is because the honey doesn’t contribute any significant non-fermentable sugars. In any beer, it’s the relative level of non-fermentable sugars (and other non-fermented compounds) left in the beer that determine how dry the finished beer seems, with an inverse relationship between non-fermentables and dryness. The solution is to add non-fermentable sugars, to make up for those lost by the reduction in the base malt. The simplest ingredient to accomplish this goal is maltodextrin powder, because it is malt based and virtually 100% non-fermentable by ale and lager yeasts; all of its sugars (non-fermentable dextrins) contribute to the body of the final beer, and counteract the drying effect of the honey. If we do the math right, we can arrive at a final product with exactly the same OG, FG and ABV as the original recipe, while adding the amount of honey flavor and aroma we wanted. (Note: because maltodextrin has a fairly bland flavor, you may also want to use a more flavorful base malt.) Bring on the numbers.

The potential OG contribution to the wort of any sugar source can be expressed in points per pound per gallon (PPG), a term that may be familiar to most homebrewers. Note that for barley malt, PPG by itself does not specify what portion of those sugars will actually be extracted in practice, what portion of the extracted sugars are theoretically fermentable, or how good any given yeast strain will be at converting the fermentables to alcohol. So we need to know the amount of base malt that is a “fermented equivalent” to a pound of honey. I’ll skip the math, but assuming a honey with a gravity contribution of 35 PPG, a typical base malt with a potential gravity contribution of 36 PPG, a 65% mash efficiency, and a yeast strain with a nominal 77% attenuation rate, we would need to remove about 1.94 lbs of base malt from the base recipe per each pound of honey added (or, equivalently, 1.94 kg malt per 1 kg honey), to bring the ABV back to its original level. (If your normal mash efficiency is significantly different, you can multiply the 1.94 lbs. by 65%, then divide by your own efficiency. Likewise, if your yeast’s nominal attenuation is much different, you can multiply by 77%, then divide by its attenuation.)

Next, we need the amount of maltodextrin that’s a non-fermented “body equivalent” to a pound of base malt. Again skipping the math, and assuming base malt with 36 PPG, 65% mash efficiency, yeast with a 77% attenuation rate, and maltodextrin with 40 PPG, we would need to add 0.135 lbs., or 2.2 oz. (61 g), maltodextrin for each pound of base malt removed from the recipe, to restore the body lost by removing the base malt. (If your normal mash efficiency is significantly different, you can multiply the 0.135 lbs. by your efficiency, then divide by 65%. Similarly, if your yeast’s nominal attenuation is much different, you can multiply by [1 – your attenuation], then divide by [1 – 77%].)

Now we have determined the following equivalents:
Fermented Equivalent:
1 lb. honey = 1.94 lbs. base malt
Body Equivalent:
1 lb. base malt = 0.135 lbs. maltodextrin

For our brown ale example, to which we’re adding 2 lbs. of honey, we’d need to remove 3.88 lbs. (2 x 1.94 lbs.) of base malt and add 0.52 lbs. (3.88 x 0.135 lbs.) of maltodextrin. This will bring the OG, FG and ABV all back to the starting point, while adding the honey aroma and flavor we want.
But what about malt extract recipes?

Using the same assumptions as above, we get the following:
Fermented Equivalent:
1 lb. honey = 1.01 lbs. dried malt extract
Body Equivalent:
1 lb. dried malt extract = 0.259 lbs. (or 4.1 oz.) maltodextrin

Formulas aside, the important point is that we can counteract a honey induced increase in ABV by removing some base malt or malt extract, and can restore body by adding some maltodextrin. All-grain brewers may want to use something like Carapils® instead of maltodextrin, but the precise fermentability of Carapils® is unknown (though certainly very low). A quarter pound of Carapils® added to the mash per one pound of base malt removed would be a reasonable starting point.

It’s About Time, Honey

The best time to add honey to the wort is often debated. The truth is it can be safely added almost any time — during the boil, at flameout, or into the fermenter at high kräusen. If added during the boil, the honey will be very well sanitized, but volatile flavor and aroma compounds will be lost to evaporation, much like hops added early in the boil. Added at flameout (my usual recommendation), the honey will still be sanitized, but less of the volatile compounds will be lost. And for the more adventurous, adding the honey to the fermenter at high kräusen adds nothing to sanitation, but does result in the least amount of flavor and aroma loss. Luckily, honey itself is very resistant to bacterial growth, and so in practice does not present much risk of contamination to your beer. Sanitizing the mouth of the jar and pouring carefully into the fermenter should be sufficient. If you do add honey to the boil kettle, pour slowly, stirring gently as you go.

TLC for Your Honey

Honey should be stored in a cool, dark place, in a tightly sealed container. In a sealed container, it has a very long shelf life (measured in decades, perhaps even centuries). Most varieties of honey (tupelo being a notable exception) may crystallize over time. The main problem with crystallization is that it makes the honey difficult to pour. Fortunately, there is a simple fix. You can simply heat the honey right in its glass jar (with the lid on). The best way do this is on the stove in a pan of water, over low heat, until the honey has thinned out to its original consistency, then let it cool slowly. If the honey is in a plastic jar, you can either transfer it to a glass jar and proceed as above, or if you’re in a hurry, try 10–15 seconds in a microwave oven.

Some Honey Varietals Used in Brewing

Source: blackberry blossoms of the Pacific Northwest
Color: light amber
Flavor: fruity/citrus/blackberry
Aroma: fruity
Commercial beer examples: Oakshire Brewing Line Dry Rye, Ambacht Golden Farmhouse Ale

Source: buckwheat herb of Midwest United States and California
Color: purple
Flavor: strong molasses, malty
Aroma: strong molasses
Commercial beer examples: Firestone Walker Brewing PL Honey Blonde Ale, Dogfish Head Tweason’ale

Source: white and red clover throughout the USA
Color: straw to amber
Flavor: lightly floral
Aroma: lightly floral
Commercial beer examples: ORF Honey Roast, Olvalde Farm & Brewing Company The Auroch’s Horn, Bee Creek Hoosier Honey Wheat

Source: aphid secretions (not nectar) in California, Hawaii, New Zealand
Color: dark brown
Flavor: savory, malty
Aroma: dark fruity
Commercial beer example: Wolf Brewing Company Honey Beer

Orange Blossom
Source: orange blossoms of California and Florida
Color: light amber
Flavor: fruity/citrus/cream soda
Aroma: fruity
Commercial beer examples: Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery Wood Ya Honey, Alpine Beer Company Mandarin Nectar

Source: tupelo gum trees of Florida wetlands
Color: amber/yellow with greenish cast
Flavor: mildly fruity, floral and
sometimes cinnamon
Aroma: herbal, vanilla
Commercial beer examples: Terrapin SunRay Wheat Beer, Swamp HeadWild Night Honey Cream Ale

Source: any and all wild blossoms throughout the USA
Color: variable by locale
Flavor: variable by locale
Aroma: variable by locale
Commercial beer examples: Olde Hickory Imperial Stout, Dogfish Head Bitches Brew, Rapscallion Honey, Rogue Ales Somer Orange Honey Wheat

Honey Beer Recipes

Blackberry Honey Wheat Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.052 FG = 1.012
IBU = 20 SRM = 4 ABV = 5.3%


3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) Maris Otter pale malt
4.0 lbs. (1.8 kg) wheat malt rice hulls (as needed)
0.50 lb. (0.23 kg) maltodextrin powder
2.0 lbs. (0.91 kg) blackberry honey
4.8 AAU Willamette hops (60 mins)
(1.0 oz./28 g at 4.8% alpha acids)
0.3 oz. (8.5 g) Willamette hops (0 mins)
White Labs WLP320 (American Hefeweizen) or Wyeast 1010 (American Wheat) yeast

Step by Step

Mash grains at 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes. (If sparge sticks, add rice hulls as needed.) Boil wort for 60 minutes, adding bittering hops and maltodextrin at start, and aroma hops and honey at finish. Cool to 63 °F (18 °C) and pitch yeast. Ferment at 65 °F (19 °C) until final gravity is reached. Wait 1 week. Bottle or keg.

Blackberry Honey Wheat Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.052 FG = 1.012
IBU = 20 SRM = 4 ABV = 5.3%


3.25 lbs. (1.5 kg) light dried malt extract (such as Coopers)
0.85 lbs. (0.39 kg) Maris Otter pale malt
1 lb. 2 oz. (0.52 kg) wheat malt
6 oz. (0.17 kg) maltodextrin powder
4.8 AAU Willamette hops (60 mins.)
(1.0 oz./28 g at 4.8% alpha acids)
0.3 oz. (8.5 g) Willamette hop pellets (0 mins)
2.0 lbs. (0.91 kg) blackberry honey
White Labs WLP320 (American Hefeweizen) or Wyeast 1010 (American Wheat) yeast

Step by Step

Steep grains at 152 °F (67 °C) in 2.7 quarts (2.6 L) of water for 60 minutes. Add water to make at least 3 gallons (11 L) and boil wort for 60 minutes adding half the malt extract, bittering hops and maltodextrin at start. Stir in remaining malt extract with 15 minutes remaining in boil. Add aroma hops and honey at finish. Cool to 63 °F (18 °C) and pitch yeast. Ferment at 65 °F (19 ° C) until final gravity is reached. Wait one week. Bottle or keg.

Issue: March-April 2012