Joe, thanks for the good two-part question about using brewing sugars like honey for special flavors and the question about how to bottle condition beers that may contain fermentable sugars. These are two independent brewing questions and are best addressed as such.
When adding fermentable brewing sugars to a batch, it is important to consider how these sugars will be expressed in your beer. I like formulating beers from the ground up, and factor in all ingredients when developing a recipe. This means that if the plan is to develop a brew with 5.5% ABV, for example, that everything added to the beer will be considered; a bit different than simply adding honey to a recipe that is designed to produce 5.5% ABV beer without any honey. The description of your tasting experience describes a beer that was designed with honey from the ground up with the honey an integral part of the beer’s balanced flavor profile.
Using brewing sugars does take a bit of mental calibration however, because when most of these sugars are added to wort they are fermented along with the malt sugars (lactose being the one exception to this rule). This means that what we perceive as honey flavor, for example, expresses differently in the finished beer. The first word that comes to mind for most folks when pondering honey is sweet, but adding honey to wort does not necessarily make for a sweet beer. What honey does add to beer are honey aromas, and those aromas can cue the perception of honey in beer, especially when the beer may have a sweet finish that mirrors our natural perception of honey. This is one reason why a malty brown ale works well with honey.
Brewing with brewing sugars is not always about trying to preserve sweetness
Brewing with brewing sugars is not always about trying to preserve sweetness. The herbal and floral notes of honey marry well with the nose of a saison, and the simple sugars in honey ferment to dryness and can be used to produce a dryer finished beer if that is desired. Some brewing sugars, like Belgian candi sugars, may contribute color and special flavors. Table sugar can be used to boost alcohol and dry out a beer with little else. Fruit sugars usually bring acid, color, and aroma to the party. And lactose can be used to boost final gravity, add body, and serve as a canvas to layer decadent flavors onto an otherwise typical beer. The point is that most brewing sugars are used to contribute fermentables to wort and some sort of special component that malts are unable to achieve.
A key thing to keep in mind when adding sugars to wort is that they dilute yeast nutrients. As long as they contribute less than about 25% of the total extract, the nutrient dilution is not an issue. But sugars can dilute wort nutrients when used in excess and lead to solvent-like and “hot” flavors. Keeping the yeast basics in mind is always important, especially when pushing sugar additions; always use fresh, healthy yeast cells, pitch appropriately, consider adding zinc and/or nitrogen and phosphorous in the form of yeast nutrients, and aerate your wort. Rome was not built in a day, and using brewing sugars may require practice before yielding really great beers. Paying attention to off-flavors related to fermentation and adjusting your practices as needed is one tip that can really take these brews to a higher level.
Your second question is not so easy. Preserving residual sugars in a style like honey wheat, presents a real dilemma. One way to accomplish this goal is to use a preservative, such as sodium metabisulfite or potassium sorbate, to prevent re-fermentation. But as you point out, these preservatives will also prevent bottle conditioning. This is just one of those cases where a sacrifice has to be made, and the easiest thing to do is to force carbonate these types of beers and do something that prevents re-fermentation.
Current popular styles where in-package fermentables are desirable include fruit beers, pastry stouts, and milkshake IPAs. Not all brewers are keen on using preservatives and there are two other approaches that can be used. The best method is to pasteurize these beers in the package, but most breweries who are brewing these styles do not have tunnel pasteurizers, and pasteurizing at home is not a realistic option unless you simply want to conduct a science project. The other method many brewers are turning to is simply packaging beers with fermentables and storing cold. There are four words that succinctly describe this last method; it is no guarantee! Contrary to popular belief, ale and lager strains can continue fermenting at much lower temperatures than those used for rapid fermentation given the proper conditions.
This is where homebrewers really have a leg up on commercial brewers. What is the purpose of brewing beer at home? Is it to create a product that mirrors commercially available beers, or is it to brew something that you can enjoy at home? Dumb question, for sure, since the obvious answer is that homebrewers brew beer for friends and family. This means that you can give instructions to your consumers that probably would fail for a commercial brewer. Consider these styles as beers that require some user participation.
Imagine you want to brew a dry, tart, and slightly salty Gose, plus a little sweetness for balance. There are some clever things that could be done here, but the most solid options are in-package pasteurization or force carbonate plus preservatives. Or you could simply add a shot of sugar to the beer before drinking! Seriously, take a page out of the Berliner weisse playbook and add that shot of waldmeister syrup, herbed honey shrub, or flamed sugar and Bourbon when the beer is poured. Where does it say that all of the flavors in a glass of beer have to be in the bottle, can, or keg prior to imbibing, and where is written that Berliner weisse is the only style where finishing at the time of consumption is allowed? I hope this simple approach is not a disappointing answer to a challenging question. The one downside is that this won’t work well if you plan to enter a competition!