October 23, 2018

How to Use Honey as a Sweetener in Homebrewing


Add honey to just about any edible & you've turned onto the path of consuming something delicious: honey wheat bread, honey ham, honey mustard. A dab of honey turns more folks on to plenty of things.

I think honeybees are the species that owe the most to the proliferation of fermented imbibements. While on a recent road trip, a public radio program told me about the ritual of dancing that bees act out to communicate important information within their hive. Bees lay down a jig & determined by the length of their dance, emotions of how a hive should operate become clear.

Hear that, yeast? Grow some legs, already!

I could base the importance of bees on how the product of their hive has been producing beverages of intoxicating splendor for eras upon eras. Though yeast cells have probably been around for longer than that, I maintain that the emotion that makes up the honeybee's reason to dance has the greater holistic connection to the beverages we make from the product of their toil. Yeast just keep their sexy party going, regardless. But the bees have to express more heart to keep making that sweet nectar.

I'll say it... It took a honey beer to make a regular beer drinker out of me. It was a certain honey & wheat combination from Wisconsin that found a regular home in my fridge, pushing harder concoctions into the freezer, to save for others at parties. Two years later & it was our Honey Weizen beer kit that gave me the ambition to keep brewing after a first, poorly attenuated batch of Scottish. Within both, my human desire for the sweeter side of things led my tongue.

How does a homebrewer impart the satisfyingly nuanced sweetness of honey, when appropriate for certain styles of beer? Let's set mead aside & explore some techniques to give your beer a smack of sweet honey...

Cheap, Easy & Simulated
There's always Honey Malt from Gambrinus Malting. This malt can be smelled from a hundred feet away, even when unmilled! This fine Canadian barley malt imparts a uniquely sweet flavor to extract & all-grain recipes. Session strength recipes get a confident touch of cheek-filling sweetness when 2-4 oz. are steeped or mashed.

In an average strength brew, the former amount would imitate what grade most folks expect 'a dab of honey' to alter the taste of beer would be. I like to use larger amounts of Honey Malt as a tasty dextrin backbone in styles with more hops. Though, you should stick to a ceiling of about 8% of total fermentables if you want to avoid a cloying type of malt sweetness in the finished product. All-grain brewers have the advantage of using a lower mash temperature to somewhat decrease the cloying sweet taste.

Real Honey, Really Boiled?
Conventional wisdom tells us to boil anything that we might add to beer. It's about sanitation, of course. Thank your lucky stars that infectious organisms don't really take to living within the sugars of honey.

Oh, you could add honey for the duration of your boil, but you'll get the effect of adding any old sugar at that amount of boiled time: primarily a gravity boost. And, with all but the most pungent honeys, you'll negate most of the varietal sugars communicated through the pollen of whichever plants produced the nectar for your particular honey.

Rather, dropping 10-15% by fermentable volume of honey sometime in the last fifteen minutes of the boil increases the gravity, but it will also lace your beer with more of the honey's flavor. Increase the above volume of honey should you be adding other flavors, like hops or spices, around the same time in the boil & desire the honey's particular flavor. Adding honey at flameout is akin to the aromatic hop additions at the end of the boil. The honey's varietal nuances float to the drinker's nose, leaving the sweetening effect of the sugars more up to the attenuative rate of the yeast to be pitched. The flavor entirely depends on the varietal, check out our selection here!

Yeast Party Done? Honey Will Revive the Fermentation!
I imagine the first time in prehistory that wild yeast got their cell membranes through some strands of honey sugars, the resulting feast must have been incredible. With any of the above methods, the resultant effects of your recipe's honey content will vie for superiority against the ester profile of the yeast you select.

Keep the combination simple. If you want a smack of honey taste in your beer, go with a neutral American style yeast. Y1056 from Wyeast or 001 from White Labs are ideal strains. US-05 is a good dry option. Apply those fermometers, because lower temperatures (64-68º F) will help the yeast produce fewer esters that could overpower the honey's flavor.

But it doesn't hurt to reinforce the flavor. From a three pound jug of honey, half could be added to a modest-strength beer in the boil, with the remaining half racked onto in secondary fermentation. Adding honey to primary when the wort's krausen peaks not only lends signature aromatics to the beer's flavor, it also serves as a highly fermentable sugar that kick starts yeast cells made lethargic from fermentation. Fermenter honey additions are a practical way to create a finished drink that really sparkles in the mouths of happy drinkers! 

Orange Blossom Honey
Orange Blossom Honey
Honey Weizen Extract Kit