For tens of thousands of years, honey was known as the “universal sweetener,” being the primary source of sugar in many parts of the world. Some of the earliest alcoholic beverages were made with diluted fermented honey – beer and mead included. Belgian brewers, in particular, have become known for their ales brewed with sugars and spices. The Biere de Miel (French for “honey beer”) may be familiar only to connoisseurs of Belgian beers, but anyone who’s tasted the version produced by Brasserie Dupont has likely gained a profound appreciation for the merits of this style.
BEFORE WE GET DOWN TO BEES-NESS, HERE’S A LITTLE BEER SCIENCE VOCABULARY THAT WILL MAKE IT A BIT EASIER TO DIGEST:
- diastatic enzyme: substance present in malt that has the ability to break down starches into simple fermentable sugars and unfermentable dextrins during the mashing process
- dextrins: polymers of glucose (sugar) formed during the breakdown of starch in the mashing process that contribute to the final body and mouthfeel
- specific gravity: a measure of the density of the wort divided by the density of water
- original specific gravity: measurement of the unfermented wort
- final specific gravity: measurement after fermentation is complete
However, brewing with honey can complicate things because of the microbes. Diastatic enzymes are present in honey, as they are in malt. Their ability to break down starches is manipulated by specific temperature controls during the mashing process.Higher mash temperatures result in the formation of more unfermentable dextrins because the enzymes start to die off. After a certain point, the brewer must stop further breakdown of dextrins so as not to destroy the desired body and mouthfeel of the beer. That’s where the next step in brewing comes into play – the boil.Boiling the wort destroys the diastatic enzymes (as well as any preexisting yeasts or bacteria), which prevents the dextrins from being degraded into simple fermentable sugars that would get “eaten” by the addition of brewer’s yeast. If honey were added to the boiling wort, it would be rendered sterile, leaving little honey flavor in the beer.
ALTERNATIVELY, ADDING HONEY DURING FERMENTATION CAUSES ITS DIASTATIC ENZYMES TO FURTHER BREAK DOWN THE RESIDUAL DEXTRINS.
This decreases the desired dextrin content and increases the desired alcohol content by creating more fermentable sugars to be eaten by the brewer’s yeast. Due to this delicate balance, the most common method for brewing with honey is adding diluted honey during peak fermentation, called “high krausen.” The honey is diluted (with hot pasteurized water) to the original specific gravity of the beer, and then brought down to the temperature of the fermenting beer by placing the liquid into an ice bath.
Diluting the honey deactivates the diastatic enzymes that would have otherwise started to break down the residual dextrins in the fermenting beer. As previously mentioned, a higher mash temperature results in the production of more dextrins. This is crucial when brewing with honey, as more dextrins are needed in order to compensate for the addition of the diluted honey. If there aren’t enough dextrins present, the beer could taste watered down, or the texture could be off-putting when honey is added.
WILD YEASTS AND BACTERIA ARE EVER-PRESENT IN HONEY, WHICH IS ANOTHER REASON WHY IT CAN BE A SOMEWHAT TRICKY INGREDIENT FOR BREWING.
Yeasts and bacteria are held in an inactive state until the honey is diluted with water. At such time, they are freed and able to grow rapidly. Left unchecked, they can contaminate the beer in a way that is unwanted. But properly added and monitored, the yeasts and bacteria contribute to the natural floral and herbal flavors honey lends to beer.
Catawba will release our Small Batch Breezy Brae Biere de Miel on Thursday, September 28, in collaboration with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC). This Belgian-style ale was made with Wild Mountain Bee Honey from Weaverville, NC. $1 from each pour will be donated to SAHC to support their mission of conserving unique plant and animal habitats, and protecting clean water, farmland, scenic beauty, and recreational areas in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Come out to any of our tasting rooms to support a wonderful cause and try this delicious beer!