Honey: the thick, golden liquid produced by bees has been prized throughout the centuries and the world over. Known for its distinct sweetness, honey continues to be a staple in cooking and also in home treatments for sore throat and skin complaints. But what exactly is honey? Why and how do bees produce honey? What is the history behind honey? In this post, find out all about honey.
What is Honey?
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by bees, a result of insects extracting sugary secretions (nectar) from flowering plants.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
We all know honey originates from bees, but why do they make it in the first place? Bees make honey to feed the whole hive – it is an excellent food source full of nutrients that can be stored and consumed during the winter months, when there is less for bees to forage on. As honey is high is sugars, it is an effective energy source as well, keeping bees going in the multiple tasks in and around the hive. Luckily for humans and other animals, bees make more honey than they actually need: an average hive can produce a surplus of around 65 pounds of honey per year.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees make honey by extracting nectar, a sugary liquid, from flowers. Using their long, tube like tongues, nectar is drawn out and then stored in a bee’s “crop,” or extra stomach. Once the bees return to the hive, the nectar is then repeatedly passed from one bee’s mouth to another, each chewing the liquid. The partially digested nectar is then stored into honeycombs. At this stage, the nectar is still very water like in consistency, unlike the final product of honey, which is thick and viscous. To draw out all that extra water via evaporation, bees then furiously fan the nectar-containing honeycombs with their wings. Once this evaporation process is complete, worker bees then seal off the honeycombs with a substance from their bellies which hardens and eventually becomes beeswax. The now sticky and thick honey is protected from air and water, and lasts nearly indefinitely.
How is Honey Collected?
Human-kept hives have frames, where bees store their honey in honeycombs. Before honey extraction, bees are gently set aside using a bee brush; the use of smoke is quite effective in placating bees and making them easier to manage. The honey frames are then removed, and the beeswax scraped off. There are several methods to do this, either by removing the honey individually – honeycomb by honeycomb – or by scraping the combs all at once. Regardless of the exact method, a knife or fork is used to scrape the beeswax from both sides of the frame, exposing the honey. Then the frame is placed in a honey extractor, a type of metal container, which is then spun to remove the honey, where it collects to the bottom. The honey is then filtered through several layers of cheesecloth, and viola: now you have honey ready for human consumption.
Does Honey Expire?
Technically no, honey does not expire. So long as the liquid is stored in an airtight jar and kept away from excess moisture, honey remains safe to eat for decades (or longer). In fact, ancient Egyptian archaeological sites have yielded jars of honey dating thousands of years old…and the honey was still perfectly preserved. The reason for honey’s infinite shelf life lies in its biological makeup: with a high sugar content and low water content, honey is also antibacterial and has a low pH.
However, just because honey can last forever if stored correctly, doesn’t mean the liquid won’t undergo some changes. Honey can change colors and texture, going from clear to smoky, from smooth to granular. These changes are completely harmless unless the honey has been contaminated by bacteria, and/ or exposed to moisture. How to tell if honey has gone bad? A sour, instead of a sweet taste, is the classic sign.
Types of Honey
It may be easy to assume there’s only one type of honey, being that it is a golden liquid made by bees, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there are over 300 types of honey in the US alone! This all comes down to what flowers bees take their nectar from, which affects the flavor and color of honey produced. For example, buckwheat nectar has a malty, molasses like taste and is nearly black in color, while the extremely popular clover honey is very light in color and has a sweet, mild taste.
What is Raw Honey vs. Regular Honey?
At the grocery store you’ll see honey bottles marked “raw honey,” but what does this mean? Raw honey can be best described as honey as it is in the hive. The honey is strained through cheesecloth to remove impurities, but otherwise is completely unprocessed. Regular honey, on the other hand, is processed via pasteurization, which kills yeast in honey, resulting in extended shelf life, and also undergoes filtration, to improve the clarity of the liquid. Between the two types, raw honey by far has the most health benefits: it has up to 22 nutrients, and various minerals, enzymes, and vitamins. The same cannot be said of regular honey, as since it is processed, many of these elements are removed, while hidden sweeteners – such as high fructose corn syrup – are added.
Uses and Health Benefits of Honey
Besides its use as a salve for sore throat during colds, honey is also effective at treating burns, wounds, ulcers, herpes, psoriasis, etc. as it enhances healing. A study has also shown honey as being effective in stopping the growth of cancer cells, due to the antioxidants within the liquid. Honey is also a great sugar alternative as it is low glycemic, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar, unlike regular sugar.
History of Honey
Bees have produced honey for millions of years. Regarding beekeeping, or apiculture, sources and opinions vary as to when humans first started gathering honey by “keeping” bees. Ancient Egyptians began beekeeping around 2500 BC, though other sources indicate the practice started even earlier in China. And long before any actual beekeeping was practiced, humans gathered, or foraged, wild honey. In Spain’s Cueva de la Araña (Cave of the Spider), a cave painting dating from 9000 BC depicts a figure bravely climbing towards a hive, basket in hand, while bees buzz around. Though methods for collecting honey have evolved since then, one thing remains certain: honey’s popularity as an all-natural sweetener and an effective health salve.
Mead is one of the most delicious, wonderful things you will ever experience. But what exactly is mead, you ask? Many are familiar with the word, and know that it is a type of alcoholic beverage, one that brings to mind the Medieval and Renaissance ages…but that’s about it. Read on to learn all about mead!
What is Mead?
Visitors to wineries often ask, “What is mead?” Mead is basically honey wine: water and honey are fermented together by yeast, and one can add spices, grains, hops, or fruit. The result is a beverage that is somewhere between wine and beer. Mead tends to be stronger than beer, usually having an ABV of 5-20%. One of the world’s oldest liquors, the consumption of mead dates back more than 4,000 years ago, and was common the world over: Asia, Europe, Africa and Central America all had variations of mead. It was a beverage enjoyed by all classes, from peasants, to merchants, to royalty. Interest in mead declined over the last few centuries, but is now finding popularity once again in the 21st century.
The Resurgence of Mead
It’s no secret that craft beers and breweries continue to enjoy enormous growth and popularity, but mead is enjoying a moment as well. Twenty years ago, mead was viewed as nothing more than a niche beverage, with just a few dozen meaderies in the US. Fast forward to the present, and there are now more than 500 US meaderies, and counting. From 2011 to 2014 alone, US mead sales exploded by 130%, according to the American Mead Maker’s Association. Such a statistic deserves a toast! And you know what to pour for this toast.
Types of Mead
There are several dozen types of meads, but generally speaking mead is divided into two categories: unflavored and flavored. Unflavored is mead at its most basic ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. And unflavored mead yields three distinct flavor types: sweet mead, dry mead, and semi-sweet or semi-dry mead.
Flavored mead is made with additional ingredients, and each type of ingredient added comes with a unique name. Melomel is made with fruits. Metheglin is made with herbs and spice. And braggot is mead mixed with beer. Just was with craft beers, one can get very creative when it comes to brewing mead.
What Does Mead Taste Like?
The most basic answer is that mead tastes somewhat like sherry, with a noticeable honey taste. But the truth is that all mead does not taste the same. In fact, there are many varied tastes of even unflavored mead. This stems from the fact that the type of honey used can greatly affect how mead will taste. This is turn is rooted in the environment, and diet of the honeybees being used to produce the honey. Traditionally, clover, acacia, and orange blossom honey types are used to make mead. But one can also use wildflower, buckberry and blackberry honeys to produce distinct tasting meads. And of course, additional ingredients such as spices, fruits, and hops can alter the mead to range from sweet, to sparkling, to dry.
How To Brew Mead
For anyone who wants to brew their own mead, it’s important to note that there’s not really a “right” taste to end with. Since each type of honey is different, and ingredients added vary, it’s more of an art form you create. But how to brew mead, you ask?
Techniques and tools vary from person to person and Meadery to Meadery, but here is the general process. You’ll need Grade A honey, purified water, and yeast, of course. All equipment used – a large pot for boiling, glass carboys (large bottles), and thermometer – will need to be thoroughly sanitized. Why? Even the tiniest bit of bacteria can completely ruin a batch of mead. To sanitize, you can scrub with hot, boiled water. Once everything is sanitized, water is boiled in a large pot. As the water reaches boiling point, honey is added, as are any other ingredients, such as spices or fruit.
Cool water is then added to the mixture, to create the right environment for yeast. It can’t be too hot or too cold; use a clean thermometer to ensure the mix is between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeast is stirred in, then the liquid is placed in whatever is used to promote fermentation, oftentimes a carboy (a rigid, often large glass container), which is then sealed off. An airlock allows air to escape during fermentation, which usually takes about a month. Place the fermenting mead in a dark, cool spot, such as a closet, as it helps with fermentation. Once fermented, the liquid is bottled via a siphon, with a sanitized hydrometer used to check the ABV (alcohol by volume). And voila! Now you have mead.
How To Store Mead
Store mead just as you would store wine: bottles on the side, in a cool, dark area. A wine cellar is perfect, but a kitchen pantry or cupboard works as well. Avoid any areas that have direct sunlight or heat.
What is Mead’s Shelf Life?
When unopened, mead is renowned for its lengthy shelf life, ranging from several years to even decades. The general rule is the darker the mead, the longer the shelf life. In other words, the higher the alcohol content, the longer the liquor will last. For example, unopened classic mead can last for 5 years, while unopened lighter meads usually last 1-2 years. Once opened, however, mead’s shelf-life decreases, especially for lighter meads. It is usually recommended to consume lighter mead within 24 hours of opening. Do keep in mind that shelf life will vary from mead to mead, depending on its contents. Mead can be refrigerated, but avoid freezing it, as this will affect the flavor (and possibly the container in which it’s stored).
Is Mead Gluten Free?
Is Mead gluten free? It’s a great question, and the answer is that Mead is generally gluten free so long as only the basic ingredients (honey, water, and yeast) are used. However, certain additional ingredients may be not be gluten free, such as barley malt, which is used to make a specific mead called braggot. Check the label, or ask the meadery or brewery if the mead you want to try is gluten free. If you’re creating your own Mead, you’ll always know what you're getting!