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Vermont Brewers Use Honey to Make Sweet Beer

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Lucy & Howe Brewing's the Eternity of Now - COURTESY OF JESSE CRONIN
  • Courtesy Of Jesse Cronin
  • Lucy & Howe Brewing's the Eternity of Now

You can't make beer without sugar. The yeast needs something to eat in order to work its fermentation magic and transform a mixture of grain, hops and water into a double IPA, pilsner, stout or sour.

That sugar is usually hidden in malted grains. The first step of the brewing process is to mash those grains together with hot water, breaking down starches into fermentable sugars and forming the wort.

Several creative Vermont brewers are playing around with another homegrown sugar source: honey. They aren't totally replacing grain with honey — that would result in mead, not beer — but it's a versatile ingredient that can be used in every step of the brewing process. Depending on when it's added, honey can bring flavor and aroma, body, and even carbonation to beer.

The bouquet of recently available honey-flecked local beers includes Kraemer & Kin's Honey Ale, Burlington Beer's Beekeeper double IPA, Weird Window Brewing's Honey I'm Good Kölsch-style ale, Hill Farmstead's Anna, and 14th Star Brewing's Forget Me Not Kölsch-style ale.

Seven Days talked to three Chittenden County brewers about how they're using honey. Two of them are also beekeepers, and a third has enough patience to scrape honey out of individual 16-ounce jars.

Hive Minder

Four Quarters Brewing, 70 Main St., Winooski, 391-9120
Brian Eckert with his hives at Four Quarters Brewing - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Brian Eckert with his hives at Four Quarters Brewing

Brian Eckert was a beekeeper before he was a brewer. In fact, prior to opening Four Quarters Brewing in 2014, he was deciding between the two occupations. The beer won out business-wise, but Eckert still keeps a few hives — including two outside the brewery's expansive new space at the top of the Winooski traffic circle.

In May, Four Quarters, a 10-barrel brewhouse, added Honey Pilsner to its lineup, made with honey malt (a brew ingredient not made of honey) and five pounds of honey from Eckert's hives.

The crisp, light-bodied, amber-colored pilsner has a slight sweetness and distinct honey notes, especially compared to the brewery's standard pilsner, Dolla Dolla Pilz. The first release was so popular that it sold out, and Four Quarters had to brew more, head brewer Zack Lucas explained. This time it was with eight pounds of honey for the 10-barrel batch; it will be ready to release in mid-July.

Lucas was responsible for the idea and recipe behind the Honey Pilsner: He incorporated the honey malt in the mash and, after boiling, created a whirlpool-like vortex in the wort and added the honey. The combination of the heat from the boil and the vortex incorporated it evenly.

Adding honey at this point in the process captures its aromatics, Eckert explained, and gives the yeast an additional fermentable sugar to use.

Bee facts are incorporated on the can label, including: "During its lifetime, a honeybee will make 1/12 teaspoon of honey"; and "Summer worker bees will travel up to 6 miles to search for food, and use the sun to guide them home."

"It felt good to have our honey in something," Eckert said. "And I was excited to pass on the knowledge to people with those facts. They need to know the impact bees have on what we eat and drink."

Eckert's two hives are obscured on the side of Four Quarters' new building — careful observers might notice bees zooming to and from the pollinator garden planted around the patio, or to the massive container garden on the brewery's roof that's growing tomatoes, herbs, garlic and other produce.

Eckert sees similarities between brewing and beekeeping: Both are deeply connected to agriculture, relying on the symbiosis of nature and human intervention. And propagating a colony of bees is akin to propagating yeast.

"You feed them, they grow, and you can split things off," Eckert explained. "I don't make the honey. I nurture the bees. And I don't make the beer. I make wort; the yeast makes the beer."

Dangerously Drinkable

Lucy & Howe Brewing, 7 Mill St., Jericho, 232-2588

Jesse Cronin just happened to set up his table next to Pedro Salas of Bee Happy Vermont last summer at the Isham Family Farm farmers market. Cronin, who launched Lucy & Howe Brewing on May 1, 2020, was planning to brew a tripel and was looking for a honey source.

"I kind of needed it that day," Cronin explained. "I ended up taking all of his 16-ounce jars. [Salas] gave me the large-quantity price break, but I had to promise to bring the jars back the next week."

Scraping the honey out of individual jars wasn't the most efficient process, but it worked. Cronin released the Eternity of Now, a 10 percent tripel brewed with pilsner malt and Bee Happy honey, in early November 2020.

The tripel is a Belgian style of beer known for being light and dry, even though it's on the boozier side. "In Belgium, they typically add sugar to provide that dryness," Cronin explained. "The yeast just chews right through the sugar — it's like an appetizer for the yeast."

Adding honey instead of sugar fits with Cronin's approach at Lucy & Howe; he sources from small, local producers as much as possible, matching the scale of the less-than-400-square-foot, 1.5-barrel brewery behind his house in Jericho. "Because I do small-batch things, it's easier for me to use things like local honey," he said. "I don't need much to make an impact."

Cronin added five pounds of honey in the last 10 minutes of the boil as a fermentable sugar source, and an additional two pounds to bottle-condition the beer, for a total of about three pounds per barrel. It was enough to give the beer a bit of a honey back-note without being overpowering or cost-prohibitive.

Cronin has also used honey to prime a keg — adding carbonation to the final product — but that's not a regular occurrence. Most of Lucy & Howe's products are can-conditioned, and, while it's possible to swap honey for sugar in that process, it hasn't yet been a focus for the year-old brewery. Cronin is still brewing small-batch beers, monitoring how his customers receive them, tweaking recipes and sorting out a regular rotation.

The Eternity of Now will probably make its appearance again around Thanksgiving; Cronin considers it a beer with a sense of occasion.

"That's a meal beer for me," he said with a laugh. "You have to be careful, because they tend to be easy to drink. It's definitely one that should be shared."

House of Honey

House of Fermentology, 1211 Ethan Allen Hwy., Charlotte, 999-3020
Todd Haire (left) and Bill Mares - COURTESY OF HOUSE OF FERMENTOLOGY
  • Courtesy Of House Of Fermentology
  • Todd Haire (left) and Bill Mares

When Todd Haire and Bill Mares created House of Fermentology, they wanted to incorporate their beekeeping — and the honey's natural wild yeast — in their brewing process.

"I've been keeping bees with Bill for 10 or 15 years," Haire said. "We bartered my giving him beer for him teaching me about bees."

Now, even the small blendery's labels reference the world of bees, if subtly. Their Dot Series of beers is a nod to the common beekeeper practice of marking honeybee queens with a colorful dot to represent the year in which the queen was put into a hive.

Haire and Mares keep eight hives at Nordic Farms in Charlotte, where House of Fermentology is now based, in addition to hives Mares keeps at home in Burlington. They harvest 200 to 300 pounds of honey per year, Haire said, and use it in 75 to 80 percent of the beer they age.

The brewers are primarily using that honey in the secondary fermentation stage — adding 20 to 30 pounds of it per 225-liter oak barrel — along with fruit and botanicals. (They also use roughly two pounds of honey per 30 gallons to condition and carbonate beer in the bottle.)

The honey ferments completely dry, leaving a floral aroma and creating a soft, full-bodied mouthfeel. "You get that honey aroma when it's bottle-conditioned, but it's slight," Haire said. "I guess it's all in the eyes and nose and mouth of the person drinking it."

This year, he and Mares have been experimenting with brewing a braggot — a hybrid of beer and mead — using honey from French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans. House of Fermentology's small scale makes that experimentation easy and keeps the cost of ingredients such as honey relatively low. "But that's the beauty of being small," Haire said.

House of Fermentology's next release is a collaboration with Jim Williams of Charlotte's Backdoor Bread called Complementary Dots. It will be available on the July 4 weekend at Foam Brewers, which Haire co-owns. The mixed-culture beer includes loaves of Williams' rye bread, added during a long warm steep at the end of the brewing process. As with other beers in the Dot Series, honey was added during secondary fermentation.

Even the yeast at House of Fermentology has a honey connection. The brewers cultured wild yeast from the honey — along with apple blossoms and Vermont eastern red cedar — and found that it added a complexity to the beer it fermented. They've since sent the wild yeast to be banked at a yeast lab, where it can be grown and sent back for use in subsequent batches.

Using honey in brewing is one way to increase outlets for the state's beekeepers, no matter when it's added to the process.

"Honey in this state is pretty amazing," Haire said. "I don't know why people don't use it more often."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Catch a Buzz | Three Vermont brewers use honey as an ingredient in beer"