Who knew there were so many ways to classify honey? Before I became a beekeeper, I sure didn’t! As I’ve studied more about my new hobby, I’ve discovered there are a lot of things that can be done during the production of honey that change not only the way you describe it, but actually can change the honey itself.
There’s “honey” or “pure honey” which can mean just about anything. This is what you generally buy at the grocery store from “local and imported” products. It’s typically a blend of whatever is cheapest on the market and has a very consistent look, feel and taste (consumers are our own worst enemy by expecting this). It’s definitely yummy and I’d never criticise it, but honey can be better.
There’s “raw honey” which means the honey hasn’t been heated during processing. The hive is always kept at 35 C so any honey heated above that really shouldn’t be called “raw”. Rumour has it that your normal store-bought honey can be heated to 75 C and pushed at high pressure through sieves to make sure it’s clear and doesn’t crystallise. When honey’s heated you can destroy a lot of the goodness that it naturally contains. Enzymes in the honey die and humans lose the benefit they provide (raw honey contains 18 of the 22 amino acids that humans cannot produce themselves). Over-sieving takes out pollen and can even break down the natural structure within honey. Raw honey seems like a good idea to me.
There’s “creamed honey” which is honey that has crystallised and been stirred to form a smooth, creamy texture. Nothing (not even cream or wax) is added to the honey, it’s just a different texture which makes spreading it on toast a lot easier. To produce this honey requires more (human) effort which is why it’s bound to cost a bit more.
There’s “varietal honey” which means “most” (I’ve read it’s at least 40% and I’ve read it’s at least 80%) of the honey comes from nectar from a single plant type. In order to achieve this you have to move your bees to an area where there’s only one plant in bloom for miles around (since bees can’t be trained to avoid really yummy flowers that aren’t on a jar’s label). There are definitely taste variations resulting from this kind of honey-husbandry and, for those who have a strong preference (not me), these honeys could be worth the effort and extra cost. I can’t help but wonder how happy the bees are in this environment though. Wouldn’t they benefit from variety in their diet in the same way humans do? For us broccoli is a very healthy vegetable, but we wouldn’t last long living on broccoli alone. Are we potentially harming bees if we force them to only consume one type of nectar? There is some evidence that this is so (thanks to Emily over at adventuresinbeeland.com for this link) .
There’s “medicinal honey” which is really a subset of varietal honey. Some studies have been done on some types of honey (eg manuka, tee tree) that seem to indicate they have medicinal properties (cure for the common cold perhaps?). All honey has medicinal properties (for example, they’re antiseptic) so, as with other varietal honeys, it is up to the consumer to decide if a specific medicinal honey variety is really worth it. And then there’s the whole happy-healthy-bee thing to consider.
There’s “organic honey” which means that there are no sources of chemicals (including town centres, rubbish tips, commercial farms, industry) within 5 kilometres of the beehive and the bees and hive are not managed with any chemicals. I understand the principle of this and applaud it but it does pretty much mean every backyard beekeeper would find it impossible to be certified organic. I absolutely put no chemicals in my hive or in my garden for that matter, but one of my neighbours (even a couple of kilometres away) could spray their rose bush and one of my bees just might pop over for a drink anyway.
Finally, there’s “wildflower/backyard/garden/… honey“. This honey is what bees produce when they are left to forage where they will, as they will. It can also be organic, raw or creamed but it won’t be varietal (including medicinal).
Our bees give us raw backyard honey (or that’s what we call it); they go where they will and deposit nectar in their cells as they see fit. Once the nectar’s converted into ripe honey, they cap it and it awaits our harvest. We don’t process our honey so (most of) it is raw. The exception is the honey that comes out of the solar beeswax melter. That’s heated above 35 C by the sun so some of the qualities of the honey may be modified. I use it for baking where the honey would be heated anyway and go for the raw stuff on my toast.
Like varietal honey, backyard honey can have huge variations in taste. With backyard honey however, the beekeeper doesn’t control the nectar choice, the bees do. Because of this, the difference between each harvest can be huge in colour, texture, aroma, taste and readiness to crystallise. I suppose the honey even varies in its make-up of vitamins and other components based on the plants visited during the bees’ flights. This makes honey a bit like wine, or wine without a vintner to pick the right time to harvest to get the most from the season’s press. Each jar is a surprise waiting to be enjoyed. The best part is that, unlike wine, I’ve never tasted a honey I didn’t like.