Joel Eckel founded We Bee Brothers in 2007, when beekeeping was an esoteric hobby and honey was found mainly on supermarket shelves. A year later, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) became a national concern, reviving interest in urban beekeeping and accelerating the movement toward locally sourced food. Today, Joel and his brother, Jeff, have almost 30 hives (from the 2 they started with) and We Bee Brothers’ honey is appearing in hotels, restaurants, and festivals. It’s also become a sought-after ingredient in local craft beer, with Earth Bread + Brewery and Forest & Main using varieties of We Bee Brothers’ honey in their beer.
Eckel’s first local beer collaboration was with Tom Baker, of Earth Bread + Brewery, in 2010. “Tom approached us because he wanted to brew a honey saison for the Philadelphia Honey Festival.” Baker also showcased the honey in other ways at the festival. “He promoted it all week long. He added honey to flatbreads and even created ice cream with it.” The publicity helped spread the word about We Bee Brothers and allowed the Eckel brothers to educate people about honeybees and urban beekeeping.
Gerard Olson, head brewer at Forest & Main in Ambler, discovered We Bee Brothers in 2012. He switched to the honey because it’s “hyperlocal.” Olson explains, “Before We Bee Brothers, we had locally sourced honey—as in Pennsylvania honey—but We Bee Brothers’ honey is from this area.” He believes the honey is unique because it adds “microbial terroir” to the beers he makes. Terroir, as any wine lover knows, is the confluence of soil, climate, and other environmental factors that make wine from a particular place unique. Those environmental factors include microbes, such as the wild yeast and enzymes in We Bee Brothers honey. Olson believes that adding these microbes to the brewing process is one of the few ways to create a truly local beer. “It’s not that easy for a brewer to get locally sourced hops or malt. They usually come from far away. But the microorganisms in We Bee Brothers honey really reflect what’s living in this area. Whatever’s growing in their honey, we want in our beer.”
Olson also uses We Bee Brothers honey because of its unique flavor. He’s particularly amazed by the alfalfa honey, which has a “vanilla-ey, superfloral aroma.” He preserves this aroma in his saison beers by stirring the honey directly into the fermentation. “The honey ferments out, along with the sweetness, leaving the bright floral aroma, which plays well off of the acidic notes of our oak-aged saison.” Olson plans to brew other saison varieties with We Bee Brothers wildflower honey. He may add it to a blend of two saisons he is currently aging with local fruits.
For their part, the Eckel brothers enjoy the opportunities to showcase their honey in local products and to plan the future of their business. They want to increase the number of hives to find the “magic number” that they can efficiently handle. They plan to continue educating people at festivals and removing swarms from houses (and brewing the occasional batch of mead with the honey they recover.) Joel also has a batch of buckwheat honey that he thinks would go well in a porter or stout. It has a “very intense” flavor that is “dark, rich, and raisiny.” He believes that a buckwheat-infused dark beer would be perfect for colder months. “Spring and summer are great for lighter, more aromatic honey, like alfalfa or wildflower. They’re light like summer foods, but fall and winter are when you need something that sticks to your ribs.”