Article

A Guide to Brewing Honey Beers

Honey is a powerful tool that we brewers can utilize in our quest to make tasty beers. While honey additions have traditionally been associated with certain styles (brown ale, porter, holiday ale, strong ale, etc.), honey is now used in virtually every style of beer. This trend is for good reason, seeing as how honey can be used to boost potency, lighten body, manipulate perceived sweetness, round off the harsh edges of hop bitterness or sour ale acidity, influence yeast ester production, and contribute its own distinctive (varietal specific) character to the flavor and aroma profiles of your handcrafted ales and lagers.

Honey has Roots

Making fermented beverages with honey dates back to 7000 BC. Pottery from that time period found in Northern China has been chemically analyzed and shown to have residues indicating a fermentation involving both honey and rice. Similar findings dating back to 2800 BC have been discovered in Europe. These earliest examples of fermented honey drinks were examples of what we know as mead. Mead is a honey wine that can be made with as few ingredients as honey diluted with water. We will go over this more later in this article, however this mixture makes a hospitable environment for yeast and/or bacteria fermentation. So it’s not a stretch to assume that some honey in a damaged storage container was exposed to rain water thousands of years ago, and the diluted mixture was then spontaneously fermented by wild yeast and bacteria into one of the first alcoholic beverages known to man. Honey was also a common addition found in some of the oldest examples of beer recipes ever found. For example, in 2800 BC Mesopotamia, the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi (the goddess of brewing beer) makes mention of the mixing of malt and honey.

Over the centuries, the link between honey and fermentation has only been further established. A look at the modern styles recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) proves this by including pure meads, cysers (a mixture of mead and apple cider), pyments (a mixture of mead and grape juice), metheglins (spiced meads), braggots (a mixture of honey and barley malt), and honey beers (alternative sugar beers).

Honey Production

Honey is flower nectar that has been gathered, condensed, and stored by bees. Worker bees extract the nectar using their tongues, store it in their stomachs, pass it from bee to bee, and eventually deposit it into honeycombs. Bees then fan the honeycombs with their wings to evaporate excess moisture from the honey before the comb is sealed with beeswax.

Honey comes in a wide range of varietals (300+ US and 3,000+ worldwide) that are often differentiated by color, aroma, flavor, and/or viscosity. Raw (unpasteurized) honey also typically plays host to a (dormant) bevy of wild yeasts and bacterias. The dormancy is mainly due to the high sugar / low water content and relatively acidic (3.9-ish) pH of honey. Yeasts and bacteria don’t grow in pure honey. This changes once the honey is diluted with water.

An environment conducive to yeast and bacteria colonization is created by diluting the sugars and increasing the pH. So realize that, if added on the cold side of the brewing process, unpasteurized honey has the potential to infect your beer. That’s why lots of brewers either add raw honey on the hot side of the process (during the boil and/or whirlpool), or they pre-pasteurize the raw honey before adding it on the cold side of the process (in the fermenter or bottling bucket). Pasteurizing methods can run the gamut from heating the honey to 145 °F (63 °C) for 30 minutes to heating it as high as 180 °F (82 °C) for as little as five minutes. A double boiler method, or even a sous vide water bath, can get the job done easily.

Honey vs. Malt

From a chemistry perspective, the main brew-related differences between honey and malt include amino acid content, enzymatic content, fermentability, polyphenol content, nitrogen content, metal content, and pH differences. Let’s take a look at each in order to understand what process adaptations might be beneficial for honey beer brewing.

Honey contains many of the amino acids and enzymes found in malt. They allow the honey to be fermented by beer yeast and also give honey its antibacterial properties. Honey contains almost no maltose but way more glucose and fructose than malted barley. The latter being simpler sugars means that honey is more fermentable than malt. Wort extract from specialty malts, after mashing, often ranges between 25% to 60% fermentable and 70% to 80% fermentable from base malts, while most honeys range from 90% to 95% fermentable. A 10% to 20% honey addition to your grist respectively adds an additional 1.75% to 3.5% of attenuation potential to said grist. So a brewer can opt to further dry out a beer by adding honey and maintaining a standard mash rest in the 148–150 °F (64–65 °C) range. Alternatively, a brewer can opt to increase the mash temperature of a recipe to the 156–158 °F (69–70 °C) range, to offset the majority of this additional attenuation potential if desired.

Honey varietals come in a broad spectrum of colors, although they are not rated by (nor can their colors be exactly translated into) the SRM scale that brewing grains fall under. Instead, honey varietals are classified in colors ranging from “water white” to “dark amber.” Light colored honey varietals often contain slightly less polyphenols than your average brew malt, while darker varietals often contain up to twice as much. Polyphenols are flavor active, have antioxidant properties (improves flavor stability), and can affect the haze stability of a beer. A grist containing 10% honey usually increases the polyphenol content of your beer by 5–8%.
Nitrogen content can impact yeast metabolism, beer turbidity, and foam stability. While honey has less nitrogen than malt, a standard honey beer calling for only a 10–20% honey addition rarely suffers from enough of a nitrogen deficiency to exhibit negative effects. When making braggots (typically 30–50% of the grist fermentables being honey), cysers, and meads, the need for additional soluble forms of nitrogen increases.

Metal ion content of honey is often higher than that of malt, especially potassium, iron, zinc, and copper. In some instances, this can be a flavor stability concern for brewers. The earlier the honey is added in the brewing process, the more these metal ions get reduced (utilized by yeast or left behind in trub). NOTE: The additional zinc is good for yeast health.

In summary, honey has a significant impact on the fermentability of a wort. This means that honey plays a role in the strength, dryness, and body of your beer. Honey also has a negligible impact on fermentation length, slightly reduces wort pH, slightly reduces wort color (depending on honey varietal used), can alter esters and sulfur production, and adds its own distinct (varietal specific) flavors and aromas to your beer.

When to Add Honey

When to add honey to your brew depends on what you are looking to achieve by adding honey to your brew.

1. HOT SIDE HONEY ADDITIONS make the least impact on both the body and ester levels in your beer, while still contributing a small amount of honey flavor to your beer.

Whirlpool addition:
• Heat pasteurizes but reduces honey flavor/aroma
• No change to body
• No change to ester levels
• Slight flavor impact
• During beginning of fermentation
• Thins the body
• Increases esters
• Moderate flavor impact

2. COLD SIDE HONEY ADDITIONS add more flavors and aromas, can further alter flavors and aromas by increasing yeast ester production, can more significantly alter the body, and can alter the perceived sweetness of your brew. Enzymes from unpasteurized honey can also lead to more fermentables from malt carbohydrates, which can cause issues with bottlings if sufficient time has not elapsed between honey addition and bottling.

During fermentation:
• No change to body
• Increases esters
• Strong flavor impact
• Slight increase in perceived sweetness
• Smoothes out bitterness / sourness keg and bottle

Conditioning:
• No significant change in alcohol production
• Can give the perception of a thicker body
• Increases esters
• Moderate flavor impact
• Moderate increase in perceived sweetness
• Smoothes out bitterness / sourness

How Much?

Think about your base style of beer. Ask yourself how mild or aggressive of a flavor profile it has. Ask the same of your particular honey varietal selection. If you wish to brew a balanced honey beer that shows off the characteristics of both the base beer and the honey varietal, you will need to make base style and honey varietal selections that are similar in intensity. If you decide to pair two unbalanced selections together, consider using the size of the honey addition as a third variable to temper your blend. For example: You have your heart set on adding a pungent buckwheat honey to a delicate Belgian blonde beer. In this scenario, where the honey has more flavor intensity than the base beer style, be reserved and try a small honey addition.

Sometimes you might want to make a small honey addition into more intensely flavored base beer. This is mainly when you aren’t looking to add the flavor or aroma of the honey to your beer. Instead you are utilizing honey to procure one or more of the other fermentation effects mentioned in the introduction of this story. These include increasing the ABV, adjusting the body and perceived sweetness, rounding off the harsh edges of hop bitterness / sour ale acidity, or influencing the ester profile of a beer.

View your honey addition as a percentage of the overall fermentable sugars available in your grist, then divide your addition amounts into the following five general ranges. (Note: Most honey beer recipes call for small to medium-sized honey additions.):
0-10% = small addition
11-15% = medium addition
16-20% = large addition
21-30% = uncommonly large addition
31-50% = braggot territory

Sourcing Honey

Think locally and search for a beekeeper who sells directly to retail consumers from a local apiary or farmers market. You can also source honey from homebrew supply shops. Honey is expensive to produce, as reflected in its price tag, which often ranges from $6 to $10 per pound. If you want to reduce your expense, consider organizing a group purchase of honey from a larger scale honey supplier such as Dutch Gold Honey (www.dutchgoldhoney.com), which offers 60-lb. (27-kg) pails of honey for less than $3 per pound.

Brew some honey beers!

Ready to try brewing with honey yourself? Check out three commercial clone recipes I got from Rogue Ales and Indeed Brewing Co., from the 2016 Honey Beer Competition — a BJCP-sanctioned competition hosted by the National Honey Board to recognize the best honey beers in the US.

In 2016, top honors (Best in Show and Best General Ale) went to Rogue Ales & Spirits for their Honey Kolsch — maybe no surprise, since Rogue maintains their own apiary. Second Place Overall and Best Wheat Beer was earned by Indeed Brewing Company’s Summer Shenanigans Ale. Third Place Overall and Best Braggot again went to Rogue for their Marionberry Braggot.

Indeed Shenanigans Summer Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.047 FG = 1.009
IBU = 14 SRM = 4 ABV = 5%

With its bold citrus notes, low ABV, and quaffable body, Shenanigans Summer Ale handily took Second Place Overall and Best Wheat Beer in the 2016 Honey Beer Competition.

Ingredients

3.8 lbs. (1.7 kg) 2 row pale malt
3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg) white wheat malt
14 oz. (392 g) torrified wheat
1 lb. (0.45 kg) raw clover honey (0 min.)
2 mL 85% phosphoric acid
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 min.)
Whirfloc (15 min.)
1.6 AAU Lemondrop™ pellet hops (first wort hop) (0.32 oz./9 g at 5.1% alpha acids)
7.7 AAU Lemondrop™ pellet hops (0 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 5.1% alpha acids)
Imperial Yeast A15 (Independence) or Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) yeast
7⁄8 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

Mill the grains and mix with 3.1 gallons (11.6 L) of 167 °F (75 °C) strike water to reach an infusion mash temperature of 154 °F (68 °C). Hold at this temperature for 60 minutes. Vorlauf until your runnings are clear. Add the phosphoric acid to your sparge water and then sparge the grains with 4 gallons (15.14 L) of 170 °F (72 °C) water until 7 gallons (26.5 L) of 1.033 SG wort is collected in your boil kettle. Boil for 90 minutes adding hops, yeast nutrient, and kettle finings according to the ingredients list.

After the boil, turn off the heat and add the final hop addition and honey. Whirlpool the kettle by gently stirring with a mash paddle for 2 minutes and then let rest for an additional 13 minutes to achieve a 15 minute flame out steep. Next, chill the wort to 67 °F (19 °C) and transfer into a clean and sanitized fermenter. Aerate the wort with pure oxygen for 60 seconds and pitch yeast.
Ferment at 70 °F (21 °C) until you reach terminal gravity. Crash cool at 33 °F (0.6 °C) for the better part of a week and then package. Carbonate to 2.7 volumes of CO2.

Indeed Shenanigans Summer Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.047 FG = 1.009
IBU = 14 SRM = 4 ABV = 5%

Ingredients

3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) pale liquid malt extract
2.5 lbs. (1.13 kg) Muntons wheat dried malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) raw clover honey (0 min.)
2 mL 85% phosphoric acid
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 min.)
Whirfloc (15 min.)
1.9 AAU Lemondrop™ pellet hops (first wort hop) (0.37 oz./10 g at 5.1% alpha acids)
7.7 AAU Lemondrop™ pellet hops (0 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 5.1% alpha acids)
Imperial Yeast A15 (Independence) or Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) yeast
7⁄8 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

Bring 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of water up to a boil, adding the phosphoric acid and malt extracts during the heating process. The target preboil gravity is 1.033. Add the hops, yeast nutrient, and kettle finings according to the ingredients list over the course of the 60-minute boil. Reduce the wort down to a volume of 5.5 gallons (20.8 L) and 1.047 SG over the course of the 60-minute boil. Turn off the heat and add the final hop addition and honey. Whirlpool the kettle by gently stirring with a mash paddle for 2 minutes and then rest for an additional 13 minutes to achieve a 15 minute flame out steep. Chill the wort to 67 °F (19 °C) and transfer into a clean and sanitized fermenter. Aerate the wort with pure oxygen for 60 seconds and pitch yeast. Ferment at 70 °F (21 °C) until you reach terminal gravity. Crash cool at 33 °F (0.6 °C) for the better part of a week and then package. Carbonate to 2.7 volumes of CO2.

Rogue Honey Kölsch

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.048 FG = 1.010
IBU = 26 SRM = 3 ABV = 5%

Rogue’s Honey Kölsch is a big time award-winning honey beer (2016 & 2015 Honey Beer Competition – Gold & Best in Show, 2015 World Beer Championships – Gold, and 2014 World Beer Competition – Bronze). It benefits from the 100+ colonies of honey bees in the Rogue Farms apiary. In addition to the “Rogue Hopyard Honey” and “Rogue Wildflower Honey” used, the recipe was also brewed with “Alluvial Hops,” “Rogue Dare” malted barley, and “Rogue Risk” malted barley, which are all grown and processed at Rogue.

Ingredients

7 lbs. (3.2 kg) US 2-row pale malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) white wheat malt
5 oz. (140 g) dextrine malt
4 oz. (113 g) acidulated malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) raw wildflower honey (0 min.)
4.1 AAU German Hallertauer
Hersbrucker pellet hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 4.1% alpha acids)
6.2 AAU German Hallertauer Hersbrucker pellet hops (10 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 4.1% alpha acids)
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 min.)
Whirfloc (15 min.)
Wyeast 2575 (Kolsch II) or White Labs WLP003 (German Ale II) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

Two to three days prior to brew day, make an appropriate sized yeast starter. On brew day, mill the grains and mix with 3.5 gallons (13.25 L) of 163 °F (73 °C) strike water to reach an infusion mash temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold at this temperature for 60 minutes. Vorlauf until your runnings are clear. Sparge the grains with 4 gallons (15.14 L) of 170 °F (72.2 °C) water until 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of 1.035 SG wort is collected in your boil kettle. Boil for 60 minutes adding hops, yeast nutrient, and kettle finings according to the ingredients list. After the boil, turn off the heat and add the honey. Whirlpool the kettle by gently stirring with a mash paddle for 2 minutes and then let rest for an addition 13 minutes to achieve a 15 minute flame out steep. Next, chill the wort to 60 °F (16 °C) and transfer into a clean and sanitized fermenter. Aerate the wort with pure oxygen for 60 seconds and pitch yeast. Ferment at 60 °F (16 °C) for the first 48 hours and then free rise up to 64 °F (18 °C) and hold at that temperature until you reach terminal gravity. Crash cool at 33 °F (0.6 °C) for the better part of a week and then package. Carbonate to between 2.4 and 2.6 volumes of CO2.

Rogue Honey Kölsch

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.048 FG = 1.010
IBU = 26 SRM = 4 ABV = 5%

Ingredients

5 lbs. (2.3 kg) Briess golden light liquid malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Muntons wheat dried malt extract
1 tsp. (5 mL) 88% lactic acid
1 lb. (0.45 kg) raw wildflower honey (0 min.)
4.1 AAU German Hallertauer
Hersbrucker pellet hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 4.1% alpha acids)
6.2 AAU German Hallertauer Hersbrucker pellet hops (10 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 4.1% alpha acids)
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 min.)
Whirfloc (15 min.)
Wyeast 2575 (Kolsch II) or White Labs WLP003 (German Ale II) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

Bring 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of water up to a boil, adding the lactic acid and malt extract during the heating process. The target preboil gravity is 1.035. Add your hops, yeast nutrient, and kettle finings according to the ingredients list. Reduce the wort down to a volume of 5.5 gallons (20.8 L) and 1.042 SG over the course of the 60-minute boil. Turn off the heat and add honey. Whirlpool the kettle by gently stirring with a mash paddle for 2 minutes and then rest for an addition 13 minutes to achieve a 15 minute flame out steep. The honey addition should increase your wort to 1.048 SG. Now follow the remainder of the fermentation and packaging instructions in the all-grain recipe.

Rogue Marionberry Braggot

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.110 FG = 1.025
IBU =17 SRM = 23 ABV = 12.5%

Ingredients

10.5 lbs. (4.77 kg) US 2 row pale malt
11 oz. (308 g) Munich malt
11 oz. (308 g) caramel malt (15 °L)
10 oz. (280 g) caramel malt (40 °L)
5.5 oz. (154 g) caramel malt (120 °L)
5.5 oz. (154 g) flaked rye
5.5 oz. (154 g) chocolate malt
6.5 lbs. (3 kg) wildflower honey (0 min.)
8 fl. oz. (237 mL) marionberry concentrate, pasteurized (fermenter)
2.75 AAU Cascade pellet hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
4.1 AAU Cascade pellet hops (0 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 min.)
Whirfloc (15 min.)
Wyeast 1764 (Pacman) or Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale
V) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

2–3 days prior to brew day, make an appropriate sized starter. On brew day, mill the grains and mix with 5.5 gallons (20.8 L) of 159 °F (71 °C) strike water to reach an infusion mash temperature of 148 °F (64 °C). Hold at this temperature for 60 minutes. Vorlauf until your runnings are clear. Sparge the grains with 4 gallons (15.14 L) of 170 °F (72.2 °C) water until 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of 1.049 SG wort is collected in your boil kettle. Boil for 60 minutes adding hops, yeast nutrient, and kettle finings according to the ingredients list. After the boil, turn off the heat and add the final hop addition and honey. Whirlpool by gently stirring with a mash paddle for 2 minutes and then let rest for an additional 18 minutes to achieve a 20 minute flame out steep. Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and transfer to a fermenter with the pasteurized marionberry concentrate. Aerate the wort with pure oxygen and pitch yeast. Ferment at 70 °F (21 °C) . Oxygenate again (and possibly add additional yeast nutrient) around 18 hours after initial yeast pitch. Crash cool at 33 °F (0.6 °C) for the better part of a week and then package. Carbonate to between 2.2 and 2.6 volumes of CO2.

Rogue Marionberry Braggot

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.110 FG = 1.025
IBU =17 SRM = 23 ABV = 12.5%

Ingredients

7 lbs. (3.2 kg) pale liquid malt extract
11 oz. (308 g) Munich malt
11 oz. (308 g) caramel malt (15 °L)
10 oz. (280 g) caramel malt (40 °L)
5.5 oz. (154 g) caramel malt (120 °L)
5.5 oz. (154 g) flaked rye
5.5 oz. (154 g) chocolate malt
6.5 lbs. (3 kg) wildflower honey (0 min.)
8 fl. oz. (237 mL) marionberry concentrate, pasteurized (fermenter)
2.75 AAU Cascade pellet hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
4.1 AAU Cascade pellet hops (0 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 min.)
Whirfloc (15 min.)
Wyeast 1764 (Pacman) or Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

Mix the crushed Munich malt and flaked rye with 1.25 gallons (4.7 L) of 158 °F (70 °C) strike water to reach an infusion mash temperature of 148 °F (64 °C). Hold at this temperature for 45 minutes, then add the crushed caramel and chocolate malts to the mash. Steep an additional 15 minutes. Remove all the grains and wash with 1 gallon (4 L) of 170 °F (72.2 °C) water. Add the liquid malt extract and stir until dissolved then top off to 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of 1.049 SG wort. Boil for 60 minutes adding hops, yeast nutrient, and kettle finings according to the ingredients list.Reduce the wort down to 5 gallons (19 L) and 1.064 SG over the course of the 60 minute boil. Now follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe.