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Crafting Complex Beer Recipes with Honey

Crafting Complex Beer Recipes with Honey
Think honey beer means sweet beer? Think again. This versatile carbohydrate is used by craft beer professionals to deliver a list of sensory attributes in diverse beer styles. For example:

● Honey makes summer ales and lagers more “crushable” by lightening the body.
● Honey adds a complex flavor profile to IPAs and sours due to its unique carbohydrate and acid composition.
● Honey can be used as a priming sugar to impart a unique mouthfeel and perception of sweetness.
● Honey adds a trademark sweetness to holiday beers and pastry stouts.

Honey’s versatility in brewing is dependent on two key factors: how much honey is used and where the honey is added in the brewing process. However, before we tackle those variables, it’s essential to understand honey as a raw ingredient, from its source to its composition.

From Bee to Brewery
Honey comes from honey bees. Everyone knows that! But did you know a honey bee’s diet influences the flavor, aroma and color of honey? Some honeys are simply sweet, while others can be bitter, earthy or even floral. These flavor attributes can come through in a beer, so it’s important to taste any honey you plan to brew with beforehand to gain a full understanding of how its aroma and flavor may transfer to a finished beer.

Honey’s main sensory attributes, flavor and aroma, are derived from the carbohydrates and acids naturally found in honey. Honey is composed of more than 20 different carbohydrates, ranging from monosaccharides to trisaccharides and even more complex higher sugars. These carbohydrates make up 99% of honey’s solids and are about 95% fermentable. Honey is composed primarily of fructose (38.2%) and glucose (31%), but also contains common sugars found in wort such as maltose (8.8%) and maltotriose (3.6%).

Additionally, honey’s acid load (3.9pH) plays a significant role in its sensory characteristics. Honey is composed of a variety of organic acids: acetic acid, butyric acid, lactic acid, citric acid and gluconic acid. Gluconic acid has the biggest impact on a beer. This acid initially imparts a sweet taste from honey that turns slightly acidic. Gluconic acid also can enhance the flavors of other ingredients in a formula, especially herbal and floral notes. In IPAs, honey’s gluconic acid elevates the floral notes of hops while blunting some of the rougher flavor notes of hops.

From Brewery to Bottle
Crafting a beer recipe with honey provides brewers with quite a few options. If a brewer is looking to capitalize on honey’s complex composition, but not its sweetness, honey should be added at the end of boil or at whirlpool. By adding honey prior to fermentation, almost all the sugars will ferment out, however, some of the honey’s aromatics will come through in the finished beer. Adding honey pre-fermentation also will result in a lighter body and drier finish, which is perfect for easy-drinking session beers.

Adding honey to the fermentation vessel gives brewers a completely different set of finished beer characteristics. Honey should be added at peak fermentation, or shortly thereafter, to ensure the yeast can consume the additional simple sugars without tiring out and stalling fermentation. When added at peak fermentation, honey will add sweetness and aromatics to the beer.

Honey also can be added post-fermentation to trigger a second fermentation in a barrel or used as a priming sugar. When used to condition, honey adds complexity and produces a tighter foam that imparts an exceptional mouthfeel.

There are plenty of reasons for craft beer professionals to brew with honey. Want to learn more? The National Honey Board has conducted brewing-with-honey research available by emailing

For the last decade, Keith has traveled the country helping food and beverage manufacturers use more honey in their products. It’s his passion, and one that has him working with companies ranging from retail bakers to craft breweries. Before working for the National Honey Board, Keith served as editor and associate publisher of a trade publication that covered the wholesale baking industry.