Bee to Bottle: Exquisite Honey

Mead, Mjod, Medu, honeywine, aguamiel, ydromeli, or t’ej -- whatever you call it, this delicious beverage has one key ingredient: honey. We’re taking a closer look at this sticky, sweet stuff for the third installment of our bee-to-bottle blog series. (If you’re just joining us, we’ve discussed importance of quality bee forage and beekeeping in previous posts).

Honey seems like a straightforward thing -- it’s that lovely, viscous, caramel-colored stuff made by bees that you buy in little bear-shaped squeeze bottles at the grocery store. Maybe you’ve seen clover or wildflower honey, or really expensive bottles at the farmer’s market, but there’s not much difference, right? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

Sourcing enough 100% raw, local, varietal or regional honey is very difficult to do, but at Meadiocrity, we think it’s worth the effort to get exquisite honey and know exactly where it comes from.

Raw, varietal honey can have vast differences in color and flavor depending on its source. From left to right, these are: Alfalfa 2015 (used in first batch of Foundation), Blueberry 2015, Colorado Clover 2015, Estate Valley Center 2015, Estate Valley Center 2014, and Estate Valley Center 2013. 

Raw, varietal honey can have vast differences in color and flavor depending on its source. From left to right, these are: Alfalfa 2015 (used in first batch of Foundation), Blueberry 2015, Colorado Clover 2015, Estate Valley Center 2015, Estate Valley Center 2014, and Estate Valley Center 2013. 

So let’s talk about the honey production process in a little more detail. Honey starts out as nectar in flowers, which honeybees (Apis mellifera, if you want to get all sciency… we tend to geek out a little with Latin names!) collect and bring back to their hives. Depending on where beehives are located, the bees may collect nectar from a particular type of flowers (producing a varietal honey), or from numerous kinds of flowers in a general area (producing a regional honey).

Just a few examples of varietal honeys include alfalfa, orange blossom, ceanothus, and clover. Our first mead, Foundation, is a varietal mead made with fully 100% alfalfa honey. Current labeling laws allow honey producers to name a honey based on the majority component, so just because you buy “clover honey” in the store doesn’t mean that the bees only foraged on clover flowers. This is one reason why we take such effort in knowing our partner beekeepers and maintaining our own hives. When we use a varietal name on a honey, we mean it.

 

Since bees can forage up to 2 miles, hives that are not surrounded by a monoculture usually end up collecting nectar from a wide range of flowers. Our upcoming mead, Summit (available in 2017), is a regional mead. We extracted honey for it from hives placed in the mountains of Julian and Ramona here in San Diego County, where bees collected nectar from ceanothus, buckwheat, sage, and goldenrod, among many others. Regional honeys, and therefore regional meads, are deeply complex due to the layered effects of multiple bloom sources.

Honey is essentially the civet coffee of the insect world: bees carry nectar in a special honey stomach and regurgitate it back and forth to one another until their digestive enzymes transform the sugars for long-term storage. (One of our earlier ideas for the name of our meadery was Bee Vomit, but we didn't think that would go over very well!) After depositing the digested nectar into the honeycomb, the bees then fan it with their wings to evaporate some of the water and cap it off with wax to store it safely.

Capped honey from our estate hives. This frame contains delicious San Diego mountain honey that we'll be using in our 2017 Summit mead! 

Capped honey from our estate hives. This frame contains delicious San Diego mountain honey that we'll be using in our 2017 Summit mead! 

To extract honey, beekeepers scrape off the honeycomb caps and use giant centrifuges to spin the honey out. After straining, the honey may be bottled and sold directly to the public, or shipped to large aggregators who blend it with honey from all over the country -- or the world -- to make a standard product with a consistent flavor from bottle to bottle, year to year.

Inside the centrifuge we used to extract our honey. This is prepped and ready to start pulling out some delicious liquid gold.

Inside the centrifuge we used to extract our honey. This is prepped and ready to start pulling out some delicious liquid gold.

At Meadiocrity, we celebrate the uniqueness of the honey we source, whether it is from a partner beekeeper or from our estate hives. Honey tells a story about the land it was on, and we make sure those stories shine through in the mead we make. This means our meads will vary from year to year -- and you know what, that’s okay. Not only is it okay, it’s fantastic. If you find a mead of ours that you like, it’s best to stock up because it is one of a kind.

Once the honey comes out of the extractor it is passed through a mesh to get all the large bits of wax and bee parts out. Some of it does get through though. Once placed in a barrel we'll let it sit and separate out, after a few days you can then scrape out all the bits and pieces and be left with pure delicious raw unfiltered unpasteurized honey. So good.

Once the honey comes out of the extractor it is passed through a mesh to get all the large bits of wax and bee parts out. Some of it does get through though. Once placed in a barrel we'll let it sit and separate out, after a few days you can then scrape out all the bits and pieces and be left with pure delicious raw unfiltered unpasteurized honey. So good.

In order to preserve the integrity of our honey, we leave it in a raw state. That means the only thing we do is spin it on a centrifuge and pass it through a coarse sieve to strain out honeycomb bits and bee parts. We never filter out pollen, heat it, or pasteurize it, which means the flavors are not broken down and are able to stay in their purest form. After all, the bees worked hard to make it, so we do our best to keep it the way they intended.

We believe honey should always be the star of the mead. After the bees have done all that hard work, it is the least we can do to showcase their effort. In doing so, we celebrate the uniqueness of the local environment and capture a snapshot of the blossom fingerprint for every piece of land we place hives on. So next time you drink a glass of mead, remember the hard work of the bees and the beekeepers in getting the honey that made each sip possible and oh so delicious.