Bee is for Beer

Rob Symes

Honey isn’t just for bears, its for beers too, with a long history dating back 15 millennia. Here’s the buzz:

13,000 BC: Our distant ancestors daub primitive paint on the walls of a cave, indicating that early man has started to collect honey from wild bee colonies. Beer has still not been invented (though neither has the wheel).

7,000 BC: The first beehives show up in the Middle East. We know this from beeswax found in broken pottery that dates to this time. Honey = fermentation, so good things are around the corner.

2,700 BC: King Midas is interred with a brew that contains barley, grapes, honey and saffron. Beverage historian, Dr. Patrick McGovern calls this ‘Phrygian grog’ and partners with Sam Calgione of Dogfish Head to recreate it for modern consumers. Midas Touch proves to be popular in the beer community, as does its partner honey brew – Chateau Jiahu, which predates Midas by six thousand years, but arguably is even less beer like due to uncertainty over whether it contained barley.

1000 BC: The Picts begin their ascendancy as Scotlands leading tribe – a position they will hold for centuries. Abetted by plentiful heather, they begin producing braggot, a real cross-over brew that edges the character of honey brews ever so slightly closer to beer.

775: The Vikings are just one of several European cultures who are drinking mead. Predominantly brewed by women, Viking mead is powerful stuff, and predates beer in their civilization. However, as the centuries progress, mead begins to fall out of favour, and beer begins its ascendancy. Honey sticks around as a flavouring, frequently turning up as a sweetener in brews.

1988: Sleeman Brewery returns, having previously lost its license in the 1930s for bootlegging. Once created, their Honey Brown Lager will becoming the leading honey beer brand in Canada. Its not the first modern North American honey beer, but it will be most Canucks intro to the style.

Mid-1990s: The Vaux brewery in England creates Waggle Dance – a beer made with 20 percent honey. Its marketed as “The Original Honey Beer” – a claim throughly debunked by noted beer legend Michael Jackson, who dismisses it as “rather extravagant” given several thousand years of evidence to the contrary.

Post-2000: Honey beers begin to pick up pace as interest in local products and regional flavours grows. Craft brewers had always been pioneers in this space and begin to lay down their marker in style, incorporating honey into every conceivable type of brew.

2006: Colony Collapse Disorder is coined to describe a startling decline in bee populations. It applies whenever half of a colonies worked bees disappear, and it becomes so well-known that the plight of the honey bee enters public consciousness. Unsurprising, this brings out the best in people, and backyard bee-keeping flourishes as part of an informal effort to help pollinators. In turn, this filters into home brewing as honey makes its way from hive to garage.

2011: White House Honey Ale becomes the first beer known to have been brewed in the Whitehouse. Using his own funds, President Obama purchases a home-brew kit and his team of chefs incorporate honey collected from the bee hives on the South Lawns. The ale is the first of four to be brewed and served to celebrities and politicians alike, with a blonde ale, porter and brown all joining the mix – all with added honey.