Honey has always been a key ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Sadly, however, the industrialization of beekeeping and honey production have turned this once-revered substance into a commodity.
Honeybees as livestock are trucked around the country to pollinate food crops on a massive scale—indeed, our entire modern food system relies heavily on migratory beekeeping. For example: Most commercial beekeepers put most of their hives on flatbed trucks and send them to California each year to pollinate almonds. Almond nectar, however, is almost entirely devoid of nutrients for bees, and they must be fed commercial sugar solutions and nutrients to keep them alive in the almond groves, which are grown in monoculture for miles around. In fact, if other nectar sources are available in an almond grove, the bees will ignore the almond flowers altogether. What little honey the bees produce in the almond groves is dark and tends to be bitter; farmers remove it from the hives and sell it off before trucking the hives back to their home locations.
Without this revenue, the business model of almost every U.S. commercial beekeeper would be in the red. Thus, honey production often plays second-fiddle to the pollination for which the beekeepers (and their bees) are hired.
Nevertheless, in recent years we’ve seen an explosion in the popularity of mead, beer, cider, and other delicious beverages made with honey. More people than ever are learning about the importance of honeybees to our food system and to the health of our environment at large. Beekeeping is more popular and increasingly urban. Homebrewers and meadmakers see a growing Venn overlap with backyard beekeepers. Meanwhile, quality varietal honeys from around the world are more accessible than they’ve ever been, ordered from your smartphone and delivered straight to your doorstep.
Increasingly, brewers and drinkers are aware of those factors that contribute to quality honey production, and they are approaching the use of varietal honeys as they would other prized ingredients such as malt, hops, yeast, and grapes.
The Grade Problem
In the United States, we have very few standards for honey quality—and these are all voluntary, inconsistently applied, or pure marketing hokum. Broadly, these standards are arbitrary, meaningless, and/or virtually ignored.
Let’s go down a rabbit hole: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has standards for grades of extracted honey. These are available to help producers and suppliers establish quality-control programs and for what they call “orderly marketing.” There are federal inspectors available to grade honey for these businesses, and these inspectors work on a fee-for-service basis. So, the honey businesses pay the inspectors to grade their honey, then they can use those grades in their marketing.
These inspectors use a 100-point system that’s not so different from judging beer, mead, or wine. They award points for flavor and aroma (up to 50), absence of defects (40), and clarity (10). The USDA’s four grades for extracted honey are Grade A (90-plus points), Grade B (80–89), Grade C (70–79), and Substandard (below 70).
Notably, they define “defects” as particles of honeycomb, propolis, or other sediments that “affect the appearance or edibility of the product.”
Propolis, incidentally, is a hive product that can add amazing flavor and aroma to honey and mead—but the USDA and the honey industry consider it a defect. A resinous substance that worker bees use for various purposes, propolis is also a known antimicrobial agent, with both antibiotic and antifungal properties. It may also have anticavity, antitumor, and antiviral effects. More to the point: Some of the best meads I’ve ever made were based on raw honey that contained propolis, wax, bee’s knees—you name it!
Another key metric that determines the USDA honey grades is moisture content. Grades A and B need to have a soluble-solids content of at least 81.4 percent—i.e., no more than 18.6 percent moisture. As Ken Schramm writes in The Compleat Meadmaker—a seminal book, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his son-in-law—fermentation can occur in honey that’s above 19 percent moisture. Thus, it’s best to avoid Grade C and below honeys because they may have off-flavors and aromas even before your intentional fermentation has begun. The device for measuring soluble solids in honey is called a honey refractometer—it’s a simple device, similar to a refractometer that measures wort gravity, but few brewers know it exists. It’s just one example of a tool that brewers and meadmakers can use to analyze and ensure the quality of honey as an ingredient.
When it comes to the flavor and aroma—the bulk of the score—the evaluation is done by a federal inspector working on a fee-for-service basis. Now, are you ready for a dirty little secret? Not a single honey producer, packer, or reseller that I spoke to for this article is actually sending samples of honey to the U.S. Federal Inspection Services. Producers are completely sidestepping this voluntary program for grading honey. That marketing label of “U.S. Grade A” isn’t so “orderly” after all, it seems.
So, how is the U.S. consumer supposed to be the judge of quality honey?
Marketing & Fakery
When buying honey at the store, you might see terms such as “certified kosher,” “raw,” “pure,” “unfiltered,” “unheated,” or “natural.” These are all completely unregulated, with meanings that vary and even conflict, depending on whom you ask.
For example: “Certified kosher” honey has usually been filtered to a specific micron mesh size to remove dead bees and bee parts. So, how could a certified kosher honey also be considered “raw”? Even a “raw” extracted honey has been processed to removed it from the honeycombs. These imprecisions make it difficult to know what you’re really getting when searching for quality honey.
Adulteration—using syrups made from corn or sugarcane, for example—is a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in honey-producing countries around the world. One system that has been effective in opposing this fraud comes from an independent firm called True Source Honey, which developed the True Source Certified seal. This is a voluntary system of traceability and testing for authenticity. The National Honey Board also has named adulteration as a major challenge facing the industry.
However, there is not yet any single method capable of detecting all the various ways fraudsters will cut pure honey down into the honey-like product they are passing off on consumers around the globe.
Testing for Quality
Simply put, brewers and meadmakers need the honey industry to do better. Consumers deserve more, and that starts by educating ourselves about what quality honey is—what it tastes like, what it smells like, what it contains, and what it does not contain.
There are four true enemies to honey quality: filtration, incorrect labeling, adulteration, and heat.
We’ve briefly touched on filtration and incorrect labeling. Adulteration we just discussed. Thankfully, you can avoid it by looking to trusted sources of honey—your local beekeeper you know by name, True Source or other seals of authenticity, or by buying honey produced as close to your base of operations as possible. Becoming familiar with a local beekeeper might be the best thing you can do this year to improve your knowledge of honey quality and any beverages you make with it.
In The Compleat Meadmaker, Ken writes that “the closer to the hive (in terms of time and treatment), the more complex and flavorful your honey, and thus your mead, are likely to be.” Ken is a big advocate of using freshly extracted local honey for mead; its aroma is volatile. Any storage above 80°F (27°C) will cause deterioration of aroma, color, flavor, and enzyme content. Every processing method from the honeycomb on will degrade the quality of the honey extracted from it, and that usually begins with heat.
When honey is heated, it loses flavor and aroma molecules—which is often why the smell of honey fills a processing facility that is heating honey. Beekeepers, honey packers, and professional users of honey do this for one simple reason: honey is viscous, heavy, and often in a solid to semi-solid state. Except for freshly extracted honey in liquid form, you need to heat honey to get it to flow—whether that’s from a jar, a pail, or a drum. This is practical: Have you ever tried to get crystallized honey out of a 660-pound drum for your beer? Heating is also necessary for filtration to remove particulates, which also can increase the rate of crystallization.
We can roughly determine how much heat a honey has experienced using enzyme activity. Most brewers are intimately familiar with a little enzyme known as alpha-amylase—the enzyme in malt that converts starch to sugar. This enzyme is present in human saliva and in the salivary excretions of bees. So, we can use the enzymatic activity in honey as a marker for how much heat has been applied to it.
The Europeans are way ahead of the United States on this key metric for honey, with a minimum level of alpha-amylase, or diastase—it’s eight Schade units, if you’re keeping score—for all except baker’s honey. A Swedish company called Phadebas sells testing kits for amylase, a quick and affordable ($2) method that uses the sort of spectrophotometers that many brewery labs have. However, none of this is well known in the United States. We can and should be asking our honey sellers to test for this enzyme and to label their honeys with the results. We get a certificate of analysis with our malt. Why not our honey?
Another objective measure of how much heat an extracted honey has experienced comes in the form of HMF—that’s 5-hydroxymethylfurfural—which is formed by reducing sugars in honey under conditions of acidity and heat. Again, the Europeans have standards for this: a maximum of 40 ppm in honeys from non-tropical origins, and 80 ppm from tropical sources. (Some honey tasters consider tropical honeys to be “naturally spoiled,” due to the heat they inevitably experience.) Testing for this used to be expensive, but newer methods are down to about $5 per test.
You know what is expensive? Honey. If you’re paying a premium price for yours, wouldn’t you want a basic test for that batch? Ask your producer if they do this kind of testing, and you’ll be doing a service for wider honey quality.
The Conversation about Quality
Subjective analysis of honey flavor and aroma should be done by professional honey tasters—and they’re rarer than you think.
I’ve studied honey for many years as a professional meadmaker, and I do not consider myself a professional honey taster by any means. My beautiful wife Alyson Schramm Naeger and her father Ken Schramm have worked side-by-side with me for many years; although they have some of the most well-trained palates of anyone I know, I don’t consider them to be professional honey tasters either. We are professional honey users.
I consider a professional honey taster to be someone who routinely analyzes honey for flavor and aroma for the purposes of selecting lots and batches for purchase. These are the pros who work at honey suppliers such as Z Specialty Food and at places such as the University of California Davis Honey and Pollination Center.
In the wine world, we have writers, critics, and sommeliers such as Madeline Triffon, James Suckling, Jancis Robinson, and Robert Parker. Everyone has an opinion, and not everyone agrees with these professionals, but they form the basis for a conversation on the subjective analysis of flavor and aroma. These critics and professionals provide a starting point for our discussion about wine quality. So, why don’t we look to professional honey tasters as judges of quality in honey?
Honey varies widely, and naturally, depending on a range of factors: the location of the hives, the time of year the honey is extracted, the experience and artistry of the beekeeper, and more. Relatively few consumers are aware of the factors that determine quality in honey, and this has stymied the development of useful standards. Such standards would be useful to those who make craft beverages—whether at home or on a commercial scale—and to those who enjoy drinking them.
It’s past time for a conversation among craft aficionados about what quality honey is, how to find it, and how to use it—all in the service of making world-class craft beverages.