This past Thursday, I attended my first beekeeper meeting of the Lake Hartwell Beekeepers Association. I joined the group, not because I plan to keep bees (which I don’t), to learn more about bees and especially the honey they make. I didn’t know what to expect at the meeting and it surpassed any preconceived notions I might have had. The group welcomed me and I already knew a couple of the beekeepers, including Caleb Kidd of Blue Haven Bee Company.
The speaker of the evening was Bob Binnie, Co-Owner and Beekeeper of Blue Ridge Honey Company. The subject of his discussion was “Things You Should Know Before Processing Honey”. As someone who knows nothing about processing honey, I found the evening’s subject incredibly technical (a good thing, but hard for me to understand some of the discussion).
Bob began the evening stating that he had been the subject of several national articles and every one of the articles contained wrong information. I can understand why. Those of us who know nothing about beekeeping can be overwhelmed by his knowledge. I’ll try to be correct, but if I mess up, I hope Bob will let me know in order to make corrections.
Bob began his career more than thirty years ago working with a Oregon commercial honey producer. For three years, he worked 24/7 following the pollination season from California’s San Joaquin Valley, to Southern Oregon, on to Washington and ending the season in North Dakota, traveling more than 65,000 miles each year. Working all day with the bees and moving them at night; for $80 a day. But his learning curve was steep both in what to do to be successful and as importantly (or maybe more so) what not to do to be a successful commercial beekeeper. In 1991, he moved to Georgia and started his own operation. In 2016, Blue Ridge Honey produced more than 1.2 million pounds of raw honey which they sell in more than 300 retail shops, grocers, their own store in Lakemont, Georgia and online.
We were given two handouts: one about Blue Ridge Honey and the other was an outline of the discussion – I took lots of notes and had to ask one question (a question that only someone who is not a beekeeper would ask…).
Using the outline he generously provided, these are some of the points that Bob feels every beekeeper should know before processing your honey (there is more in-depth info on his website under FAQs):
- Why pasteurize your honey: The only reason you pasteurize honey is to prevent fermentation. Pasteurization kills the yeast in honey that is too thin (contains too much moisture) and honey that is too thin will ferment. The rate of fermentation depends on the amount of moisture; the higher the moisture, the faster the fermentation.
- Why not pasteurize your honey:
- To protect the enzymes which are the life force of the honey. The three predominant enzymes in honey are invertase, diatase and glucose oxidase. Enzymes, most of which are added by the bees, are complex proteins that make honey a unique sweetener. Like raw milk cheese, raw honey is alive.
- To maintain aroma and flavor. Again, raw honey and raw cheese maintain the “taste of place” which the French call “terroir”. Pasteurization kills the natural flavors and aromas and basically turns honey into just another sweetener.
- Why not micro filter honey? Again to maintain the nutritional quality found in raw honey. Fine filtering of honey removes much of the “life” to make the honey bright and clear and shelf stable for profitability by large producers. It removes anything that could act as a platform for sugar crystals to build upon and therefore facilitate the granulation process. Simply put, it gives the honey a longer shelf life without granulation and a better appearance for purchase appeal.*
- What is US Grade A Fancy Honey?
- According to the USDA, the definition is: U.S. Grade A is the quality of extracted honey that meets the applicable requirements of Table IV or V, and has a minimum total score of 90 points.
- According to Bob U. S. Grade A Fancy Honey is no longer honey: it is pasteurized and forced through a micro filter to make it crystal clear, uniform in color with all of its life killed. It is dead; again, just another sweetener.
- Does honey go bad? Yes, over time it degrades and while it might be edible, its nutritional value and quality diminishes.
- When is 18.6% moisture not good enough? This is where I learned the most fascinating facts about raw honey.
- When compared with cheese, whose moisture content can be as high as 70% in triple cremes, honey is more than 80% solid; it’s a miracle it has a liquid form. As mentioned above, at 18.6% moisture or lower, raw honey will not ferment.
- Blue Ridge strives for 17% moisture in the honey it produces, which is done in the “hot” room where the honey sits before being processed. Using fans and dehydrators, Bob and his team extract moisture from the capped honey. (Here’s where I asked my one question, which demonstrated my lack of knowledge, but I had to ask what “capped” meant.) Capped refers to the honeycomb cells that the mature bees cover with a thin layer of beeswax when the cell is filled with honey.
- When harvested, the comb frame should be at least 80% capped. Bob explained that 17%, while his goal, is hard to reach and 18% is more realistic but he needs the lower moisture in order to blend with thinner honey (higher in moisture) he buys from other producers.
- In higher temperature and higher humidity environments, the bees sometimes find it hard to keep the moisture low while producing the honey. One example he cited was Cotton honey from South Georgia where the heat and humidity is so much higher than here in NE Georgia (hard for me to believe having spent the last 30 years on the west coast with its low humidity) makes it harder on the bees and they may cap the honey when the moisture content is higher than the bees want or like.
- Here’s where it got too technical for me but there are plenty of websites to take you through the process of measuring moisture and reducing it to keep your raw honey from fermenting without resorting to pasteurization. (Google is like having a library in your own home.)
Bob discussed safety and sanitation of the facility, the environment and transportation. The same rules apply as with cheesemaking, transporting and retail environments. Blue Ridge Honey has third-party inspections in addition to being licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture and inspected by the Commodities Inspection Division of the Georgia Dept. of Agriculture.
One interesting note, with a pH of 3.9, honey kills microbes that grow in the septic field making it tricky to dispose of unused honey. It kills everything, pretty much like pouring bleach down the drain. This also creates challenges for bottling and storing honey. At 3.9, honey eats iron, copper, galvanized metals, even stainless steel over time. Glass is best for bottling honey and next is food-grade (PET 1 or 2) plastic. Bob shared that plastic containers sell better 6 to 1 over glass and if that plastic is the cute little bears, it increases to 10 to 1.
Regarding freezing honey: because of its low moisture content, you can freeze honey and when thawed, it will, unlike cheese, be exactly the same as it was before freezing and the enzymes will still be alive.
In addition to visiting Blue Ridge Honey Company’s site, I also used these websites to verify that my notes reflected accurately what Bob told us – not that he was wrong – but that I got it right:
Once again I realized that the more I learn on a subject, the less I know.
I look forward to the next meeting of Lake Hartwell Beekeepers Association. We (now that I am a member, I can use “we”) meet the first Thursday of each month. The November meeting will feature Building Observational Beehives.
December’s meeting will be part of a honey event at the Canon, Georgia Community Center. Canon has recently been named a “Bee City” by BeeCity USA; one of only five Bee Cities in Georgia and fifty-nine nationwide.
Upcoming Cheese, Mead and Wine Pairing Holiday Event at Blue Haven Bee Company in Canon, Georgia. Stay tuned for details. Our August event was a success with more than fifty attending our pairing of five cheeses, two meads, four wines and one honey.
Also, 2018 Cheese Study Group Fund-Raising is about to start. Please read Matt Bellingham’s experiences as a 2017 Scholarship Winner and pledge your donations now to help us send 10 worthy recipients to the 2018 ACS CCP Exam™ and the ACS Conference in Pittsburgh.