Some flavours just seem to have that magic fairy-dust effect. Elderflower for one. If you want to make a drink a bit more adult, a bit tricksy, a bit special, just add ‘a touch of’ elderflower. Bottle Green, Belvoir cordials and their ilk all seem to be enjoying the benefits from the wave of the proverbial Elder Wand. Lemongrass and ‘Sweet’ Chilli (whatever that is) are enjoying the same transformational effect on food. Take Walkers Ready Salted. Pack in matt finish bag. Add ‘Sweet’ Chilli. Boom! Other flavours though just polarise. Ginger is one. There’s a world of difference it seems between a fiery Tam O’Shanter of Idris or Old Jamaica and the subtle hint of Canada Dry or Fever Tree. And honey. Other than the texture, there seem few similarities between honey and marmite, but their ability to put people into a ‘Lovers’ camp and a ‘Haters’ camp is most definitely one.
I was mulling on this on Tuesday just gone as I drank – and more to the point – enjoyed, a bottle of Skinner’s ‘Heligan Honey.’ It’s amazing where drinks concocters find their raw ingredients in the quest for ingredient one-upmanship. New Zealand, Chile (not ‘sweet Chile’ note) and Kentucky have all been put to good use in beer in recent years. Organic is assumed and Manuka, well, frankly, yesterday’s news my friend. And so it is the case with this beer: ‘the subtle addition of real Cornish honey will give your palate a buzzzzz!’ – the honey being from the working gardens / farm / Victoriana themepark of the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall (Skinners being from Truro, even further down towards the pointy bit of our islands).
The way I see it is brewing with honey is a natural thing to do, not just because it’s natural but because presumably, it’s a great, easily fermentable source of brewing sugar. And those memories: sweet hot toddies when you are under the weather, or bronze-red runny honey drizzled oozingly onto steaming porridge (or triggered by my mate Neil’s ice cream toppings at Uni, honey, golden treacle and clotted cream, scooped, slid and generally coaxed onto a ’99 Flake). Good memories all, and deep anchors in the mind. Yet honey as a brewing ingredient flatters to deceive. Somehow it doesn’t pull it off. There’s either the lack of balance with insufficient hop ‘cut’ to even out the beer, or strangely, too little honey character and disappointment all round. I was drawing the conclusion that honey beers are like learning to ride a unicycle: a great skill and all that, but largely useless in getting you about, which is rather the point after all. But Heligan Honey may just keep them on the agenda – although described as a ‘pale amber’ light refreshing bitter’ on the label – I would describe it more as a hazlenut colour and the honey is treated well. Enough that you know it’s there with deft touches of background sweetness, but not enough to give any cloy. And enough in fact to continue to perservere with beers containing the original amber nectar.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012