Brewing is for the Bees:  An Oral History of St. George’s Honey Meade Lager

By: Alex Hannagan

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The St. George Brewing Company, nestled on a campus outside NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, has what William Spence, Jr., Director of Drinking Operations, would call “room to grow.” It wasn’t always that way. In the infancy of the craft beer movement, St. George began as a ‘brew on premises” operation. In 1998, it evolved into a brewery, just before the end of what they consider the first craft beer bubble. “Brewing is one of the best communities,” William pondered, referring to the outpouring of help that tided St. George over following a fire on Christmas Eve, 2000, that destroyed their facility in Virginia Beach. Batches of St. George mixed into other breweries’ own wares until they could get back on their feet at the current location. The other helpful graybeards included Clipper City (now Heavy Seas in Baltimore), Old Dominion (since relocated to Delaware) and Legend Brewing. “Now though, it’s really cutthroat,” he concluded. Still, according to William, “the best friendships begin or end over a beer.” One can say the same of Honey Meade Lager, one of St. George’s most popular beers. What follows is a lightly-edited dialog among friends who became business partners, all over a pint of beer one night in the taproom.

Checking on the bees is like exploratory surgery each time you go to the doctor.
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Andy Westrich, Master Apiator:  “I was just a customer when William found out I was a beekeeper. One night he says, “Hey, let’s stick a hive back there!”

Andy Rathmann, Brewmaster:  “I like what other brewmasters are trying, but I can only drink half of a glass. It needs balance.”

William:  “We want our beers to live right in front of that beer-inspired ‘good idea’ line that gets people in trouble, too.” 

Bill Spence, Owner and Founder:  “We go for drinkability, not off-the-wall taste.  There are people who just throw in the kitchen sink.”

Westrich:  “So, I said I don’t care what we make as long as it ends in ‘Lager’. It’s more non-traditional and complex to do a honey lager.”

Rathmann:  “We make lagers because the brewmaster likes to drink them.”

William: “It ended up being Scott [Batten, the Assistant Brewer’s] recipe.”

Westrich:  “There hasn’t been any real experimentation, but we’ve done three batches.”

William:  “Water, yeast, grain are all the same –“

Westrich:  “It does change every year because of the honey. Of course with pollen, but also the color and any floral notes are all dependent on the weather.”

William:  “We need 275-300 pounds, just for a 25 BBL batch. What’s the math?”

Westrich:  “One bee can make a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.”

William:  “So it takes 2.8 million bees to do that.”

Westrich:  “We’re going to install a hive monitoring system with its own dedicated server.  It’ll help monitor the bees’ activity, the hive’s temperature – the overall health of the colony.”

William:  “Checking on the bees is like exploratory surgery each time you go to the doctor.”

Westrich:  “Without that system, a visual inspection sets the colony back a full day, when they’re only producing honey about 75 days out of the year.”

William:  “That one day is like two years out of a bee’s life just to repair that damage.”

Westrich:  “The Eastern Agricultural Society, the largest group in the United States, met here and was jealous we could drink a beer and work!”

William:  “Part of being a community, it’s not just about the product. We’re also educating the community about protecting bees.”

Westrich:  “We have beekeeping classes that bring 20-30 people each month.”

William:  “We also transferred two hives last summer, and we’ve helped [Langley Air Force Base].”

Westrich: “That was me!”

William:  “Just Google ‘F-22’ bees.”

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Bill:  “With this beer, it’s not like you’re sitting here sucking on a bottle of honey.”

William:  “You can take some home and do 10-12.”

Westrich:  “What?”

William:  “Over a weekend!”

Bill: “It doesn’t burn you out.”

William:  “We sell pitchers of this. Excellent drinkability.”

Rathmann: “A pitcher to share!”

Bill:  “And it satisfies more than one person.”

William:  “We’re not striving to turn over tables. Come for an evening and talk.”

Westrich:  “You can have 10-15 kids running around getting into the toys.”

William:  “Check out the label. That is actually a backlit picture of one of the hives.”

Westrich:  “You always know you’ve arrived when you get your signature on a beer label!”

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