Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Honey quality: harvesting

We've advertised our honey as unheated and not more than coarsely strained, but that probably verges on techno-speak for many of our customers. We wanted to take a little time here to explain some of what the techno-speak really means.

So here’s a quick overview of the process that takes honey from the hive to your jar: to get the bees off of the honey frames we use a combination of escape screens (a board with a built in maze that the bees find their way out of but not back through) and a soft-bristled brush with which we simply brush the bees off the frames. (Other beekeepers commonly place foul-smelling chemicals on top of their hives that repulse the bees and cause them to move away off the honey frames.)

In order to get the honey out of the comb, the cells that the honey is in have to be uncapped (the wax cappings have to be removed to open up the cells for the honey to come out.) Most beekeepers use electrically- or steam-heated knives. Because these knives can heat and scorch the honey, we simply use a well-suited serrated knife. The next step is to extract the honey: this is where the honey frame is spun around inside a stainless steel tank in order to sling the honey out of the comb.  The honey collects in the bottom and flows out the gate into a bucket.  (Honey is too thick and the cells are too small for the honey to simply run out on its own before absorbing moisture out of the air that would lead the honey to later spoil.  The only real alternative is to crush the comb, but spinning it out leaves the comb intact for later use.)

We keep a strainer (about as coarse as a regular window screen) on top of that bucket to strain out things like the random bee that finds its way into the extractor. That honey then goes directly into a larger stainless steel settling/bottling tank and a week later, after the smaller bits of wax have all floated to the surface of the honey, we bottle the clear honey from the tap at the bottom of the tank. By taking advantage of the natural density of honey we avoid having to use any fine filters. We also avoid the heat normally associated with filtering: honey flows very slowly through fine filters, so large-scale honey packers typically heat it to enable it to flow better.

Another practice that we completely avoid is heating the honey that gets removed with the cappings. Some beekeepers will heat the cappings in order to get the wax to melt and rise to the surface. This would require heating to around 150˚ or more with “hot spots” sure to reach even higher. We simply let the honey strain out until we're done extracting that day (without any added heat).  Whatever honey strains out after that we keep for ourselves, mainly for mead making.
The other typical source of heat for honey is intentional heating to melt down any honey crystals in the honey. For producing liquid honey we’re fortunate to have honey varieties that don’t crystallize very readily, so we mainly avoid this heating by simply bringing you the honey before crystallization ever begins to set in. We also induce fine-grained crystallization in our “creamed honey” to bypass any undesirable crystallization.

The end result is honey that hasn’t had the flavor or the goodness cooked out of it; nor any off flavors cooked into it; the trace elements (including the traces of pollen that naturally occur in honey) haven’t been filtered out; it hasn’t been exposed to any chemicals; and it’s briefly stored in stainless steel before bottling in glass to insure that the container doesn’t add or take away anything from the honey.

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