Most people when they think of brewing with honey don’t actually think of honey beer but rather the infamous alcoholic beverage consumed by the vikings that many mistakenly call mead but was actually a drink called grog (similar but not the same).
However, thanks to adventurous brewers the popularity of honey beer is on the rise. Could it be the next big thing in the craft beer world similar to what happened to the IPA? Doubtful in our opinion as that is a tall order to fill, but there is no question that more and more breweries are developing new honey beer recipes as well as adding honey to existing beer styles.
When it comes to brewing with honey it is an extremely versatile ingredient that can be used to add flavor, more alcohol, dryness or sweetness, carbonation, and body depending on how and when it is used in the brewing process.
In this article, we will discuss why brewers add honey to beer, how these beers taste, and how they are made, as well as provide you with a list of honey beers you can try, and a recipe you can use to brew one for yourself.
What Does Adding Honey to Beer Do?
There are 4 main reasons brewers add honey to beer:
- To raise the alcohol content or ABV
- To add honey characteristics to the beer (flavor & aroma)
- To lower the bitterness of the hops
- To brew a honey alcoholic beverage quickly
Let’s take a look at each of these individually:
Raise the Alcohol Content – The majority of the fermentable sugar in a beer comes from the grains used to brew it, however in order to increase the alcohol percentage while thinning out the body of the beer brewers will add different types of sugar to their recipe. However some sugars will create undesirable off flavors, honey on the other hand does not. It will increase the ABV while keeping the flavor profile the same. In order to achieve this, the honey is added during the boiling stage of the brewing process.
Add Sweetness & Honey Character – When you add honey to the boil as described above it will surprise some people to learn that the beer itself will not have much if any extra sweetness or honey character. If you want honey flavor and aroma you will need to add it towards the end of the boil or to the fermenter during active fermentation. We will explain how that is done later in this article. An interesting bonus of using honey during fermentation is that it can also add some floral aroma to the beer. This is due to the varying flowers the bees visit when securing the nectar to make the honey.
Lowers the Bitterness – Some of the higher alpha acids hops that are used to raise the bitterness of the beer also have some nice flavors and aromas that in some recipes we would rather have shine through over the bitterness they provide. Adding honey has been shown to reduce the bitterness of some of these hops while keeping their other characteristics intact.
Produces a Honey Beverage Quickly – Many of the other alcoholic beverages that people use honey to make, like mead takes longer to brew. Some of these beverages can take months to years to properly condition and age; whereas a honey beer can go from grain to glass within two-three weeks.
Brewing With Honey
Honey contains microorganisms and even possibly wild yeasts that if not dealt with can spoil your beer, provide off flavors you do not desire, make it drier than you intended, and also ferment your beer (which you don’t want from a wild yeast).
There are two ways you can address this:
The first way is if you only intend to use the honey to raise the alcohol content then you do not have to be concerned with it spoiling your beer. This is because you are going to add it at the start of the boil. The 60 – 90 minute boil will destroy any of the microorganisms that may be in your beer.
The second way to address this problem when adding the honey to your fermenter for taste and aroma purposes is to pasteurize it.
How to Pasteurize Honey
The following is how you pasteurize honey:
Step 1: Preheat your oven to 150 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit).
Step 2: Pour your honey into a pan that can be used on the stovetop and in the oven. Make sure the pan is sanitized.
Step 3: Heat the honey up to approximately 150 ℃ (66 ℉), stirring it from time to time to avoid scorching or burning.
Step 4: Once the honey has reached the target temperature, cover the pan and put it in your oven.
Step 5: Keep the honey in the oven for 30 minutes at the target temperature. Check on it from time to time to make sure it is not scorching and also check its temperature with a thermometer, it is ok if the temperature rises a bit, some brewers will pasteurize at temps closer to 170 ℉.
After 30 minutes you have successfully pasteurized the honey. Alternatively, if you have a kettle capable of maintaining steady temperatures you can use it instead of your oven.
How Much Honey to Use
If you would like a light honey and floral flavor and aroma keep the amount of honey you use to under 10% of the total amount of fermentables in your recipe.
Any amount over 10% and up to 30% is going to result in a beer with a very strong honey profile but will still present itself as a beer.
Whereas any beer brewed with honey being over 30% of its fermentables is no longer going to taste much like a beer and more like a beverage referred to as braggot.
What is Braggot
Braggot is basically a cross between beer and mead. It is a challenging beverage to brew because its characteristics should be an even balance between the honey and the malted grains; as a result, many brewers will simply mix beer with mead and call it braggot. Although similar in taste it is not a true braggot.
Matching the Specific Gravity of the Beer
Some brewers will simply determine how much honey they want to use and just add it to the carboy or fermenter.
Whereas others will decide on how much honey they are going to use by determining how much they will need in order to match the specific gravity of the honey with the specific gravity of the beer.
In order to do this, you will first need to cool your honey down to room temperature, you can do this by either covering it and placing it in the fridge or freezer and monitoring the temperature or you can put it in an ice bath.
Next, you will mix the honey with water, aiming to bring this mixture in line with the specific gravity of your beer. 2 gallons of water is sufficient for the mixture.
A few things to keep in mind. The first is to make sure your water is sanitized, so it is best to boil it first. Secondly, when adding the honey the water needs to be warm enough to make it easy to dissolve the honey. And lastly, since you are using 2 gallons of water you will need to keep this in mind when brewing your beer, if you want to end up with 5 gallons of finished product then only brew 3 gallons of beer. If you want to brew a standard 5-gallon beer recipe then your fermenter will need enough space to hold 7 gallons of total liquid (5 gallons of beer plus the 2 gallons of the water/honey mixture).
Next with your hydrometer take a gravity reading of your wort. That number is your target number, i.e. the number you are now going to attempt to bring the water and honey mixture up to.
Start by adding one pound of honey to the water at a time, mixing it up until the honey is dissolved, and then taking the gravity reading. Continue to add the honey until you have reached the gravity reading of your beer.
When you notice active fermentation occurring in your fermenter you can add the honey & water mixture to the fermenter.
Commercial Examples of Honey Beers
When it comes to trying honey beer your best bet is to see if any of your local craft breweries carry any on tap. Commercial examples of this style of beer are limited. However, the following are 3 you can try if you can find them:
Sam Adams Honey Porter – A porter that is reported as being smooth and not overly thick like some porters. It has an ABV of 5.5% and is brewed using Scottish Heather Honey.
Sleeman Honey Brown Lager – This beer is a lager that is a very smooth drinking beer that has subtle but distinguishable honey characteristics. It is brewed with all-natural beer honey and has an ABV of 5.2%.
Big Rock Honey Brown Lager – Coming in at an ABV of 5.0% this Amber Lager is an award-winning beer. It is brewed using honey and nugget and Fuggles hops.
Honey Beer Recipe
If you want to brew your own honey beer this recipe uses honey both in the boil and also in the fermenter using the pasteurization method described above.
We call it the Hunny Pot. It is a 5-gallon batch. You start out making 3 gallons of beer and then add the 2 gallons of water/honey mixture to the fermenter.
Approximate ABV: 5.5%
Estimated OG: 1.056
Estimates FG: 1.014
6 lbs Marris Otter
0.5 lbs Wheat Malt
0.25 lbs Amber Malt
0.5 lbs Raw Honey
3 lbs Pasteurized Honey
1 oz Fuggles (60 min)
1 oz Fuggles (dry hop at 3 – 4 days)
Yeast: Fermentis – Safale – English Ale Yeast S-04
Bring 3 gallons of water up to mash temp of 158℉. Add the 0.5 lbs of raw honey, and stir until dissolved. Add grains and mash for 60 minutes. Sparge with 170℉ water, use enough sparge water to be able to have 3 – 3.5 gallons left over after a 60-minute boil. Boil for 60 minutes. Add hops as per schedule. Chill wort to 70 – 75℉, transfer to a fermenter and add yeast. When active fermentation is visible add the water/honey (3lbs) mixture to the fermenter as explained above. On day 3 – 4 add dry hop. Let ferment for 10 days. Cold crash for 48 hours then bottle or keg.
Honey beer is a unique and delicious tasting beer that is growing rapidly in popularity. Depending on how it is brewed its taste is as diverse as the varieties of honey that can be used to brew it. Enjoy sampling the different styles you come across as well as brewing your own if you are so inclined.
Be sure to let us know if you brew this recipe and what you think of it.
P.S. For more beer recipes be sure to check out our gift to you on the side or bottom of the blog to get access to Robb’s top 5 recipes from his brewpub. Cheers!