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Honey Ales Not for Sale

In the hullabaloo surrounding the White House’s honey ale recipe, it’s easy to forget what is being asked of the President and his administration: recipes. In a preemptive effort, I reached out to some decorated and skilled home brewers to get their take, speculation, and to share some of their favorite beers brewed (or fermented) with honey. Jamey Barlow @BarlowBrewing, Joshua Hubner @CapitolZ, Bob Rouse @BobberDC, and Mike Tonsmeire @MadFermentation have all graciously contributed recipes and quotes. But first, the facts.

What we do know: President Obama bought a honey ale kit with his own money. It was White House chefs who physically brewed the beer. Three beers have been brewed: White House Honey Ale, White House Honey Blonde Ale, and White House Honey Porter. The honey in the recipes, reportedly 1 pound in a roughly 10 gallon batch, came from Mrs. Obama’s hives on the South Lawn.

Honey tends to be a volatile substance in that its delicate flavor is often easily drowned out in beer, especially when added to the brew kettle early on in the boiling process when temperatures climb north of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. To that effect, Mike Tonsmeire said, “I think the key to using honey is to add it as late in the process as possible. The heat of the boil kills the nuances, and the CO2 of primary fermentation scrubs them out. I usually wait until the initial wave of fermentation calms down before adding the concentrated liquid. Probably good to explain that contrary to popular belief, honey won’t add sweetness as the yeast will ferment the simple sugars.”

Some homebrewers favor a light-handed honey addition, as Jamey Barlow put it, “I don’t brew very often with honey. Sometimes for an aroma aspect or to dry a beer out slightly, I might make a late honey addition, but not enough that I would call it honey ale.” The “marketing” of the beer is something to consider. While the White House ale will never be marketed, as it will never be sold, the “marketing” in this case is what the beer is called.

What we don’t know: The details of the recipe. Were these all grain, extract, or brew in a bag beers? Mike Reinitz speculated that, “the beer was almost definitely made with extract, but not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve had some incredible extract beers from homebrewers before, and many less than stellar all-grain beers for that matter… there’s certain things you can’t do with extract that you can with all-grain, but it doesn’t make extract beers any less of a beer.”

Homebrewers have asked further questions: Were they all ales? Is there a significant difference between the ales? How many pounds of malt, gallons of water, and ounces of hops were used? How many pounds of honey went in, and when was it used in the brewing process? What kind of yeast, and what mash temperatures were used?

What we can speculate: The majority of beer kits sold are extract kits. However, all grain kits are most definitely bought, sold, and brewed. I wouldn’t put it past the White House chefs to know how to brew an all grain beer. It’s not a stretch to imagine room in the White House kitchen for a cooler. While some porter recipes call for lager yeast in fermentation, my guess is that all three beers were fermented with ale yeast; possibly even the same yeast from batch to batch. My further guess is that all three ales used the same kind of yeast, if not the same kind of extract/grain, or hops, with one or two minor tweaks.

Consider the following recipe for honey ale:

11 gallons of water

15 lbs of 2 row pale malt

4 oz Willamette hops

1 lb honey

Wyeast 1056 American Ale Yeast

With a simple addition of 1 lb of wheat this could be marketed as honey blonde ale. Or with the simple addition of 8 oz debittered black malt, this could be marketed as honey porter. At the risk of sounding snarky, these recipes are pretty securely in the meh category. They would likely make great ale, simple, straightforward beer. I’m not saying that a recipe needs roasted-yesterday locally grown coffee beans, chipotle peppers, or popcorn in it to break out of the meh category. I’m simply saying that its possible that 25,000 signatures are achieved and the recipe is as simple and straightforward as those who have been home brewing long enough to create their own recipes would suspect.

Isn’t that the point though? It’s more about the fact that homebrewing is happening in the White House than the actual recipe. This should signify a turning of the tide in American attitudes toward homebrew. As Reinitz put it, “the allure behind the President’s beer is less about the recipe itself, and more about the fact that there’s homebrewing going on at the White House. Using the AHA’s estimates on the number of homebrewers (about 1 million), less than 0.5% of the U.S. population brews at home—I think the White House beer is great publicity for this relatively small hobby and for craft beer in general.” Similar sentiment was shared by Barlow, “I think about this as an opportunity to raise awareness about homebrewing. The call and petition for the recipe is a fun PR thing, but I doubt that the recipe will be some sort of revelation, or a game changer in the world of beer making. Politics aside, I think it is fantastic that we have a president who openly embraces an artisanal hobby like homebrewing while in office. But the recipe is a MacGuffin to talk about homebrewing.”

DCBeer spoke to a Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who had tasted the Honey Ale himself. He didn’t recall the beer being particularly excellent or offensive; in fact he was unaware that this was White House ale until a colleague alerted him. In my experience with honey ales, this tends to be the case; they are not particularly startling or earth shattering beers but a style that prides itself on balance, hitting a flavor profile that is just like a light ale or lager, but with a kiss of honey. I’ll stop speculating now, until the actual recipe is released, and leave you with beers that are certain to be stellar.

Without further ado four homebrewed beers, with honey, fit to serve a President:

DC Homebrewers Anniversary Smoked Stout

9.00 lbs. Canadian Pale Malt

2.50 lbs. Wasmund’s Smoked Malt

1.00 lbs. Flaked Barley

0.25 lbs. Simpson’s Extra Dark Crystal

0.25 lbs. Carafa Special II

0.25 lbs. Belgian Chocolate Malt

0.25 lbs. English Roasted Barley

0.13 lbs. English Black Patent Malt

0.13 lbs. Coffee Malt

3.50 oz. Cascade (Pellet 4.50% AA) 60 min.

White Labs WLP028 Edinburgh Ale

1.00 lbs. Honey (after primary fermentation)

Bob Rouse’s Belgian Golden Strong with Honey

8 lbs Vienna Malt

3 lbs White Wheat Malt

1/2 lb Carapils Malt

1/2 lb Crystal 10 (CaraHell) Malt

1/2 lb Victory Malt

1/4 lb Honey Malt

1/2 lb Acidulated Malt

1/4 lb Rolled Wheat

1/4 lb Rolled Oats

2 oz Tettnanger/hallertau (~ 5 % AA) 60 min

1 oz Saaz 20 min

1 oz Saaz 5 min

Add spices (orange peel, coriander, grains of paradise, etc. 5 mins before flameout if desired). This will be a tad little darker than normal for the style. If that matters to you, replace half the Vienna with Pils and reduce the Victory to 1/4 lb.

Belgian Golden Ale yeast WLP570

2 lb Orange Blossom Honey (5 min)

Mike Tonsmeire’s Honey Wheat Flower Sour

5.50 lbs. German Pilsener

3.00 lbs. Wheat Malt

0.50 lbs. Crystal 10L Malt

0.25 lbs. CaraPils Malt

0.25 lbs. Honey Malt

0.63 oz. Amarillo @ 50 min.

6.00 gm Chamomile (Flameout)

WYeast 1056 American Ale/Chico

La Folie (New Belgium) and Temptation (Russian River) dregs

1.50 lbs. Orange Blossom Honey (in secondary)

Josh Hubner’s Columbus Honey Porter

9.00 lbs. Marris Otter Malt

1.00 lbs. Victory Malt

0.50 Chocolate Wheat Malt

0.25 Crystal 120 Malt

0.5 oz Columbus 60

0.5 oz Columbus 45

0.5 oz Columbus 30

0.5 oz Columbus 15

Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale Yeast

1.5 lbs. Honey (in secondary)

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