Using honey in fermentation isn’t a novel or radical notion. The early Anglo Saxons imbibed alcohol made by fermenting honeycomb and today it’s added to honey beers for flavour. Hiver Beers don’t rely upon honey as an additive to their beer, however– instead, they use raw honey as sugar in the actual brewing process. This imparts a distinct flavour and buttery texture into the composition of the beer.
Based in Bermondsey and founded in 2013, Hiver focuses on extoling the British tradition of honey beer in the most authentic way possible. Committed to sourcing all ingredients from local suppliers– and this naturally includes the pollinating bees themselves– three different honeys are used in brewing their range. Like beer, honey is best served unpasteurised and characterised by a variegated and idiosyncratic flavour dictated by the flowers local to a hive. Just as varietals of malts and hops can lend specific flavours to a beer, honey from a particular region demonstrates comparable nuanced features.
Instead of offering brewery tours, Hiver have opted to promote their beer in a more hands-on and atypical way: they have partnered with Bee Urban, a community project based in Kennington Park where they sponsor two hives, to host two hour urban bee-keeping experiences. Not only do guests become more acquainted with Hiver’s beers, the role of honey in the brewing process and the company’s ethos during a tutored tasting session, but they will interact with the star insects. Donning a beekeeping suit, they assist the project’s head beekeeper to undertake a full hive inspection.
It might sound daunting, but the whole afternoon is a tranquil and congenial event. Led by Hiver’s founder, Hannah Rhodes, and Bee Urban’s Barnaby Shaw, I experienced it as part a small group of four. Both Hannah and Barnaby demonstrated a depth of knowledge and enthusiasm that quelled any nerves before we ventured out to the garden to ‘meet the ladies’. We were given a brief entomology lesson, were introduced to the tools of the trade and the structure of the hive. We were shown the interior components, including the super frames– where honey is stored– and brood chamber– where the queen lays her eggs. Finally, we were advised to avoid obstructing the entrance of the hive and practised passing a frame from person to person. Sufficiently tutored, we were ready to suit up.
We were escorted to the hives and watched as Barnaby smoked the colony, rendering the bees more docile, before accessing the brood chamber. It’s a remarkably serene experience– we had ample opportunity to discuss the behaviour of the bees and to observe each stage of the bee lifecycle up close. Some frames boasted perfectly symmetrical combs that hosted clusters of eggs, grubby larvae and even new bees breaking their way through a cell cap. After an extensive search, one member of our group spotted the queen bee, marked with a blue dot and perceptibly larger than her counterparts.
The level of activity in the hive is staggering and we were impressed with how unfazed the workers were in spite of their sudden exposure to the sunlight and, more generally, their diligent and myopic nature. Barnaby talked us through the health assessment of the colony and what indicators he was looking for– in particular, he was searching for any signs of swarming or deformities in the larvae or new bees.
After our encounter with the hive, we were fully equipped to appreciate the fruits of the colony’s labour by sampling Hiver’s range. Hannah had set up a spread of nibbles to showcase how the sweetness of the beer harmonises with the salinity of vegetable crisps, the stodginess of a honeyed fruit cake and the intense smokey flavours of spicy sausage and charcuterie. We were invited to taste the Bee Urban and heather honeys, then raw honeycomb from the hive.
The eponymous Honey Beer is a blonde style with a malt profile of organic barley and wheat in addition to UK cascade hops. Three variations of honey, including Bee Urban’s own, English blossom and heather honeys, are used in the fermentation. The result is a bright golden beer with pleasing citrus hop aromas on the nose. Unpasteurised and using lager yeast, the beer is crisp, not overly bitter and the honey– which makes up 20% of the blonde's recipe– lends a viscous texture to the body. On the palate, the honey is tangible and tempers the bitterness introduced by the hops, but it remains a subtle component of the beer. Paired with savoury snacks, the mellow sweetness of the honey was amplified.
The second beer in Hiver’s range is their brown ale, the Honey Ale, which uses raw blossom and heather honeys in fermentation to balance the intense flavour of roasted barley malts. Boasting a burnished copper colour, the beer’s aroma is dark chocolate, espresso and mild earthiness. I didn’t pick up honey on the nose at first, but it was evident on the palate, balanced with sweet malts and some bitterness from the Bramling Cross hops used. This beer is surprisingly light and refreshing, warming up nicely in the glass, causing the aromas and flavours to become increasingly prominent. More so than the Honey Beer, I found it paired well with the salty and sweet foods in equal measures, due to the complexity of the ale.
Both styles were quaffable and categorically dispel the notion that honey beer is cloying or uninteresting. These balanced and accomplished beers are anything but. The distinctive characteristics of each honey were apparent upon tasting: Bee Urban’s honey had softer and more herbaceous notes in contrast to the creamy, pungent and floral profile of the heather honey.
The Hiver Experience was a memorable foray into both urban beekeeping and the brewery’s range. Developing an understanding of how honey is produced and how it can complement the brewing process so harmoniously, I was also inspired by Hannah’s obvious passion for her product and her extensive knowledge of brewing and beer styles. She confidently guided us through a journey from flower to pint and hinted towards exciting future growth in the range for Hiver, including the launch of a special black IPA fermented with Scottish heather in partnership with Laine’s London.
A black IPA with Scottish heather? Yes, it does sound slightly off-kilter, but that’s always been Hiver’s approach to brewing– and it only seems apt that they would turn the brewery tour concept on its head accordingly. It’s a memorable afternoon that leaves you with a newfound appreciation for the bees, the beer and the all-important British honey. Once you’ve handled live bees, the appeal of peering into the belly of a mash tun somewhat pales in comparison.
We paid for our tickets to The Hiver Experience. They can be booked or purchased as a gift here.
For more about Hiver Beers, visit their website here.