May 28, 2024

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Like malt for beer, the type of honey used to make honey wine has a great influence on the final product. Is all honey the same?

In college, my roommate, a horticulture major, had three beehives in our back yard at the edge of a small canyon. On the other side of the canyon was one of the largest cemeteries in San Diego, Ca. Being rather morose young men, we decided the bee's gathered their nectar from the flowers left there and dubbed the product we harvested "Graveyard Honey". We delighted in the expression we'd get when we told people its name ... only after they'd tasted it of course.

There are over 300 distinct varieties of honey, and many are used for making mead. The shelves of your local grocery store would give you a small taste (figuratively and literally) of the wide variety of honeys being produced by busy little bees all over the planet.

Honey flavors are based on the flowers the bees collect the nectar from. To a degree this is accurate, but unless they are contained, bees aren't necessarily loyal to any particular variety of flower, so often, characterizations of honey as being from a particular flower (i.e. clover honey) can vary from absolute fact to a good guess.

The honeys used in different mead styles are selected for taste and color. At one end of the scale is light clover and at the other end, the dark, strong flavored honeys, like buckwheat. If you are making your own mead keep in mind that honey with an interesting-but-unusual taste, like the one I mentioned at the top, can produce an overpowering character in the finished product.

Where to find honey in bulk
Honey can be purchased in bulk at roadside stands and health food stores or you can check the phone book for a nearby apiary or professional beekeeper. Another possible source could be local professional exterminators who, from time to time, remove hives and sell the honey. (I personally would want to know exactly where it came from and if there is any possibility of chemical or material contamination since the exterminator is often a last resort for people with bee problems) And finally, University agriculture departments occasionally sell off excess honey from their own apiaries.

Raw or Processed
Honey is available in raw, at the crude end of the scale, to highly processed form with numerous in-between stages. Commercial, "grocery store" honey is the most processed and is usually not favored by mead makers.

Raw honey is easily identifiable; honeycomb, bee parts, dust, and pollen are suspended in the thick liquid. With raw honey you have total control over how it's to be processed. But you also have a great deal of work ahead of you.

Filtering, blending, and heat-pasteurization are all steps to making the honey cleaner and more resistant to crystallization. But be careful, the more processed honey is the milder it tends to become, losing the important character it offers your finished mead.

Unappealing to the average consumer, crystallized honey is usually suitable for making mead. In some cases it is actually preferable to raw honey. The crystallization indicates the honey has probably been subjected to less processing, and it is generally cheaper (A word of warning regarding crystallized honey, if the sugar has formed into large crystals and is exposed, the surrounding liquid could be low enough in sugar content to allow contamination through fermentation with wild yeast. To liquefy crystallized honey, heat it gently and slowly, just to the point of liquidity so it's pourable.

Honey by any other name is just as sweet.
(The word for honey around the world)
Aboriginal (Australia) - Ngarlu
Finnish - Hunaja
Georgian (Eastern Europe)- Tapli
German - Honig
Norwegian - Honning
Russian - Mjod
Spanish - Miel
Swedish - Honung
Welsh, Brazilian, (and others) - Mel

- Julia Herz

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