Last year I brewed a honey chocolate porter. It was a recipe that I found on the net and then adjusted according to my own taste. After the brew, I decided to do a little research on brewing with honey.
History of beer and honey
Historically, honey has been used to make a fermented drink for around 7000 years! This drink was in the form of mead, a honey wine. Honey was a universal sweetener, almost the only available to the people of those ancient civilisations.
Beer made by the Anglo-Saxons was a brew of water and honeycomb made in a clay pot, to which herbs may have been added for flavouring.
But beer brewing has come a long way since then and quite a bit of research has gone into the subject.
Honey’s effect on beer
Wild yeasts and bacteria are common in honey but remain fairly inactive due to the low water content. However, diluting this in wort will cause these microbes to become active again. Brewers assume that boiling the honey is the way to go, but doing this will destroy the flavours and aromas that the honey may impart. It will also deactivate many of the enzymes needed to break down and ferment the honey.
Honey comprises two principal sugars Levulose (38.19%) and Dextrose (31.28%) which contribute approx. 70% of the total components of honey. With water at another 17%, the final components are from additional sugars of sucrose 1.31% and maltose 7.31% and a small amount of acids and other minor components such as pigments and flavour and aroma components. The carbohydrates in honey are 95% fermentable, when compared with malt extract at approx 70% it becomes clear that after fermentation honey leaves little residual sweetness in the beer and the flavour and aroma profile added can be very subtle. It is also important to mention that honey is low in enzymes and other nutrients which are required by the yeast to metabolise sugars into alcohol and CO2.
Brewing with honey
So, how do we sterilise the honey? The best way is pasteurise the honey without boiling it. According to Beersmith.com, the best way to use honey with your beer is as follows:
- If possible, mix the honey with water to dilute it to approximately the same gravity as the wort you are planning to add it to.
- Heat the honey to approximately 176 F (80 C) and hold it for 60-90 minutes. Ideally you would like to keep the honey under a CO2 blanket if you have a CO2 tank, but if not at least cover the pot.
- After cooling the honey, add it directly to the beer while it is fermenting. Ideally it should be added at high kraeusen (when fermentation is at its maximum activity).
- Allow additional time to ferment before bottling. Honey takes a notoriously long time to fully ferment. At a minimum I would allow 3-8 weeks more for full fermentation, though many meads are fermented for a year or more.
For practical purposes, honey quantities could be directly substituted with that of liquid malt extract. In terms of fermentability, honey would be slightly more efficient. The percentage of honey to use should be between approximately 2-10%. Adding too much honey will not only increase the needed fermentation time, but also give the beer a decidedly mead-like character.
There are 4 factors to consider when choosing honey: Aroma, flavour, colour and body. Aroma and flavour are influenced by the flowers from which the nectar is gathered. Colour also depends on the flower and can vary from almost clear to dark. Body depends on floral source and how the honey is extracted and blended.
Honey that is generally available in supermarkets is “blended” honey which means that honey supplied by beekeepers is all mixed together in a big vat and bottled (there is no need to process honey). Varietal honey can also be purchased with the type stated on the jar. Just be a bit careful of using some of the eucalypt honeys as their flavour profile can be reasonably severe. They would be suitable for more highly spiced beers.