“Using local honey differentiates our beers from most beers in the area,” says Tom Kramer, owner of Oregon’s Belgian-style Ambacht Brewery. “Blackberry honey is dominant in the Pacific Northwest, though I can also get special varieties like carrot or maple.”
Kramer is one of a growing number of brewers tapping into America’s backyard beekeeping phenomenon to craft distinctive beers with hyper-local flavor. Even President Obama is on board, serving his chef’s inaugural batch of home-brewed White House Honey Ale — which incorporates honey from the bee hive in the First Lady’s South Lawn kitchen garden — on Super Bowl Sunday.
Why all the buzz about honey? For one, artisan beekeeping is thriving. “[I think it’s because] there’s just been so much in the news about Colony Collapse Disorder, and it’s increasing public awareness,” says California beekeeper and homebrewer Jeremy Rose, author of “Beekeeping in Coastal California.” Rose began beekeeping about six years ago, around the same time CCD — a mysterious epidemic that has led to a decreased honeybee population — first cropped up in America. A year or two later, interest in beekeeping soared.
Cities like New York, Minneapolis, Santa Monica, and Hillsboro, Ore., where Ambacht is based, have completely revised their laws to legalize backyard beekeeping. At the same time, a nationwide effort to restore blighted urban plots as temporary gardens is adding further options for both brewers and bees. “Honey — the characteristics, aroma, flavor—they all vary based on what flowers the bees were working on,” says Rose, meaning the more gardens there are for bees to work, the more honey varieties are on the market.
Some brewers, such as Kramer, are beginning to keep their own bees, though honey production is limited. “I only have a few hives,” Kramer says, who uses a portion of the 28 pounds of wildflower honey Ambacht produced in 2010 to craft a limited-edition Belgian-inspired tripel he began selling at Portland-area retailers in April. Kramer also purchases blackberry honey from a local beekeeper, which he uses as priming sugar for Ambacht’s bottle-conditioned beers, giving them a delicate honey flavor he calls “virtual sweetness.”
While brewers who tend their own hives remain few—mostly because the volume of honey produced by hobbyists isn’t enough to satisfy most beer batches—those forming partnerships with local apiaries and beekeepers continues to rise. In February, The Ship Inn in Milford, N.J., released its inaugural batch of Killer Bee, an ESB infused with 65 pounds of honey from nearby Tassot Apiaries, while for the second year, Michigan’s New Holland Brewing has incorporated honey from the local Little John apiary into its seasonal tripel (available again in July). And Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Co. joined forces with a nearby Marriott to create a signature brew using honey from the hotel’s rooftop hives.
As the number of backyard beekeepers also grows, so does the possibility of more honey-infused beers. “I always thought that when I have a large enough volume of honey, I’ll start my own craft brewery,” says Rose. Sounds pretty sweet.
3 Honey Beers to Try:
A winner of Samuel Adams’ 2011 Long Shot employee homebrew competition, Honey B’s Lavender Wheat uses honey (plus vanilla and lavender petals for good measure) to add sweetness to its tart, citrusy base.
Florida craft brewer Tom Moench’s crisp Orange Blossom Pilsner is made with all-natural ingredients, including 2.3 teaspoons of local orange blossom honey in each serving.
Part of New Holland Brewing’s High Gravity Series, Beerhive Honey Ginger Tripel Ale incorporates wildflower honey from a local apiary into an estery Belgian-style brew that goes great with Brie.