Nick Carr on March 30, 2016 12 Comments Table of Contents Why Honey? Choosing Your Honey Brewing With Honey Adding The Honey Mention honey in reference to brewing and you’ll likely get one of two responses: A blank questioning stare or a reply of, “Oh, you mean the stuff the Vikings drank.” Though probably the first sugar to be, accidentally and then purposely mad into a fermented beverage, honey is not a well-known brewing ingredient. Interestingly the earliest historical evidence of beer is an ancient brew containing some amount of honey. Even mead, in which honey is the main star, has never gained the same popularity of beer or wine. This is largely due to three factors: mass production of honey is harder than mass production of grapes or barley, using honey on a commercial scale gets expensive quickly, and the variability of honey year to year is impossible to control. Despite these setbacks the use of honey in beer has regained some popularity over the last decade or so. Even so, honey fortified beer remains, for the most part, only a passing fancy, usually relegated to a craft brewer’s “experimental” line of brews, and rarely gaining a foothold as a year-round or even seasonal offering. Why Honey? So why add honey to your homebrew? Well luckily as homebrewers we are not under the same constraints as commercial craft brewers. We don’t have to worry about variability or getting massive amounts of honey. Granted, even on a small scale honey can be somewhat expensive, but there are things you can do to lessen the cost, which I’ll get into further down. An often quoted fact about beer compared to mead is that it’s more nutritious, but what never seems to be mentioned is if honey is handled with minimal heating, mead is almost assuredly more medicinal. Honey is made up of 95% fermentable sugars (fructose and glucose), a percentage of identified plant and mineral compounds, and a percentage of unidentified compounds. It contains a plethora of enzymes, organic acids, trace minerals, and antimicrobial compounds. A search of the internet will find a number of amazing health studies done with honey. In short, honey is a living food. If this alone doesn’t get you excited there are some less health-oriented, more brew-oriented reasons for using honey. When added to beer, much like any other simple sugar, it will raise the alcohol level and lighten the body. It can also add flavorful sweetness if desired. In many cases honey will ferment completely away, leaving no residual sweetness — remember 95% fermentable. But if enough is used, and treated in the proper way it can leave subtle sweetness behind. A brewer can even go as far as defining the sweet character by the type of honey used. Choosing Your Honey I always recommend brewing with raw unfiltered honey. Natural, minimally processed honey brings with it all the vitamins, trace minerals, nutrients, and antiseptic compounds. Filtered and highly pasteurized honey can still be used to brew, but it has lost all the “good stuff,” including much of the flavor and aroma. And ultra-pasteurized honey has lost its pollen fingerprint. There is no way to tell where the honey was sourced from. It’s actually not even considered honey anymore. It’s like comparing a dead tree to a living tree. Sure it may look like a tree, it may still be standing and have branches, but it isn’t what it once was. It isn’t alive. As with any other brewing ingredient, let your senses judge a honey’s quality. Smell it. Taste it. Imagine how it will work in a given beer. The specific nectar used by bees will impact the honey’s color, aroma, and flavor. Is it an intense dark buckwheat honey with flavors reminiscent of dark malt or a lighter Tupelo honey with floral/fruity complexity? There are way too many honey varieties to get into here, the U.S. alone produces more than 300 types, but the National Honey Board website has an informative list of honey varieties and a downloadable FAQ sheet about brewing with honey including a chart of common honey’s and what beer style they’d work best in. As a general rule, the darker the honey the stronger the aroma and flavor. It follows then that a darker honey would likely be more at home in a darker beer style. Local wildflower honey is usually a good all around option. It is usually easy to find and because it’s made from the nectar of many different flowers it is one of the most healthful honeys, while specialty (one bloom) honeys may be higher in one vitamin or mineral this increase is usually offset by a decrease of some other vitamin or mineral. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has severally limited bee populations and honey production during the last few years, and though much of the scientific community is working to help this hard-working and vastly important insect, they are not out of the woods yet. Much of the problem has been linked to heavy pesticide use. An easy way to help fight CCD is by buying local organic honey when possible. Buying local also cuts down on the cost while supporting your local farmers. Local beekeepers are often only too happy to strike up a deal for bulk honey. There’s always the possibility of a beekeeper having a store of older honey or needing some help with the hives. Get to know your local beekeeper, along with any other local farmers who might contribute ingredients to a brew. Make friends, let them know what you’re doing, and build long-term relationships. If you need a little help locating honey in your area (outside of the supermarket) check out the National Honey Board’s honey locator. You can search by both location and honey variety, making it an excellent resource to finding good quality honey. Brewing With Honey Raw or Pasteurized Brewers tend to make a big to-do about the need to pasteurize honey before fermenting. The old rule was to add it to the boil. Others say lower temperature pasteurization is all that’s needed. The thinking behind both of these approaches is to kill off any wild yeast and bacteria living in the honey. Problem is heating honey destroys much of the fragile aroma and flavor compounds. It also kills most of the “good stuff” in the honey. So, I don’t use either approach and don’t believe it’s necessary. Honey is antibacterial, so the chance of bacteria being a problem is minuscule. I’ve brewed quite a few meads and honey beers and have never heated the honey, and never experienced a brew that I’d categorize as contaminated or having off-flavors due to bacteria or wild yeast from the honey. If you’re afraid of wild yeasts or bacteria you can pasteurize it yourself. There are several different methods, temperatures, and time lengths written about around the internet. Your first and easiest option is adding it during the boil (I talk more about this approach below). The other most quoted way is to hold the honey at 176°F for up to two hours. There are two ways to do this. You can place the honey in a baking pan in the oven, stirring and checking the temperature once in a while. It can also be done by diluting the honey with water in a lidded saucepan to the same gravity as your wort, and holding it at 176°F on the stovetop. After the time is up cool the honey or honey-water dilution down to fermentation temperatures as fast as you can. If you are comfortable pasteurizing at a lower temperature and/or for less time, go for it, but do what you have to do to be comfortable with adding the honey to your brew. The Mash If the yeast ferments out all the sugar provided by the honey it is likely you will end up with a thin bodied beer. To avoid this, all-grain brewers can raise their mash temperatures into the upper range of the brewer’s window, 155°F to 158°F. This favors the enzyme alpha amaylase, which creates more non-fermentable sugars, adding perceived body to the beer. Extract brewers may want to add 6 to 8 ounces of maltodextrin to help increase body. How Much Honey? How much honey you use is going to depend on the variety and how much honey characteristic you want in your finished beer. Honey varieties vary in both water content and sweetness, so the gravity points honey adds is variable. What percentages are we looking at using in our brew? The National Honey Board has some amount recommendations based on their own research: 3-10% — A subtle flavor is contributed to the ale or lager. Most commercially available honeys such as clover, alfalfa, orange blossom, sage and mixed wildflower are very mild in aromatic flavor intensity. 11-30% — A distinctly noticeable honey flavor note will develop. Stronger hop flavors, caramelized or roasted malts, spices or other ingredients should be carefully considered when formulating recipes to balance stronger honey flavors at this higher level. More than 30% — The flavor of the honey will likely dominate the other flavors in the beer. The beverage should probably be considered in a category of its own. Generally, honey varieties will have a specific gravity between 1.032 and 1.040. Many brewers will use a number somewhere in the middle of that range for all honey calculations, say 1.037, and never get anymore exact. You could even vary the number slightly just by the perceived quality of the honey; lower quality honey will likely have more water content and thus a lower specific gravity than higher quality. In most cases this will get you close enough to your desired original gravity to make little difference. If you plan to use a specific honey a lot you may want to get a more exact specific gravity. Remember specific gravity is a measurement of points per pound per gallon, so you could dilute a pound of honey into a gallon of water and take a gravity measurement. Off course, this wastes honey (though I do hope you’d brew with the dilution). To avoid any waste you can scale this down to 2 cups final volume and 2 ounces of honey. There are 16 cups in a gallon, so 2 cups is 1/8th of a gallon and there’s 16 ounces in a pound so 2oz. is 1/8th of a pound. This article on Brew-Dudes outlines the process in more detail. Either way you do it you’d have a gravity reading for that specific honey. Once you have the specific gravity of the honey, whether calculated or assumed, you can figure out how many gravity points a pound of the honey will add to your wort. Remember, specific gravity is basically gravity points with a 1.0 tacked on so 1.037 specific gravity equals 37 gravity points. So, let’s apply this to a beer. There are two ways to do this depending on whether you are adding the honey directly to a full volume batch or diluting the honey into a volume of water and then using this volume to bring your wort to the desired batch size. 1. Adding Honey Directly: Say you’ve brewed a 5 gallon batch of cream ale at 1.045 and now you want to add enough honey to top it out at an original gravity of 1.055. First, we calculate the gravity points in your projected original gravity — (5 x 55) = 275 Then, calculate the present gravity points in your 5 gallons of wort — (5 x 45) = 225 Subtract to get the points that will come from the honey — 275 – 225 = 50 Divide by the gravity points of a pound of honey — 50 / 37 = 1.35 lbs. of honey needed. This fits pretty closely with the general notion that a pound of honey adds roughly 1.007 to 1.0075 to the specific gravity of a 5 gallon batch of beer. 2. Diluting to Original Gravity: This method is accomplished by brewing a smaller wort and topping it off either in the boil or fermenter with a volume of honey-water at the same specific gravity as the wort. If using this method to add honey after fermentation is started, dilute the honey to the fermentation’s present specific gravity. Let’s look at the same beer as above. You’ve brewed your cream ale, but this time to a volume of only 4 gallons at the original gravity of 1.055. You want to dilute the right amount of honey into one gallon of water to bring it up to the same gravity. In our sample case, one pound of honey will raise the gravity to 1.037. Subtract: 55-37 = 18 gravity points left. Divide: 18 / 37 = 0.48 or around half a pound of honey. So 1.5 pounds of honey dissolved in one gallon of water will give a specific gravity close to 1.055. If you had 3 gallons of wort and 2 gallons of honey water that first pound would give a gravity of 1.017, half of what it would in one gallon of water. In two gallons you’d need twice as much honey to bring it up to the same gravity. Adding The Honey There are several places you can add the honey. The final results can vary drastically between some of these methods. In the Boil: Pasteurizes the honey. Few if any flavor/aroma compounds will remain, kills the “good stuff.” Use this approach if you don’t care about having the aroma or flavor making up a part of the beer’s final character and you’re only using the honey as a sugar source to bump up starting gravity and/or thin out your beer. At Flame Out: Pasteurizes the honey, kills the “good stuff,” but theoretically leaves more flavor/aroma compounds. Can be used if you feel boiling the honey is overkill and you are looking to possibly have traces of the honey’s flavor and aroma in your finished beer. Note that even this approach will not preserve much of the volatile compounds. In the Fermentor at High Kraeusen (Peak Yeast Activity): Will not pasteurize the honey. Adding the honey 2 to 4 days into fermentation gives the yeast time to work on the complex maltose sugars provided by the malt before turning to the simple sugars. There is a slight chance of the yeast tiring before all the maltose is dealt with if honey is added any time before high kraeusen. In the Fermentor as Fermentation Ends: Will not pasteurize the honey. Adding honey here will preserve more of its sweet character and faint flavor and aromatic qualities. In the Secondary: Will not pasteurize the honey. Adding honey here will likely preserve the highest amount of honey character. As I said earlier I don’t pasteurize at all, so the only place I add the honey is during fermentation with no beforehand heating whatsoever. I either start with a smaller volume brew and bring it to full volume by topping it off with a honey-water dilution at the same gravity; or I simply warm the container of honey in a pan of water on the stove — so it flows easily — and add it directly to a full volume/lower gravity fermentation. That’s how I brew with honey. Take it for what it’s worth. And again, do what you’re comfortable with. Takeaways There is much to be discovered at the crossroads where brewing and honey meet. The huge selection of honey varieties coupled with the innumerable variations in brewing technique, yeast strains, hop varieties, and malt bills makes for endless experimentation. So, look to the bee and his humble honeyed work the next time you’re looking for an easy sugar source to stick into your newest recipe. Happy Brewing!