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Brewing with Honey: Tips from Pros

Mead may get all the press when it comes to fermenting beverages with honey, but there are many craft beers with a taste of honey out there. In this issue, two honey-friendly craft brewers discuss using honey in a homebrewery.

Brewer: Mike Hoops, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis, MN

We love to brew beer with honey here at Town Hall, and we make several different styles. Most notably are our Eye of the Storm (a strong honey beer with a massive amount of honey and many varieties), Thunderstorm (made with orange blossom honey), and L.S.D. (made with sunflower honey).
The desire to brew with honey began after I fostered a relationship with a local honey producer. When we met I found him to have very similar attitudes to most brewers I know, and he took the time to educate me on different types of honey and production methodology. It quickly became evident to me as I got to know him that honey is super interesting and that I needed some beer designed around its complexity.

At Town Hall, we generally use a high quality base malt for beers we brew with honey that offers depth without being the primary focal point of the beer, such as Bohemian Pilsner malt. We use a very neutral/clean ale yeast (California Ale) at cooler fermentation temperatures in order to stay away from too much yeast character. Hops are always used in small amounts (15–17 IBU) and are usually used just for a slight balancing bitterness. We strongly believe these honey beers should be all about showcasing the honey.

For honey varieties, we use Orange Blossom, Clover, Wildflower, Alfalfa, Basswood, Sunflower, Raspberry Blossom, Blackberry Blossom, Fireweed, Star Thistle, Buckwheat and Black Button Sage. All these honeys feature a different sort of magic and we brew with them accordingly. Honey can be another ingredient for beer just like hops. Most brewers use many hop varieties based on their individual characteristics, so why should honey be any different? We add any honey at the end of the boil. This is because the wort is still able to sterilize the honey, but also so that we do not boil off the precious aroma compounds.

Over time we have experimented with different amounts of honey in our beers. This calibrated our brew staff to know what to expect with each beer brewed. I would suggest that you experiment this way at home as well. In order to be the most effective brewer possible you must know as much as you can about your ingredients. Honey is also hyper-fermentable and it was necessary to determine how much of it to use that would not simply ferment out and disappear. Also, for some reason we can’t seem to remember to preheat the honey container so that the stuff will pour out!

If you want to experiment at home, I suggest getting your hands on a bunch of different varieties of honeys and make “tea” (honey and water) with each of them — you can really learn differences in varieties that way. Also, honey is great to add complexity to beer that may not intend to be a “honey beer” — like a Belgian-style tripel or even a brown ale. A little honey will go a long way in personal flavor profile.

Finally, when you brew with honey, unlike some ingredients, you should always use more than you think you should. Also, always wait longer to consume the beer than you think you can. Time is a very, very good friend of honey. Our staff always has problems waiting for Eye of the Storm to be ready . . . but when we are patient it is so worth it!

 

Brewer: Dave Chichura, Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, CO

We recently brewed a smoked porter with honey at our pub in Lyons, Colorado. The idea for the beer came about during a mountain bike ride and had something to do with the “Honey Badger” viral video on YouTube. There’s a local honey supplier near Lyons called Madhava so we were able to incorporate another local business into it, too.

We brew Honey Badger with Maris Otter pale malt, Rahr 2-row, Simpsons chocolate malt, Crisp C-120, Crisp roasted barley, Gambrinus honey malt and three additions of Columbus hops. We used our American ale yeast and fermented at 69 °F (21 °C).

We used Madhava’s wildflower honey. It’s the most flavorful honey type they offer and we thought it might be noticeable if it survived fermentation. I added it to the last 5 minutes of the boil because from the reading I’ve done this is the safest way to deal with honey. Because of the inherent bacteria and wild yeast in raw honey I felt that it was risky to add it to the wort post-boil unless it was pasteurized. Honestly, I didn’t have the time to deal with that, so I added it to the kettle just before the end of boil.

I used about 36 pounds of honey for an 8-bbl batch of beer and the honey accounted for about 10% of the original gravity. Because honey is highly fermentable I didn’t want to use a huge amount because it would dry the beer out.

If you want to try brewing with honey at home, try adding different amounts of honey relative to the malt bill as well as adding it at different times in the process (directly to fermenter for example). When you are experimenting, however, be aware that the high degree of fementability of honey means that you won’t get much flavor or aroma unless you are making lighter beers and strategically adding the honey. Most of what I’ve read about honey tells me that true honey character will be best achieved by adding it to the fermenter, which requires pasteurizing the honey.

Issue: March-April 2012