How Brewers and Distillers Are Helping Honeybees - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Brewers and Distillers Are Helping Honeybees

As Mark Oberle and friends built the framework for their Southern California meadery, Meadiocrity, they often faced a sticky question: Where would they source thousands of pounds of honey for making mead? From honeybees, of course. Instead of an aggregated mishmash of bulk honey, Meadiocrity resolved to use raw, unpasteurized honey from area beekeepers and the company’s own hives, a “bee to bottle” approach to making mead that remains today. The company tends to more than 120 hives across San Diego County, many placed around orange groves, no rent required.

It’s a rare win-win for humans, insects, and agriculture. Meadiocrity’s 6 million or so honeybees pollinate crops, then forage for pollen and nectar from the buckwheat, chaparral, sage, and wildflowers rising from fertile fields and hillsides. “We go into an existing ecology and put beehives down,” says Oberle, the mead maker and a co-founder. The company relocates beehives according to bloom patterns, the pollinators harvesting nature’s varied botanicals and transforming them into honey. Meadiocrity’s site-specific meads taste proudly of time and provenance, the essence of native orange blossoms infusing varietals such as Cultivated Native. “The honey we’re producing is coming from billions of local flowers,” Oberle says. No other sweetener can match honey’s bona fides, he says, “for being sustainable and supportive of the environment.”

Honeybees have flown into devastating headwinds. Since 2006, beekeepers have seen mounting cases of worker bees abandoning hives, an unexplained phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. America has lost more than 50 percent of its honeybee colonies since 1947, from an estimated 6 million to 2.8 million in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The declines directly threaten food supplies: More than 90 commercial crops depend on honeybee pollination, including almonds, pumpkins, blueberries, apples, and raspberries. “People don’t realize how many crops honeybees pollinate,” says Keith Seiz, the ingredient marketing representative for the National Honey Board. No bees mean no cider, blueberry ales, or blackberry Bramble cocktails. The honeybee’s agricultural importance always extends “beyond honey,” Seiz says.

In their quest to make memorable beers, spirits, wines, meads, and ciders, producers are stepping up to support honeybees. Arrowood Farm Brewery in New York state’s Hudson Valley hosts several local beekeepers’ hives to strengthen local populations, while the Napa Valley’s Caspar Estate winery houses 30 hives to pollinate its rose, vegetable, and herb gardens. Siponey makes canned cocktails featuring wildflower honey, then donates proceeds to honeybee nonprofits. And Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier, Vermont, partners with local beekeepers to produce raw honey, using it to make gin and vodka. “Our mission is to support and add value to agriculture,” says Caledonia’s president and head distiller, Ryan Christiansen.

Minnesota bee keeper Jim Degiovanni inspects Bare Honey hives outside IMS Solar, a pollinator friendly PV array site in St. Joseph, MN. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL.

Habitat loss is a huge challenge for honeybees. America’s grass lawns are a barren buffet, bereft of flowers, and farming consumes vast swaths of countryside. “I live outside St. Louis, and it’s a four- hour drive to Chicago,” says the National Honey Board’s Seiz. “On one side of the road is corn, and on the other side is soybeans. That’s great for feeding the world, but it’s terrible for feeding honeybees.”

Reversing that requires rethinking land usage, Seiz says. Homeowners can rip up manicured lawns and replace them with wildflowers and native plants, and farmers can add flowering rows between crops. Wineries such as Oregon’s Illahe Vineyards are also planting pollinator-friendly native flowers to attract bees and other pollinators, boosting soil health and biodiversity. “We need that forage area to grow the number of bees,” Seiz says.

Rob Davis saw one solution as a literal lightbulb moment. He’s the director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy, a project that’s part of Fresh Energy, a Minneapolis nonprofit aiming to fast-track America’s switch to renewable power. His colleagues helped pass a 2013 bill requiring Minnesota’s largest utility, Xcel, to obtain 1.5 percent of its energy from solar by 2020. Soon, farmers started contacting Fresh Energy about developers wanting “to convert their prime farmland into an industrial solar landscape,” Davis says. “They were rightfully concerned.”

American solar started in the sunny desert Southwest, shiny panels surrounded by sand and rocks; that was in the 1980s and ’90s. “Just because we built solar that way doesn’t mean we can’t do better,” Davis says. Fresh Energy looked to the U.K. companies that installed solar arrays landscaped with wildflower fields and sprinkled with apiaries. The vegetative cover creates a cooler microclimate beneath panels, improving their ability to generate energy and providing beekeepers with pesticide-free sanctuaries. “There’s no reason to spray a solar farm,” Davis says. “It’s a great place to park honeybees.”

Fresh Energy has helped develop more than 3,500 acres of pollinator-friendly vegetation in 10 states, including Minnesota and Oregon, spreading the word about bees, agriculture, and energy through beer. The nonprofit buys so-called “Solar Grown” honey from beekeepers, then collaborates with breweries such as Vermont’s The Alchemist, Minnesota’s 56 Brewing, and Atlas Brew Works, in Washington, D.C. Last September, the solar-powered Atlas brewery—its production facility features rooftop solar panels—released Sunny Honey Saison, made with honey harvested from a solar-array apiary. Beer is “a beautiful conduit to reach people and tell the story,” says Atlas CEO and founder Justin Cox.

Pollinator-friendly plants at Enel Green Power’s Aurora Solar project in Minnesota, which provides honey for a beer collaboration with First Magnitude Brewing and Disney World. | Photo by Rob Davis.

For Rogue Ales, honeybees play a starring role in habitat and beer. In 2008, the veteran brewery opened Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon, to grow hops, cucumbers, pumpkins, marionberries, and herbs for its beers. “Anytime we’re looking to try a new ingredient, we’ll start it in our garden,” says general manager Ally Ward, who’s excited about pineapple-like white blackberries. The farm- stead maintains hives on its property because “we’re growing so many different things and we understand they need to be pollinated,” Ward says. “We need bees to have an operating farm.”

The estate wildflower honey is featured in one of Rogue’s more popular beers, Honey Kölsch. Demand has outgrown the farm’s supply, supplemented by raw honey from GloryBee in Eugene, Oregon. This year, Rogue revamped the Honey Kölsch labels with a graphic illustration emphasizing the inter- section of bees, honey, and beer, plus a prominent tagline: Dedicated to the Bees.

They’re essential to Arrowood Farm Brewery’s beer and habitat. The 48-acre Hudson Valley farm features fields of sunflowers, hop bines, chickens, garden beds, an orchard, and beehives. “Bees were one of the first things we wanted on our property to create this symbiotic relationship between our plants, animals, and beer,” says co-founder and managing partner Blake Arrowood. He began growing hops in 2013, freely roaming ducks fertilizing the plants with high-nitrogen manure, neighboring sheep munching weeds. Local beekeepers placed hives on the property, breeding queen bees with the idea of connecting hives across different sites. “If you can get genetic crossover between bees and hives, their chance of surviving gets stronger,” Arrowood says, adding that the farm planted wildflower meadows to appease the bees.

In 2016, the farmstead installed a brewery and placed wort—the sugary broth that becomes beer—near the beehives. Bees dipped in to drop pollen off. “So much was coming off the sunflowers, as well as our juniper and cedar trees,” Arrowood says. A genetics lab isolated 11 different yeast strains, and the brewery selected seven and blended them. “That’s our house culture,” says Arrowood, whose property now includes a distillery and restaurant fittingly called The Apiary. “The thread of bees, pollinators, and nature runs through our beers and spirits.”

America’s industrialized agriculture system prioritizes single crops, one harvest ruling all acres. Monocropping facilitates the industrialization of agriculture, leaving scant square footage for a flowering pollinator habitat. The practice has created a booming business for beekeepers who provide farmers with traveling pollination services. Instead of honey, “beekeepers primarily make money from pollination,” Oberle says. The California almond industry is an excellent example. Almonds require honeybee pollination for desired yields; some 2 million colonies travel to pollinate more than 1 million acres of almond orchards, a number increasing as Americans embrace alternative milk.

At Arrowood Farm Brewery in New York state, apiaries from local beekeepers help pollinate fields of sunflowers and hops. | Photo by Steph Mossey.

“Beekeepers make anywhere from $150 and $300 per hive for being on farms for one month,” Oberle says. (He takes his hives to almond groves, too, helping bankroll the meadery.) Many pollination-focused big beekeepers sell their honey to aggregators for “pennies on the dollar,” Oberle says, the bulk honey blended into a homogenized commercial good. Locally, he works to prevent that by paying beekeepers fair prices for honey sourced within 20 miles of his meadery. “You can have multiple harvests per year,” Oberle says, noting that in their region early spring honey tastes light and floral, while summer honey is rich and full-bodied. “When honey is treated like a commodity, you don’t see that.”

For more than 50 years, beekeeper and farmer Todd Hardie has treated raw honey as a cherished ingredient, equally a “food, medicine, and sweetener,” says Hardie, who once oversaw 1,900 colonies. Most honey is pasteurized to make it clearer and smoother for squeezing from a plastic container, while nutrient-rich raw honey retains its yeast and delicate floral aroma. To better support American beekeepers and their bees, and to give value and respect to raw honey, he founded Caledonia Spirits in Vermont in 2009, later hiring Christiansen as distiller. “I was really fascinated by his love for these ‘fuzzy little angels of agriculture,’ as he calls them,” Christiansen says.

Caledonia works closely with beekeepers located within a 250-mile radius of Montpelier to ensure a steady supply of raw honey for its gins and vodka. “We just bought an extra 150,000 pounds of honey,” says Christiansen, who in 2015 acquired Caledonia from Hardie. (He’s focusing on farming and making whiskey with Thornhill Farm.) That sounds like a ton—like, 75 of them—but each bottle of Caledonia’s Barr Hill Vodka is distilled from three to four pounds of honey, and the flagship Barr Hill Gin is flavored only with juniper and raw honey. “It’s a botanical delivery method that’s added layers to our gin that we couldn’t have without the bees,” Christiansen says. Or the beekeepers. “They’re just rock stars for how hard they work,” Hardie says. “Beekeepers deserve more than they often get.”

Beverage-company partnerships can help beekeepers balance the books. “Local honey is more expensive than cheap imported honey,” says Dustin Vanasse, the founder of Bare Honey in Minneapolis. Honey from China can cost around 65 cents a pound; Bare Honey’s production cost alone is at least 80 cents per pound, owing to labor costs. “It’s hard to sell honey to a mass market,” he says. “We have to find a different niche.”

Vanasse primarily works with family-run apiaries across Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, and Oregon, including honey harvested from hives hunkered near solar arrays. (Bare Honey regularly collaborates with Fresh Energy and provided honey to Atlas.) Breweries, soda makers, and cideries are big customers, purchasing volumes that are impossible to achieve at a farmers market. “We go from selling a 12-ounce jar to a customer every few months to selling 12,000 pounds of honey to a brewery,” Vanasse says. His honeys, such as the sweetly floral Minnesota clover, lend distinct aromatic signatures and a value proposition for customers. “Today’s consumer is so focused on buying products that match their own personal values,” Vanasse says. “These companies can use our honey as a badge ingredient to show that they are supporting our mission. That pollinates the idea even further.”

Bees require rehabilitation in population, and in public perception. Memories of stings linger after pain subsides, leading to a sense of “unease seeing lots of bees,” says Meadiocrity’s Oberle. “People want to support the bees, but from afar.”

That’s increasingly easy thanks to beers, wines, and cocktails that donate sales proceeds to bee nonprofits and organizations, a buzz for a buzz. “Brewers and distilleries are coming to us and going, ‘We want to donate portions of our proceeds to honeybee research,’” says the National Honey Board’s Seiz. “ ‘How do we do that?’ ”

Wine company Proud Pour plants 35 square feet of wildflowers on North American farms with each sale of its Pinot for Bees. This year, Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon, released the year-round honey porter Beestly, which supports GloryBee’s Save the Bees program. And in 2017, Caledonia Spirits created Bee’s Knees Week to raise awareness and money. Bars and restaurants riff on the classic cocktail, then donate sales proceeds to organizations such as the Bee Cause Project. It installs observational hives at schools, offices, and outdoor classrooms, “getting people a little less afraid of bees, recognizing that they’re an important part of our life and environment,” Christiansen says.

The campaign has raised more than $70,000, though the 2020 edition looked different in a locked-down world. For every cocktail posted online with the hashtag #beeskneesweek2020, Caledonia planted 10 square feet of pollinator habitat. “This opened up the opportunity for anybody at home to participate,” Christiansen says, noting that the company planted 74,000 square feet and is aiming for 500,000 square feet this year.

Amanda Victoria built bee support into the business plan for Siponey, which makes canned cocktails with New York State rye whiskey and wildflower honey. “We’ve identified honeybees as the first step to recovering the environment,” says Victoria, who launched the cocktail line last June with partner Joseph Mintz. Siponey earmarks a portion of profits, currently 5 to 10 percent, to organizations developing new apiaries such as Detroit Hives. The nonprofit works to transform vacant lots into urban bee farms. “They’re educating the next generation about taking care of the honeybees and creating apiaries in environments where it’s not usually possible,” she says.

Saving the honeybees can seem like an impossible task, as Herculean as tackling climate change. “Every year at farmers markets our customers would ask us, ‘Are the bees still dying?’ ” says Bare Honey’s Vanasse. Yes, bees are still dying, but many colonies are thriving, and teaching lessons about collaboration.

Honeybees must visit around 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey, requiring the efforts of more than 500 bees. No single beverage-industry initiative is a cure-all. But taken together, these efforts can start to elevate the honeybees’ trajectory, ensuring a future filled with meads, almond-milk lattes, honey-infused ales, and cocktails that might very well be the bee’s knees. “Bees are an indicator of the health of our planet,” says Caledonia’s Christiansen. “If the bees aren’t doing well, then I don’t know if any of us are doing well.”

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