Honey; The Bees Knees and the Brewers Need

Part One: The Bees Knees

As far as natural sweeteners go, there is simply nothing better that honey. Incredibly flavorful, naturally preserved, produced by fluffy little bright yellow critters, many health benefits and even more uses. Honey is complex and has been very important to human health for thousands of years. It has been used for medicinal purposes as well as culinary. One of the most significant uses was, and still is, brewing.

Honey is as ancient as history itself. In fact, there are many estimations on when humans first started consuming honey, most ancient being dated around 6000-8000 BCE, depicted as cave paintings in Valencia, Spain. The Egyptians were perhaps the earliest dated recordings of bee-keeping and purposefully building honey-beer habitats; workers had been inscribed on the walls of tombs blowing smoke into hives and extracting honey combs around 2422 BCE and ancient pots of honey have been found still intact and still well-preserved in many tombs, including Tutankhamen’s tomb. In ancient Greece, aspects of the lives of bees and beekeeping are discussed at length by Aristotle. In every corner of ancient history, the collection and consumption of honey can be found.

The type of honey is dependent on two key factors: the type of bee and the nectar source (blossoms) visited by the bees. I north America alone, there are 300 unique types of honey available, each originating from a different local flower source. Honey can range as much in color as it can in flavor; it can be nearly colorless and very light in flavor or dark brown and very strong-tasting.White_Clover_0

a few very common types of honey are:

Clover: which is a very familiar flavor. considered very middle of the road.

Heather: Pale, yet intense, resinous; gel like thixatropic properties. comes from the pollination of heather flowers

Tupelo: Complex, floral/fruity flavors; high in fructose

Buckwheat: Dark and very intense, malty, molasses characterbuckwheathoney

Alfalfa: Extremely pale color and delicate flavor

Sage: Three varieties of varying color; all have an elegant floral character.

Bees, much like the honey they produce, are unique snowflakes which are have different characteristics and physiological differences. There are close to 25000 known types of bees all around the world and these 25000 species can be divided into roughly 4000 genera (types of bees) belonging within 9 groups of “families”, all under the title or banner “Apoidea”, which also includes ‘sphecoid wasps’, from which bees are believed to be descended.

Honey bees also have their own special family which is classified as “Apis Mellifera” and each breed has their own pros and cons. Some breeds are more hardy and can withstand long winters, others are more aggressive and are prone to “swarming”, and some are bred to withstand specific pests and diseases. A few common types of honey bees are:

Italian Honey bee: Considered more calm than western honey bees, very good housekeeper, more suited for warmer temperatures.

Carnolian honey bee: very peaceful, easy breeders but tend to swarm.

Caucasian Honey Bee: Inclined to drifting and robbing, but very calm.

Russian Honey bee: Hardy, accustomed to long winters, but pretty aggressive and prone to swarming. immune to many pests and diseases

In each hive, there is one queen; who lays the eggs and is the only female bee in the hive who has the full reproductive capacity. Then there are worker bees. There are usually between 10,000 to 50,000 in a colony, and they are female bees who lack the ability to breed. Worker bees essentially collect nectar from plants to create honey, pollinate the local flora and rear the larva.When the nectar is sucked up through the proboscis, mixed with enzymes in the stomach, and carried back to the hive, it is stored in wax cells and evaporated into honey. The ladies lead they way in honey production, the male honey bee (aka drone) leave the nest to mate and then die. There are usually between 100 and 500 males in each colony.



Honey production mostly takes place within the hive, however having a productive apiary takes a lot of hard work and planning. Bee keepers need ample access to the correct plants that the bees require for nectar, a breed of bee which is suitable for their environment, properly built hives, the right equipment and a profound knowledge of how pesticides, mites and diseases can detrimentally affect the bees. Bee hives constructed by man should resemble a bedside table with drawers that contain the brood and other layers which contain the honey. University of Missouri gives an excellent depiction of how to build a bee hive:

Purchase new equipment at first. Assembling new equipment is a learning experience you should not overlook.

Regardless of how you acquire the equipment, make sure you get standard size, Langstroth equipment with hanging, movable frames (Figure 1). You can interchange and add standard hive equipment as needed. A brood chamber should consist of

  • Two hive bodies (deep supers)
  • The hive body and two shallow supers
  • Four shallow supers
  • Three medium supers.

The standard hive body is 9-5/8 inches deep, 16-1/4 inches wide and 19-7/8 inches long. The shallow super is the same width and length but is only 5-11/16 inches deep. The medium super is 6-5/8 inches deep (Figure 2). You can use all shallow boxes to reduce the weight of individual sections and make them easier to handle, but this can also be inconvenient. Remember four shallow boxes are required for a brood chamber.

Wooden frames for holding the combFigure 1
Wooden frames for holding the comb, hang inside the body of a hive. Frames are sized for shallow, medium or deep hive bodies.

Parts of a bee hiveFigure 2
Parts of a beehive. Bees are reared in a brood chamber in the lowest level of the hive. Honey is stored in upper levels.Hive boxes are built to contain 10 frames, but using nine frames and a following board is more convenient than using 10 frames. The following board is a 1 x 10-inch board (1 x 4-inch for shallows) the same length as a frame. It hangs in one end of the hive body and is removed when you’re working the bees. The board reduces damage to the brood and reduces hive inspection time.

Use full sheets of crimp-wired foundation for brood frames. The wax foundation is wired vertically at the factory. In addition, use two banjo wires strung horizontally across the frames to prevent warping of brood comb. Various plastic foundations and foundation-and-frame combinations are available. Plastic foundation material works well but it must be coated with beeswax, and bees must either be fed or in a honey flow before they will “draw out,” or build their comb on, a plastic foundation.

A strong colony will require at least four shallow supers for honey storage. Add them as needed in the spring and extract them when full. Many beekeepers prefer to use medium boxes for brood and supers.

Use crimp-wired wax foundation or plastic foundation in frames. Use nine frames in each super and use stoller spacers on the frame rests. Stoller spacers properly space nine frames in a 10-frame box.


Part Two: The Brewers Needs

Brewing with honey was possibly the first type of fermentation that took place among humans. Honey, the main ingredient in mead is growing in popularity in modern brewing and is considered a very “niche” oriented craft. Mead is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Brewing with honey provides a rich array of aromas and flavors which add complexity and character to many beers.

The misuse of honey in beer can lead to some undesirable attributes: Boil the honey too much and you destroy many of its palatable aromas and flavors, if honey is not fully fermented, it can also lead to gushing bottles. Furthermore, although honey is technically naturally preserved by the high sugar content (which is estimated to be 90-95% fermentable), it is essentially a mecca of bacteria, enzymes and yeasts which may end up being harmful to beer production. Careful handling and pasteurization of honey must be taken very seriously as a result.

Sine honey is so fragile and yet poses some serious threats to beer, the brewer is left with the dilemma of needing to pasteurize the honey without losing the incredible, delicate, delicious flavors and aromas. to pasteurize honey properly, you must:

  1. Mix the honey with water to dilute it to approximately the same gravity as the wort you are planning to add it to.
  2. Heat the honey to around 80C and hold it there for around 60-90 minutes. if you can, hold they honey under a CO2 blanket, but if not just use a pot cover.
  3. After cooling the honey to room temperature, add it immediately to the beer either while it is fermenting (preferably at high krausen) or after flame out when the wort has cooled to below 70C.
  4. Allow adjustment to your fermentation time. Honey takes a notoriously long time to ferment, so be patient and take samples before you package your beer. It is suggested that you should allow an additional 3-8 weeks for full fermentation, although meads are fermented for up to a year or more.

The type of honey you use depends entirely on the flavor profile you wish to add to your beer. Often the types of honey which are used for mead are best suited for brewing, however with some flavor profile analysis, any type of honey could add beautiful characteristics to any beer.

In regards to modern beer, honey if more often seen as an adjunct; most commonly in lager, porters and brown ales. Belgian lambic beers have been known to call for honey as well. Common honey type fermented beverages include:

Braggot: a combination of malts and honey fermentation

Brochet: Mead made from honey that has been boiled and darkened; “burnt sack mead”mead

Cyser: Mead and apple cider fermented together

Eismead: made by removing chunks of ice from partially frozen mean, concentrating alcohol and flavor, which is considered distilling and is also illegal… so please don’t try it.

Hippocras: mead fermented with grapes, grape juice  and spices

Pyment: mead fermented with grapes and raisins

Melomel: mead fermented with various fruits

Metheglin: Mead flavored with herbs and spices

Miodomel: hopped mead

Sack Mead: Heavy sweet mead made with sherry (sake) characteristics

Weirdo-mel: Mead which has been fermented with what-the-fuck-ever you could find… (like atomic fireball jaw breakers, jolly ranchers, ponies, gym socks… whatever…)

Ode to sustainability

With all of this incredible information of the importance of honey in mind, and being that One out of every three bites of food we take relies on bees for pollination, there are some serious concerns about how bees going extinct due to out pollution of the atmosphere, dangerous pesticides called neonics. Out of 100 major crops, 70 are pollinated by bees (mostly vegetables and fruits). These critical critters are dying at some of the highest rates ever recorded 42 percent of North American bee colonies collapsed in 2015, well above the average 31 percent that have been dying each winter for nearly a decade.







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One Response to Honey; The Bees Knees and the Brewers Need

  1. Peter Johnston-Berresford says:

    Superb effort. Even an Entomologist would be impressed. Too bad most of the little furry buggers sting! Peter.


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