At St. George Brewing Company, there are two ways to catch a buzz. In the traditional sense of the term, you can imbibe the brewery’s European-style sips and slip happily into a boozy oblivion. The alternative, however, involves not alcohol, but bees.
With the exception of beer gardens, bees and brews have a very short history of association. In fact, bees are more often affiliated with the wine world for the creation of mead, a saccharine concoction of water, honey and yeast. So, for many, the question remains: Why is St. George changing the narrative?
Honey, of course. On the back wall of the Hampton-based taproom stands a makeshift showcase brimming with medals awarded to the brewery’s top elixirs. The most heavily decorated pour is none other than the Honey Meade Lager.
“It’s people’s go-to,” says William Spence, co-owner of St. George Brewing Company. “And not just because it has won awards [from the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild], but for its drinkability.”
Central to the success of the award-winning lager is the honey itself. “As far as we know, we are the first brewery in the U.S. to brew beer with honey made from bees housed on the property,” explains Andy Westrich, president of Colonial Beekeepers and head beekeeper at St. George.
He adds that the infusion of the golden nectar into the St. George Lager was somewhat of a happy accident; an idea that blossomed from a friendly conversation over chilled pints. “Andy started drinking in the taproom about two years before he brought bees here and after a number of conversations, we decided to [join forces],” explains Spence. “We’ve been making Honey Meade Lager for about 6 or 7 years now and Andy runs all of his Colonial Beekeepers meetings out of the brewery. It’s a great partnership.”
Westrich boasts over 17 years of beekeeping experience and earned his certification as Master Beekeeper from the Virginia State Beekeepers Association three years ago. He now spearheads bee operations at St. George and works in tandem with Spence on the expansion and revitalization of the brewery’s outdoor space.
The St. George apiary is currently home to 10 colonies or approximately 200,000 bees. One might think that such high numbers would yield years’ worth of honey, but science tells a different story.
“Each batch of Honey Meade Lager calls for anywhere from 275 to 300 pounds of honey,” says Westrich. “The average yield of honey from one bee is 1/12 teaspoon. We’re averaging about 90 pounds of honey per colony per year. The state average is around 56.”
Westrich’s large yield is due in part to the number of flows he harvests. “Flows are times that bees can make honey. Here, we have a spring flow which is from the end of March to the middle of June, and then we have a fall flow that is from the end of September to the beginning of October. It’s all weather-dependent,” he explains. “I only take honey from the spring flow. Pulling from the fall flow is a lot of work for a small yield. Plus, the more I take from the bees in the fall, the more I have to feed them in the winter.”
The intricacies of each flow are what makes the honey profile in the St. George lager so unique. “Our honey is commingled. Throughout the year, bees cycle through wildflowers, trees and holly and we let them keep all of it,” says Westrich. “So, flavors change year to year, season to season.”
“Our base beer is always the same. The honey is the X-factor,” adds Spence.
To provide visitors with an inside look into the beekeeping process, St. George is expanding its backyard to include plots of bee-friendly flowers intersected by pedestrian paths. “We’re going to start [this spring] with a 50-foot by 20-foot section divided into 10-foot checkers. Slowly but surely, we’ll work our way around the edge of the field and enclose a [recreational] grassy area in the middle,” says Spence. “We’re excited to share this with the community.”