Honey (Part I: What is Honey & How is it Processed?)

Well, I promised back in October that my next post would be about honey. It only took me a few months! Sometimes life gets in the way. What are you going to do? (Drink some mead and be patient while Pat takes forever writing an article was the correct answer).

Moving right along. In this post, my aim is to discuss mead’s characteristic ingredient – honey. There are many types of honey out there, whether it’s classified by how the honey is processed, or varietals (produced from different flowering plant’s pollen). To begin the first part of this series on honey, I would like to talk about what honey actually is, and a couple different ways in which it is commonly processed.

Honey is made by… you guessed it – honeybees. The bees create this beloved food product by collecting nectar from all sorts of flowering plants. The nectar itself, which is the sugar-source for honey, is produced by the plants, either within their flowers, which are irresistible to pollinating animals (like bees), or by what’s called “extrafloral nectaries” (1). Bees are not the only animals that feed on plant nectar and pollinate, they are just the most well-known for doing so. Butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and even bats love the stuff as well. After a honeybee visits a plant, more nectar is exuded. After pollination has finished, the plant usually reabsorbs the nectar that remains.

Nectar is mainly comprised of natural sugars (sucrose, glucose, and fructose), but like most things, it’s more complicated than that. One could write at great length about all the chemicals in nectar, but as an example, all of the standard amino acids found in protein have been identified in many nectars. Amino acids being essential to the protein make-up of our bodies and critical to human nutrition. (There are also non-essential amino acids that the human body has the ability to synthesize, so you don’t need them in your daily diet).

Once the bees harvest the nectar from the plant, they return back to the hive and transform the nectar into honey. They do this by a process of regurgitation and evaporation. Nectar contains roughly 80% moisture, so in order for the bees to store it in such a way to keep it from spoiling, they need to reduce that down to about 14-18%. Once they have done so, honey has been created. The bees then store the honey as their primary food source in wax honeycombs inside their hives. The honeybee survives through teamwork, and the creation of the honey is no different. Older worker bees collect and bring the nectar back to the hive. The younger bees in the hive then take-over and turn the nectar into honey. During this whole process, honeybees produce a number of other beneficial nutrients, including: propolis, bee pollen, and royal jelly. More on those at a later time.

Bees Making Honey

Bees Making Honey

Now comes the harvest. Over the many centuries, humans have devised ways of controlling this massive honey production process. Apiarists (or beekeepers) facilitate this process and try to produce the optimal conditions for the honeybees to do their job. I’ll talk in more detail about both bees and beekeeping in a later post, but for now, we’ll keep it very simple. Modern beekeepers use specifically-designed boxes as homes for the bee colonies and their hives. These boxes have several parts but the most important are the frames they are fitted with, on which the bees create their wax combs that they then fill with honey. Once the combs are filled and the honey is ready to be extracted, the beekeeper begins the process of harvesting. They remove the frames one after another, which at this point should be full of honey. Each cell of the comb containing honey is sealed-off with a wax cap made by the bees. The first thing the beekeeper must do is to remove the wax caps, either with a preheated knife or an automated uncapper. Automated uncapping machines use moving chains or bristles to create friction which removes the caps. The wax that is removed (known as uncappings) is then heated and slowly drained of honey, and later used in beeswax production. The uncapped frames are then put into a centrifuge known as a honey extractor, which spins the frames at a rapid rate, shooting the honey out so that it runs down the walls of the centrifuge and collects at the bottom. The honey extractors are fitted with a tap or honey pump that allows for the removal of honey from the drum. This process maintains the structural integrity of the wax honeycombs, so the frame can be reused by the bees. After this comes filtering, grading, and packaging.

Typically, most mass-produced commercial honey is heated to at least 130°F during the extraction process. It’s my opinion (and many others) that this produces inferior honey, or at least less nutrient-dense and flavorful honey. By heating, pasteurizing and/or overly-filtering raw honey, you are sometimes left wondering if it ever came from the nectar of a flower in the first place. Feeding the honeybees non-honey sugar syrups (including high fructose corn syrup) between the harvest and Springtime compounds this problem before extraction even begins. Some “honey” manufacturers even cut their product with these syrups, leaving you with what looks and tastes something like honey, but what’s now reduced to mere sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Honey is often stripped of pollens, enzymes, and nutrients making it little better than the syrups other manufactures use. These final products vary in their degrees of harshness towards the raw honey.

All these shortcuts come down to economics. Leaving honey behind for the bees to survive on during the Winter is not nearly as cost-efficient as just giving them a cheap sugar substitute. Also, cold honey runs slow, which is why they apply heat in the first place when extracting. This lowers costs by dramatically increasing production speed. Heat is also required to pump honey when bottled by industrial machines. What constitutes good “Raw Honey” is a process called cold extraction, where the honey is not pasteurized (but can still be heated up to 115°F), and minimal filtering. The resulting product is honey in the truest sense of the word, still containing it’s pollens, delicate enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Not to mention, raw honey is antimicrobial and has a naturally indefinite shelf life.

As a mead-maker, the most important thing to remember is to source quality ingredients, and honey is your most important one. What you put into your mead is what you get back. You probably won’t remember a couple years from now when you’re drinking some amazing homebrewed mead that you spent a little extra money to get higher-quality ingredients, but your product will speak for itself.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on honey, where I will be going into more detail about the nutritional aspects of raw honey, varietal options, how they taste and how to utilize them in mead-making.

Happy brewing. Cheers!

(1) http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/lifeforms/antplants/extrafloralnectaries.html

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