Hyperlocal honeys are being sought for a range of benefits.
Consumers are buzzing about honey, and producers can barely keep up with demand for the product that one honey farmer described as “caramelized sunshine.”
Americans consumed about 585 million pounds of honey in 2017, which equates to approximately 1.8 pounds per capita, according to a recent report from the National Honey Board, citing data from the USDA. The total volume consumed increased 50 percent from 2009 to 2017, the research found.
Local honey, in particular, has seen an uptick in demand, as consumers have sought out local products overall and as they have gained a greater understanding of the role that bees play in their local environments. “People increasingly want to support their local community, and bees do a special, magical job in that they help pollinate all kinds of wonderful foods, and then they also produce honey,” says Margaret Lombard, CEO of the NHB, which is based in Longmont, Colo. “They are these perfect little creatures that are great ambassadors for the environment.”
Consumer interest in natural sweeteners as an alternative to processed sugar is also helping drive increased honey consumption, she says. “Local honey products are sort of naturally poised for that food trend,” says Lombard.
Several health benefits have been ascribed to honey, from its use as a cough suppressant to a sleep aid to a salve for wounds. Advocates of local honey also cite its ability to alleviate some seasonal allergies and its antioxidant properties.
“Made with the same local pollens that adversely impact some, ingesting those same pollens may build natural resistance to the symptoms that make many people uncomfortable during allergy season,” says Andrew Coté, owner of Andrew’s Honey, which has more than 100 beehives in New York City.
Andrew’s Honey sells the products at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York as well as through area supermarkets, restaurants, and bakeries. “Farmers markets are one of the best places to get local honey,” says Coté. “People tend to look for local honey, and the more local the better. People in the know look for their caramelized sunshine via small, local producers.”
Andrew’s is a family business that has maintained beehives since the 1800s. For the past decade-plus, the company has maintained apiaries atop various landmark buildings and other locations all over New York City, including the grounds of the United Nations headquarters. Coté suggests that specialty retailers can maximize their sales of local honey by touting its environmental benefits—it likely has a lower carbon footprint than honey brought in from a greater distance—as well as its efficacy in treating local pollen allergies.
Paul Hekimian, director of HoneyLove, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit conservation organization that seeks to protect the honeybee population through consumer education and by inspiring urban beekeepers, agrees that consumers are seeking out local honey to treat their allergies. Hekimian himself makes small batches of high-end honey, which he provides to a handful of discriminating chefs.
Glen’s Garden Market, Washington, D.C., is among the many retailers that have been building out their local honey portfolio. “We’ve found that folks looking for honey are seeking out two things: raw honeys with proven health benefits and super-local honeys that can be used to mitigate allergies,” says Danielle Vogel, Glen’s founder.
Vogel says that Glen’s, which sources almost all its products from within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, looks for ultra-local honeys harvested within 20 miles of the store in order to maximize the products’ immunity-boosting properties.
In addition to seeking out local honeys, consumers have also become more attuned to honey varietals, says Lombard of the NHB. The pollens of specific clovers, for example, or from produce such as blueberries or avocados, can all produce unique honey varietals that obtain their flavors naturally.
“People are increasingly interested in, for example, a buckwheat honey to use in making a barbecue sauce, or perhaps an alfalfa honey or a lavender honey for tea,” says Lombard.
Producers small and large—but mostly small—are jumping into varietals. Specialty food supplier and retailer CP Farms in Paso Robles, Calif., for example, which specializes in producing its own olive oils, lavender, and related products, recently introduced its own Wildflower Honey.
“It is made from nectar collected from our Paso Robles olive and lavender farm, which gives it a natural aroma and flavor,” the company said in a statement. The company’s website also touts the product’s health benefits, and the retention of heathy enzymes that it says would be lost through pasteurization.
Many honey farmers also infuse their honeys with on-trend flavors. Andrew’s Honey, for example, offers several varieties of infused honey, including ginger, sea salt, matcha, turmeric, vanilla, and chili peppers. In fact, hot honey infused with peppers has been trending. The winner of the 2018 Summer Fancy Food Show’s Front Burner Foodservice Pitch Competition was Mike’s Hot Honey, which is made using a hot chili pepper grown in Brazil and wildflower honey from New York.
Lombard of the NHB notes that consumers are also looking for honeys that are organic, raw, or minimally processed. “The biggest trend is this idea that people want to have an ingredient they feel good about, and that they know where it comes from, and they know how it’s produced,” she says. “You don’t need a centrifuge to create honey. You can just open a bee box and see a honeycomb.”
Interestingly, the honeycomb itself has been trending as an interesting component of a cheese tray or a dessert, for example. “We’re seeing a lot of honeycomb being used, which is naturally produced right from the bee and totally edible, and it makes a very beautiful presentation,” says Lombard.
Honey at the Bar
Another growing use for local honeys is in cocktails and spirits. Barry Gambold, general manager of Hotel Indigo-Baton Rouge, in Louisiana, has transformed an area of the hotel’s rooftop to an apiary, which produces honey for use in specialty cocktails at the hotel bar and as gifts for VIP guests. “The product is much better when you get it right out of the hive,” he says.
The hives produce about eight gallons of honey per year, collected in four harvests of about two gallons each. It’s enough for making some specialty cocktails at the bar and for bottling as gifts, but not enough to supply the kitchen, Gambold explains. The gift bottles are packaged with a Hotel Indigo label, and recipients are told that the honey is produced on-site.
The bees obtain some of the pollen to make the honey from the herbs and other plants that are grown in the rooftop garden—including mint, thyme, and peppers—which results in the honey picking up small amounts of flavor from those sources. The bees travel within about a two-mile radius, however, so they are also gathering pollen from other local plants.
Honeys can be incorporated into a variety of cocktails, including the classic “Bee’s Knees,” a Prohibition-era drink that combines gin, honey, and lemon juice. Honey is usually blended with warm water to create a syrup that can be blended easily into cocktails.
“Honey makes a beautiful simple syrup,” says Lombard, who noted that the NHB has done a lot of outreach with mixologists and others to show them how to incorporate local and regional honeys into their cocktail recipes.
Mixed into cocktails, eaten by the spoonful right out of the jar to battle allergies, or incorporated into baked goods or barbecue sauces, honey is becoming an indispensable element of the American diet.
“Folks are eating a lot of honey, and enjoying it,” says Lombard.
Beekeeping: A Labor of Love—and Pain
Harvesting honey, says Barry Gambold, general manager of Hotel Indigo-Baton Rouge, “is a painful thing.”
The hotel installed a rooftop apiary, which supplies honey to the hotel bar and for use as gift bottles for VIP guests. Despite using an automatic device that harvests the honey from the screens, workers “have been stung a few times,” he says.
While protective equipment generally keeps beekeepers insulated from the venom of their honey producers, they also have to endure other hardships. Andrew Coté, owner of Andrew’s Honey in New York, says rooftop honey farming introduces its own set of challenges.
“It is often difficult to find parking, to avoid tickets, to battle traffic, and to carry heavy, bee-filled boxes up and down several flights of stairs,” he says. “The only way to overcome it all is to power through it. Beekeeping requires a strong back and patience—and urban beekeeping more of both.”
It is a labor-intensive business. Labor, in fact, accounts for 50 percent of beekeepers’ costs, according to a recent report from the National Honey Board, prepared by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.
“These are extremely hard-working folks,” says Margaret Lombard, CEO of the NHB. “It is a real labor of love—there’s nothing glamorous about being a beekeeper. These are dedicated folks who usually come from generations of families who take pride in the products they produce.”
More than 300 unique types of honey are available in the United States, each originating from a different floral source, according to the National Honey Board. Honey varies from almost clear in color with a mild taste to dark brown with bold flavor. The color and flavor of each differs by the source of nectar visited by the honey bees.
Here are some of the most common U.S. honey floral varieties.
Alfalfa honey, produced throughout the U.S. Created from the plant’s purple blossoms, light in color with a pleasingly mild flavor and aroma.
Avocado honey, made from California avocado blossoms, is dark in color, with a rich, buttery taste.
Blueberry honey is made in New England and Michigan from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush. The honey is light amber in color and has a full, well-rounded flavor.
Buckwheat honey, dark and full-bodied, is produced in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Clover honey has a mild taste with color varying from white to amber depending upon location and type of clover. Clovers are the main contributor to honey production in the U.S.
Eucalyptus honey is produced in California from a diverse group of plants and hybrids. Though it varies greatly in color and flavor, it tends to be a stronger flavored honey with a distinct scent.
Fireweed honey is light in color and comes from a perennial herb that grows in the Northern and Pacific states.
Orange blossom honey is light in color with a mild citrus taste. It is produced in Florida, Southern California, and parts of Texas.
Sage honey, primarily produced in California, is light in color, heavy bodied, and has a mild flavor.
Tupelo honey is produced in northwest Florida. It is usually light golden amber in color with a greenish cast and has a mild taste.
Wildflower honey is a term often used to describe honey from miscellaneous flower sources.
Source: National Honey Board
Mark Hamstra a regular contributor to Specialty Food Magazine.