Every September, as the season for harvesting honey draws to a close, the National Honey Board celebrates the wondrous sweetener produced by honeybees from the nectar of plants and flowers.
In the past few years, the importance of bees in the natural environment and in the agricultural economy on which California depends has become better understood.
Honey has been fermented into mead for millennia, but it can also add a unique character to beer. Many people expect honey beers to be sweet, but honey is largely glucose and fructose, both of which are highly fermentable by yeast, so very little residual sweetness is left behind. Honey instead tends to increase the alcohol content, lighten the body and produce unique aromatic and flavor compounds, depending on the source of the nectar – from the mild flavors of alfalfa honey to the distinct herbal notes of rosemary honey.
The buzz on honey beers
Following are tasting notes from honey beers produced by four California breweries.
• Golden State Brewery opened earlier this year in Santa Clara, and Heritage Honey Ale was its first release. Brewed with 85 percent malt and 15 percent orange blossom honey, the beer exhibits a deep golden color and a fluffy white head. Lightly sweet floral honey notes are immediately apparent in the aroma, with lightly toasted malt also prominent. Hops are not the star of this beer, and don’t make much impact in the aroma, but they provide a gentle bitterness to pleasantly balance the malt and honey characteristics. The flavor highlights more malt than honey, and the finish is soft and subtle, with a hint of hop bitterness persisting throughout.
• Stone 20th Anniversary Citracado IPA, produced by Stone Brewing in Escondido, is a Double IPA featuring Citra hops and avocado flower honey. The beer is copper-colored with a relatively short-lived tan head, and fresh gooseberry and grapefruit notes of Citra hops dominate the aroma. On the palate, sharp hop bitterness hits up front, followed by a predominantly piney hop flavor (in addition to Citra, Citracado also includes Nugget, El Dorado and Centennial hops), with malt relegated to a supporting role. The mouthfeel is quite smooth, yet resinous bitterness persists through the finish, where it is joined by mild herbal, earthy and floral characteristics. The avocado honey adds an interesting complexity without drawing attention to itself.
• Mandarin Nectar, from Alpine Beer Co. in San Diego, includes coriander and orange zest in addition to orange blossom honey, so it seems appropriate that the beer is orange-colored as well. The beer has a moderate white head, and the aroma is dominated by the coriander addition, with mild hints of citrus also present. The flavor mirrors the aroma, with citrus character overwhelmed by the coriander, and the delicate floral essence of orange blossom honey is difficult to detect. With medium sweetness, the beer calls out for more carbonation and more hop bitterness to provide balance.
• San Jose’s Almanac Beer Co. added wildflower honey, lavender and cara cara oranges to its Lavender Honey de Brettaville, an oak-aged blonde ale fermented with Brettanomyces yeast. The beer pours a murky golden color with almost no head, and the aroma showcases a complex bouquet of lavender, lemon and pineapple tartness, vanilla and earthy funk. (It sounds strange, but it all works together!) The lavender and tart acidity take over on the palate, and the beer completely avoids the “soapy” character that can come from herb additions. The finish is crisp, bright and floral – I wouldn’t have known honey was an ingredient if the label didn’t say so, but it definitely contributes to the complex profile of this unique brew.
Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.