Words by: Sarah Wyndham Lewis
Photography by: Bermondsey Street Bees (lead image Queen Bee)
Next time you reach for that cheap, squeezy bottle of honey, stop for a minute and read the label. There’s a 99% chance that what you have in your hands is an imported, blended and highly-processed ‘lookalike’. It’s no closer to the real thing than freeze-dried instant coffee granules are to a sumptuous handful of single-estate coffee beans.
What should be a luxurious natural food has been hijacked by the global food industry and rendered an ersatz commodity: To achieve that always-the-same colour, viscosity and low, low price point, poor quality honey is produced (often with appalling levels of bee welfare) and then pasteurised, blended, shipped and trans-shipped on the world market...Honey fraud is rife and it is right up there with wine and olive oil amongst our most commonly adulterated foods. The Netflix documentary series ‘Rotten’ includes an eye-opening episode on the international honey trade.
Just like good wine, or olive oil, REAL honey is harvested by a named producer from a named place. Because bees forage locally, in an area up to three miles around their hives, it is also just as profoundly the subject of ‘terroir’. Every honey is a perfect reflection of its origins; the particular plants that grow there, the minerals in the soil and the prevailing weather. Between one year and another, harvests from the same hives will vary greatly in both quantity and flavour profiles.
Honey tasting at Bermondsey Street Bees
True craft producers do nothing more than carefully extract the honey from the comb (by spinning or pressing) and then coarse filter, removing only excess wax, never the flavour-rich pollen. Their use of the descriptors ‘raw honey’ or ‘cold filtered’ refers to the fact that at no point in the extraction have they taken their honey above hive temperature. (36°C / 97°F). Honeycomb, straight from the hive in its waxy cells is another exciting hive product for cocktails, as is propolis, the richly aromatic tree resins gathered by bees as a building material and medicine for the hive.
Unlike the harsh commercial processing, the minimalist approach to harvesting real honey retains all of the delicate nutritional and flavour components that individualise real honey and allow Chefs, Bartenders and Honey Sommeliers like me to explore their extraordinary variety. If you cross-taste commodity honey alongside the real thing, you’ll quickly realise that, as Rod Eslamieh, UK Brand Ambassador for Disaronno and Tia Maria, puts it, “There really is no comparison. In terms of taste, texture, mouth-feel and quality, once you taste raw honey, it's very hard to go back.”
Throughout the history of man’s relationship with honey, it has always been seen as both a sweet treat and a medicine, charged with powerful healing properties. References to bees and honey stretch back before even the earliest written word, to cave paintings more than 8,000 years old.
Wild honey readily ferments, making mead one of the very first alcohols, alongside the natural fermentation of fruits. Known as “Nectar of the Gods”, mead was an everyday drink of the ancients, as well as ‘metheglin’ (mead + herbs), ‘pyment’ (honey + grape juice) and 'hippocras' (honey+ herbs +grape juice.) People were already starting to understand how honey not only sweetens but also elevates companion flavours.
For thousands of years, honey beer (now being rediscovered by craft brewers such as Hiver) was a staple, as were, from mediaeval times, the honeyed, fruity, spiced punches widely seen as the ancestors of modern cocktails. During the American prohibition, Bees Knees saw the brilliant combination of a spoonful of honey alongside lemon and orange juices to mitigate the workaday bleakness of bathtub gin.
Here’s my take on why honey and alcohol are such perfect partners. Honey is full of different volatile compounds. These come directly from the flowers from which the bees have gathered nectar and they each have their own individual chemical structures. (We also encounter those volatiles when we smell a flower or essential oils.) Because alcohol is a solvent, the volatiles, which form a coherent ‘whole’ in the honey, are isolated into their separate floral notes. So, especially with multi-floral honeys, you find a dramatically layered effect on the nose and palate when it’s mixed with alcohol, especially spirits.
So, back to the bar. …. Or the lab downstairs…. You’ve got this amazing raw honey. How do you use it? Unless you are a crazy genius like Charles Roche of Liquid Intellect who dries our honey, smokes it and generally goes to the Nth degree to showcase its flavour components, you probably make a syrup, thinning the honey down and making it far easier to integrate into the cocktail.
There is no issue about combining honey with water in the short term, but we recommend that syrups are made in small batches, kept in the fridge when possible and used up fairly quickly. Because honey + water = fermentation. Legally, honey for sale in the UK has to be 20% water or less. Ideally around the 18% mark, which is what the bees aim for when they concentrate flower nectars (which can be up to 70% water) down into honey for storage in the comb. At that level of concentration, the sugars in the honey prevent yeasts and bacteria from growing - which is why well-kept honey can last for hundreds of years and remain entirely stable.
There is another whole topic around fermented honey (or honey which exceeds the 20% water content and will, therefore, ferment in time) - it is in no way toxic, it has unique flavour qualities (which I love) and it is extremely good for the gut biome. By law, we beekeepers can't make or sell it. But it’s a whole world of flavours for bar wizards to explore [although it may not be legal for bars to serve].
In making a sugar syrup, you are immediately tinkering with the honey's natural sugar/water balance and inviting things to grow/ferment. Technically, there is no 'safe' ratio of water that can be added to honey. But in the short term, it's fine to make a syrup that's going to be used up within a week. Opinions on proportions vary from fairly standard 1:1 syrup to a bumped-up 2:1 or even 3:1 honey to water.
Ultimately, it depends on the intensity of the taste you want to achieve. Along the way, you might even want to infuse the honey with herbs, spices, citrus peels or other flavours. That’s great - it’ll take it all and leave them standing. It’s super-important however, never to ‘cook’ the honey whilst making syrup. Just like the artisan producers, who never take their honey above the natural hive temperature, you only need to apply gentle warmth to melt the honey into the water. The moment honey is taken above 36°C / 97°F, it starts to break down and lose those delicate volatiles that enchant the palate. It will never be as ‘bleh’ as the supermarket pretend-honey, but neither will it give you the full experience of honey in the raw.
frames of comb
How do you connect with raw honey suppliers? Make friends with a beekeeper or two. Farmers’ Markets are always a great way to find them, as are associations that exist all over the world to educate and support beekeepers. In the UK, two key contacts who can connect you with local beekeepers are the British Beekeepers Association and the Bee Farmers Association.
Begin to explore the sensational differences between one raw honey and another, from super-sweet florals to rich umamis, and you will, as Rod Eslamiah suggests, never go back.
Sarah Wyndham Lewis is a partner in Bermondsey Street Bees, the sustainable beekeeping practice named the UK’s ‘Small Artisan Producer of The Year’ at the 2016 Great Taste Awards and twice winner of ‘Best Honey in London’ (2011 & 2017). A trained Honey Sommelier, she runs regular sessions with chefs and bartenders.
As a craft producer, Bermondsey Street Bees works with and runs events for drinks industry brands including Jensen’s Gin, The Balvenie, Hiver Beer and Aberfeldy and supplies raw honeys and honeycomb to many of London’s leading restaurants and bars including The Artesian and Scout.
Bermondsey Street Bees rooftop apiary
By Rod Eslamieh, UK Brand Ambassador, Disaronno & Tia Maria
25ml Fresh pressed lemon juice
1 spoon Apricot jam
10ml Bermondsey Street Bees raw honey
Shaken and poured over cubed ice.
By Charles Roche, Liquid Intellect Consultancy
25ml Girvan Four Apps Single Grain Scotch (or Irish whiskey)
12.5ml Rinquinquin peach aperitif
12.5ml Bermondsey Street Bees raw honey (blended 1:1 with water)
Stir with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass with a wedge of blue cheese for garnish – the
saltier the cheese, the better.
50ml Aberfeldy 12 single malt Scotch whisky
2 spoon Bermondsey Street Bees or local honey syrup
2 dash Angostura bitters
2 dash orange bitters
Stir honey syrup, bitters and Aberfeldy with ice and strain into ice-filled old-fashioned glass (preferably over a large cube of block ice). Express orange zest twist over drink and discard. Garnish with gold flake.