Another Artisan Confection: Honey

October 13, 2009

Last Saturday, I got the chance to go watch some folks extract honey from a set of backyard hives. It’s not chocolate, I thought that people obsessed with making chocolate might be interested in seeing how the most ancient confection is made. Chocolate is a brand new invention (dating from about 250 C.E.) compared to honey (eaten since at least 2100 B.C.E.) Like chocolate, there are dedicated artisan honey producers making specialty honeys.

Artisan honey is distinguished by the species of flower the bees extract nectar from. There are honeys from apple blossoms, red sumac, basswood, clover, lavender, among others. Like chocolate, the character of the agricultural product determines the character of the final product. (Apologies to any serious honey experts that might be reading this…I’m sure I’m missing lots of detail here, especially on the complexities of bee husbandry.)

Uncapping honeycomb

Uncapping honeycomb

Like refining chocolate, extracting honey is a fragrant, messy process. The process starts by kindly asking the bees to vacate the box they are living in, then taking out the frames that the bees have used to build honeycombs. You then use a hot knife to “uncap” the honeycomb, cutting off the wax caps of the comb. The resultant mess of honey and wax can be heated to separate the honey and the wax, but most of the honey is recovered from the main body of the comb in the next step.

The uncapped frames are loaded into a centrifugal extractor.

Extracting honey

Extracting honey

(If you are lucky, you can get a three year old spaceman to come by and help spin the combs in the extractor…what they lack in arm strength is made up in enthusiasm.)

There’s an enormous amount of honey in even a small set of frames. Our hosts extracted more than ten gallons of honey from a single hive box.

Honey ready to jar

Honey ready to jar

Once the honey is extracted, it’s poured into a bucket with a coarse filter cloth to take out the remaining small chunks of wax. The bucket has a valve that makes it relatively easy to jar, and you have a finished, very delicious, product.

Many thanks to Thomas and Jenny for inviting us over, and for the great honey. It really takes some dedication to keep three beehives (and their thousands of sting-prone residents) in your backyard!

Time to start thinking about pairing dark sumac honey with chocolate….