From Bees to Beer
By Ben Keene / Photo by Michael Piazza / Styling by Catrine Kelty
Last summer, when news got out that staffers stocked President Barack Obama’s campaign bus with White House homebrew, beer enthusiasts set the internet ablaze with excitement. According to historical records, it was the first alcohol ever distilled or brewed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That same August, more than 12,000 people signed an online petition asking the administration “to release the recipe for the White House homebrew so that it may be enjoyed by all.” Two short weeks later they got their wish when the White House blog published the ingredients and directions for Honey Ale and Honey Porter. As novel as these beers might have been, especially in an election year, one important ingredient distinguished them from their peers: honey from the Presidential beehive.
A common item in any good pantry and a flavorful sweetener in many a recipe, honey is no stranger to the brew kettle. During the Middle Ages, brewers used a portion of honey equaling or exceeding the amount of malt in the recipe to produce a strong drink called braggot. Mentioned in the Canterbury Tales and enjoyed for centuries, a few examples of this anachronistic beer can still be found today with a bit of effort. And when it comes to honey beers in general, they’ve become one of the more popular offerings from many of greater Boston’s new class of young breweries. From the Merrimack River Valley to Somerville, Everett, and even Fiskdale to the west, honey beers seem to have proliferated as fast as these beer businesses themselves.
“We’ve been making ours going back to at least 2002,” says Karl Baldrate, head brewer at Rapscallion in Fiskdale. “At the time, there were no other honey beers that we were aware of.”
Since then it’s become the flagship release for the company that started out as Concord Junction Brewing in West Concord. Along the way, this extra pale ale has converted many a barfly with its crisp, dry profile.
“A lot of people have said ‘I’m not a beer drinker, but I like this beer,’” claims Baldrate. “If you ask me, it’s the best honey beer on the market.”
Whether or not it’s the best, Rapscallion Honey is far from the only example in the area. Which simply means that any mention of “number one” naturally sparks a bit of good-natured debate. Cody Brewing in Amesbury markets Gee Man’s Lemon Honey Hypnotic Tonic and Honey Gingah Pale Ale, both made with their namesake ingredient. Up in Gloucester, Cape Ann Brewing regularly keeps a keg of Honey Pilsner in their tap rotation, a light bodied, low gravity (or low in alcohol) lager with a whisper of sweetness provided by unprocessed wildflower honey from Merrimack Valley Apiaries. Night Shift Brewing in Everett also uses this sticky golden substance in their Bee Tea, but instead of a native product, relies on orange blossom honey from Florida for this ale’s delicate citric character. And regional honey makes another appearance in Slumbrew’s Happy Sol Blood Orange Hefeweizen, a beer that placed second behind Allagash White in a recent rating of wheat beers produced in New England.
“It’s been wildly popular because if its unique ingredients,” explains Caitlin Jewell, co-owner of the Somerville Brewing Company, or Slumbrew as they’re better known. “Some might say honey is just a source of fermentable sugar available at a restaurant supply warehouse. That’s the opposite of how we think about our ingredients, their origins, our partners, and our products.”
Somerville Brewing usually gets theirs from the Boston Honey Company in Holliston, but has also obtained this sugary ingredient from McLure’s Honey and Maple Products in New Hampshire.
“Both can provide the large volumes we require for Happy Sol,” she says, “but most importantly the product is just lovely. We source hundreds and hundreds of pounds at a time.”
Turning up in the nose as much as the taste, honey is primarily fructose and glucose and as such ferments out when added to beer. It’s a slow process as yeast consumes its way through this additional sugar during fermentation, converting it into alcohol and carbonation in the process. Often, but not always, this leads to a more potent beverage. Left behind are flavors and aromas acquired from the flowering plants in the vicinity of the beehive—flora such as clover, or wildflowers for instance. The subtle differences between each variety will change the end result in ways that the observant consumer will notice. Lacking protein, honey doesn’t contribute to the body of a beer the way additional barley, wheat, or oats would, but instead imparts a degree of roundness and softness to the mouthfeel.
“I haven’t really had any problems brewing with honey,” says Dylan L’Abbe-Lindquist, head brewer at Cape Ann. The brewpub’s Honey Pilsner grew out of one of his first homebrew recipes. As he explains it, the main challenge was scaling up from brewing several gallons at a time to batches of 20 barrels, or 620 gallons. Twenty pounds of honey end up in this Czech-style pilsner, supplying just enough grainy sweetness to complement the gentle spiciness of the European hops. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not getting the full flavor out of it, but the honey, and the beer for that matter, will vary from batch to batch,” he explains. “I add the honey right after the boil so the product has a chance to be fully blended without losing the flavor and aroma that can happen if the honey is added during the boil.”
Michael Oxton, co-founder of Night Shift Brewing, tells a similar story about Bee Tea, a wheat ale made with orange blossom honey, orange peel, and organic green tea from Mem Tea Imports in Somerville. “The beer has been received really, really well by our audience,” he says. “We wanted some strong citrus in the flavor (as wheat beers tend to go well with citrus), so we went with the combo of orange peel and orange blossom honey.”
Like Cape Ann, Night Shift doses their Bee Tea with honey during the whirlpool stage, when grain husks, hop fragments, and other unwanted sediments are separated from the unfermented beer. The key to Bee Tea’s complex flavor, however, is the interplay between the fruity honey and the loose leaf tea, an idea that arose when Robert Burns, one of the other co-founders, came down with a cold and wondered whether green tea and honey could translate into a beer concept. Resembling raw honey with its hazy amber color, Bee Tea balances sweet and tangy tones with a subtle herbal finish that dries out the palate.
Baldrate takes a somewhat different approach, incorporating 50 pounds, or five gallons, of native honey from Palmer 15 minutes before the end of the boil for each 20-barrel batch of Rapscallion Honey.
“I was looking for a crisp beer with not a lot of overtones,” he notes, “so I worked with different yeasts and different honeys. Everything we used was fresh, but the best was local wildflower honey.”
Aiming for an accessible beer—Rapscallion is quite low in bitterness and only 4.5 percent alcohol by volume—he says this product went from being a house beer at a raw bar and café on Cape Cod to the brewery’s current best seller. One sip of this mild mannered, approachable ale and it’s clear he has succeeded. The telltale sweetness detectable in other examples of honey beer is faint in Baldrate’s version, while a light touch with Pacific Northwest hop varieties gives it a clean finish that won’t wear out your taste buds, even after a few pints.
In the end, the brewer must decide if they want to design a beer with a prominent honey flavor and aroma or if they’d rather the honey contribute to the overall character of the drink without necessarily taking center stage. Happy Sol, Slumbrew’s honey beer, falls into the latter category, its floral wildflower honey mingling with pungent hops, zesty orange peel, tart blood orange juice, and spicy coriander to yield a sophisticated sipper well suited for a pairing with a light appetizer, a salad with a citrusy dressing, or a mild, semisoft cheese such as mozzarella.
With honey now appearing in area wheat beers, pale ales, and even a lighter lager, it remains to be seen whether a local brewery will follow the lead of the White House and brew a honey porter, or maybe, darker yet, a honey stout. Perhaps Mystic or Trillium, two other newcomers to the Boston beer scene, will introduce a honey saison. Or maybe there’s room in the market for a new take on one of America’s favorite beer styles, the near-ubiquitous India Pale Ale. Another possibility is a beer that doubles down on ingredients grown nearby, sourcing both honey and barley from New England or Massachusetts. It might not happen overnight and it probably won’t require a petition, but a honey beer with a delicious boost of local character isn’t such a far-fetched prospect, especially with so many creative brewers constantly working to improve their beers.
“I’d love to rely on local hops and local barley,” says Rapscallion’s Baldrate. “We just need growers that can keep up.”
Ben Keene is a beer journalist and travel writer. In December, Voyageur Press will release his third book, The Great Northeast Brewery Tour. Follow him on Twitter: @whereandback