Brewing Beer with Honey

by Brad Smith on September 5, 2009 · 39 comments

honey_webHoney, the main ingredient in mead, has become a popular addition for many beer brewers. Brewing with honey provides a rich array of aromas and flavors that add complexity and character to your beer. This week we’ll take a look at some of the ways to incorporate honey into your home brewed beer.

I started brewing with honey some 24 years ago, in one of my very first batches of beer. To be fair, my knowledge level was low at that time, so I dumped the honey directly into the boil, then rapidly fermented and bottled it. This caused significant problems, as boiling the honey effectively boiled off much of the flavor and aroma, and the honey was not fully fermented resulting in significant instability and gushing bottles.

Honey is a very complex ingredient. It contains a range of sugars, many simple and some complex as well as a chicken soup of living organisms including yeast, enzymes, and bacteria. It also has a very rich flavor profile with exotic, but fragile aromas. Unfortunately, boiling honey effectively boils off the delicate aromas and also deactivates many of the enzymes needed to break down and ferment the honey. Approximately 90-95% of the sugars in honey are fermentable.

This leaves a dilemma for the brewer, as you need to sterilize the honey to eliminate the bacteria without boiling off the aroma oils and destroying the enzymes. One way to use honey with your beer is to pasteurize it without boiling it:

  • 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). (Ref: Daniels)
  • 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.

Another option is to simply add it in the fermenter after the boil. Though honey is high in sugar, it has many antibiotic properties that help preserve it for long periods without storing, so many beer and mead brewers use it directly without pasteurizing it first.

The variety of honey to use depends on your desired flavor profile. Often the types used with mead are best, depending on the style of beer you are brewing and desired character.

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. Personally I recommend somewhere between 5-10% to give the beer a notable honey flavor and aroma without being overbearing.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s article from the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Have a great brewing week and don’t hesitate to subscribe for regular deliver.

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