On September 8, Alter Brewing and Downers Grove Park District put on their Field to Fermenter event. This precedes the release of a fall staple for Alter and Downers Grove at large: Lyman Woods Honey Wheat Ale. Through a sponsorship of the Lyman Woods Apiary, Alter Brewery has allowed the apiary to expand in exchange for honey to utilize in brewing. Lyman Woods Honey Wheat Ale represents not only an uncommon combination of park district and brewery, but of the constant collaboration between humans and honeybees.
As far as honey goes, humanity has come a long way in 10,000 years. Early cave paintings depicted man climbing trees to steal honey. Evidence of beekeeping dates to ancient Roman times. North America’s relationship is much younger. The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is not native to North America. It was brought over by colonists and has since naturalized and is said to pollinate the flowers of about a third of the produce we consume. Today, we would be hard pressed to find a store without honey on the shelves or a bookstore without Winnie the Pooh books.
The event began with a honey tasting and beekeeping demonstration at Lyman Woods. Marge Trocki, 11 year naturalist and beekeeper extroadinaire, provided a rundown of the impressively complex society within each beehive. Worker bees feed the larva, forage nectar and pollen, keep the hive clean, and produce the honey. Drones are largely there to mate and get kicked out when honey production begins to slow. The queen lays eggs and outlives the others by several years.
Through collaboration of their own, foraging worker bees pass off nectar and pollen to the younger hive-bound workers that will place the honey in each honeycomb cell. Lyman Woods Naturalist Anna Fontanetta explained that honey does not spoil due to a low water content. Nectar is high in water. The bees will flap their wings to evaporate excess moisture. A beekeeper may use a refractometer to check water content but the bees simply know. When it is ready, the bees cap the cell with wax.
Marge took everyone out to the apiary, bee suits and all, for a demonstration of the inner-workings of the bee boxes. When it comes time to harvest honey, the bees are brushed off the frames and they are brought inside for processing.
The honeycomb cells are stripped of their wax lids using a hot knife and frames are placed into a centrifuge for honey collection. The result, per season, is about 40 gallons of honey per hive. Alter’s sponsorship allowed for more beehives and more honey, always keeping plenty left over for the bees to survive winter.
The Lyman Woods Nature Center was set up for the day with different honey varieties. The flavor, viscosity, and color of honey are impacted by specific flowers and even the soil profile on the ground they live on. A beer connoisseur may be surprised that they can taste and smell honey in a similar fashion as their favorite beer. Different honeys were paired with certain foods.
A blackberry honey went excellently with ricotta cheese. A dark viscous Buckwheat honey with blue cheese and dark chocolate made for an excellent midday snack. This year’s Lyman Woods honey was impacted by the pollination of minty flowers. Overall, the take-away is that honey is impacted by the very soils that provide nutrients to the plants that bees pollinate.
Be sure to check out the Lyman Woods Nature Center for information on classes, including beekeeping courses.
After an illuminating couple of hours at Lyman Woods, we were on vans back to Alter Brewing Company. Founded in 2015, Alter has grown to the point of aiming for 3,000 barrels in 2018. Its offerings are now available on draft at many bars and restaurants in your authors’ home town (including at Mrs. T’s, the best pizza place in the western ‘burbs). Alter is a surprisingly spacious brewery located in a manufacturing and warehouse district off Belmont Avenue (no, not that Belmont Avenue) on the western edge of Downers Grove. Upon arrival, we were treated to City Barbeque and a pint of beer in the barrel room, which is really a cornered-off section of the warehouse, separated from the canning line by a stack of bourbon barrels used to age beer. I went with the Fest Beer. It’s a Vienna lager with a combination of crispness and malt character that made for a pleasant early fall brew.
After lunch, we had our opportunity to finally taste the beer whose honey we had learned so much about. In a loft above the tap room, we sampled it while learning about its ingredients. As it turns out, the honey from Lyman Woods is primarily an aromatic ingredient, since brewing yeast eats the honey’s sugars. To create an accompanying honey taste, Alter uses a malt with a honey flavor (unbrewed, the malt tastes like lightly sweetened cereal). To keep the flavors local, they also use hops grown near the Downers Grove Public Library, where I may still have late fees from a dinosaur book I borrowed over 15 years ago. The resulting beer is a straightforward American wheat ale – mild, crisp, and medium-bodied with a cloudy orange appearance. I wouldn’t have picked up on the honey if I hadn’t been looking for it, and it imparts a subtle sweetness that’s more easily smelled than tasted. Of course, Lyman Woods’ honey was one of the lightest we sampled, so it didn’t shock me that it made a subtle impact on the beer.
After a standard brewery tour, we grabbed a final beer and sat for a bit in Alter’s tasting room. The casual, industrial-chic space is filled with high tops that encourage moving around and making new friends. I’ve often seen it packed on weekends, but it was a bit too early in the day for the typical mix of bearded yuppies staying on brand, boomers who came of age before the craft beer boom, and young families who recently gave up on city life. When tour-goers left, they did so with a six-pack of Lyman Woods Honey Wheat Ale, a full five days before the official release.
Lyman Woods Honey Wheat Ale is now at Alter’s tap room at 2300 Wisconsin Ave. in Downers Grove. Distribution will stay local to Downers Grove and surrounding suburbs, and you can also find it at Downers Grove’s Harvest Fest on September 29.