As summer heats up, looking for that ideal beer garden experience becomes my mission. Vintage Brewing has just tapped an American cream ale that offers a unique Wisconsin twist because it's made with local honey. Brewmaster Scott Manning, who likes to have fun with his beer names, calls it "Bee's Knees." It's a beer that fits its moniker, and it's on my summertime list of brews that are well-suited to patio sipping.
What is it? Bee's Knees from Vintage Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: The American-style cream ale is a mild, pale golden beer with a smooth, yet light malty body and low hop bitterness. Adjuncts such as corn or rice are often used to lighten the body. The style emerged prior to Prohibition as brewers looked for a beer to compete with the emerging popularity of the American light lager. They range in alcohol from 4.2% to 5.6% ABV. While commonly referred to as a cream ale, these beers can be either an ale or a lager, depending upon the brewer's preferred yeast and fermentation temperatures. Vintage brewmaster Scott Manning uses an English ale yeast to make Bee's Knees.
Background: Bee's Knees was introduced by Manning at Vintage last October. It was intended to be a seasonal beer but the demand from regulars has kept him making more. "I would have been content with letting Bee's Knees go by now but for the customers' outcry," he says.
The beer is made with barley from the northern Wisconsin farm of Bo Belanger, the brewmaster at South Shore Brewery in Ashland. "I always like to help out Wisconsin agriculture, especially when it involves a local brewer," says Manning.
Bee's Knees also has slight amounts of corn and oats. Corn helps lighten the body and adds a very light sweetness. The oats provide a little more texture and mouthfeel. Manning also uses just a touch of Dextrin malt to help the beer retain a thick, long-lasting soft white head.
But the signature ingredient of Bee's Knees is Wisconsin clover honey from Gentle Breeze Honey of Mount Horeb. Manning adds about 22 pounds for each 10-barrel batch. The honey is added during late stages of the boil. That late addition allows more of the honey's aromatic qualities to turn up in the beer. Honey not only lends complex flavor and aroma, but it can also increase the strength without adding body.
Vintage Bee's Knees finishes at 5% ABV and 16 IBUs. It sells for $4.50/glass and $10/growler (refill). This is a beer that Vintage offers to other bars and taverns. In Madison, it would likely be found at the Old Fashioned and the Come Back In.
Vintage fans should watch later this summer for Manning to release an English Brown Ale that he plans to serve on a nitrogen tap line.
- Aroma: A slight floral sweetness from the honey.
- Appearance: Bright yellow to golden. A slight haze. Medium to thick soft, white head.
- Texture: Light-bodied, bubbly, with a very light softness.
- Taste: Light, but firm maltiness, with a complex hint of honey. Yet it still manages to come off crisp and clean.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A clean, fast ending, with just a whiff of aromatic sweetness from the honey, and soft bubbly texture.
Glassware: Vintage serves Bee's Knees in the standard bar pint. My preference is a pilsner glass, because its tall, slender shape will highlight the beer's brilliant golden color, while the flared lip supports its soft, foamy head. It's a beer that seems very temperature-sensitive; it's most refreshing when very cold -- colder than I really like most beers (lower refrigerator temps of 35 degrees). If you're enjoying it outside on a hot day, when it warms even slightly, you'll immediately notice more of the sweeter, malty, grainy and softer tones.
Pairs well with: Bee's Knees will go well with a range of lighter foods, particularly summer sandwiches like BLTs, clubs and tuna and chicken salad. It's a great addition to lunchtime fare.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Bee's Knees is light and very appealing on a warm afternoon. I tried a pint in the Vintage beer garden, then took a growler home to enjoy on my own patio. The honey is right on target, not at all overbearing or cloying. It adds a light, almost perfect, amount of sweetness to the flavorm with floral-aromatics in the early bouquet and later finish. Best served very cold, it's an easy drinking beer that is light on the palate, but still some strength at 5% ABV.
Bee's Knees is a very nice summer beer, but perhaps just a little less alcohol would mean not so much "buzz" if you're planning to have more than one. For those who like cream ales, German weizens and golden ales, this is a solid choice for a hot day in the sun.