Fair Honey

Fairly good honey: the best at the fair

Good fair honey: Actually, the best fair honey at the Millarville Fair!

As a beekeeper, I have always been troubled with the disposal of honey. Invariably, we produced more than we could eat, especially since I ran as many as 2,000 hives. We had to get rid of the excess. Some went to friends as gifts and to bee yard landlords as payment for our right to trespass. I would guess that over the years I handled a couple million pounds of honey,  passing it through uncappers and extractors and dumping it into steel drums and half-pound jars. But I never thought of myself as a honey person, just a beekeeper.

A friend, Stephen, inspects honey for blemishes. <br>Nice light Canadian honey, eh?

A friend helps inspect honey for blemishes.
The honey sits atop a flashlight and Stephen is holding a magnifying glass. Nice light-coloured Canadian honey, eh?

Nevertheless, some folks here in the Calgary area have decided that my proximity to honey implies that I know something about the stuff. I have been drafted into the role of honey judge. I don’t mind handing out blue ribbons, but I do not have the best personality for such work. A good honey judge, I think, has a persnickety character. Someone with the disposition of a snobby wine connoisseur. The ideal honey judge is both meticulous and impartial. Impartiality is my long suit, if I may be permitted that biased opinion. But I’m not as meticulous as many of my close acquaintances. So I was grateful that several people assisted in Friday night’s Millarville Fair honey judging event. It made everything flow more smoothly.

The Priddis and Millarville Fair (now in its 108th year) attracted a respectable number of honey entries this year. The three categories – creamed honey, dark honey, and light honey – each had superior samples vying for attention. This was my 5th chance to judge at this fair and it complements the judging I’ve done at the Calgary Beekeepers’ annual honey competition. In a moment, I am going to tell you a bit about how the honey judging is done here. If you ever have a chance to enter one of the contests in our area, you’ll know what awaits when your own honey sits in judgement.

stuffyFirst, I’ll warn readers living in places rife with persnickety judges (and I’m looking at you, England) that our homegrown, western frontier Canadian honey competitions may make your eyes roll, or possibly moisten. I can appreciate that. We don’t have the centuries of tradition nor the established rules that make your honey judging a fine art. However, when I drew up our Calgary area rules, I borrowed heavily from published handbooks written in the British Isles. I also stole unabashedly from Florida’s Dr Tom Sanford who gave me great judging suggestions. I used other’s ideas and made modifications for things that are more relevant to our climate (much drier honey) and culture (pragmatism is boss out here).

So, if you want to enter honey in one of the local competitions (Calgary, Chestermere, Millarville), I’ll walk you through the things you should keep in mind. At the end, I’ll  mention a really big problem with western Canadian honey and what you might try to do to overcome it. But first, some basics.

We score on a 100 point system. Everyone automatically gets 100 points. But as soon as we look at your honey, your score begins to drop. Maybe quickly. Below are the qualities we look at and the maximum possible points for each:

1. CONTAINER – 10 POINTS
2. BRIGHTNESS – 10 POINTS
3. FREEDOM FROM CRYSTALS – 15 POINTS
4. ACCURACY OF FILLING – 10 POINTS
5. FLAVOUR/AROMA – 20 POINTS
6. HONEY DENSITY (VISCOSITY) – 15 POINTS
7. CLEANLINESS AND FREEDOM FROM FOAM OR AIR BUBBLES – 20 POINTS

Here are some of the details:

Container is judged on suitability of the jar, container imperfections, and lid/container cleanliness. We actually look for mars, scuffs, and even glass imperfections. Suitability of container is also important, so you’ll lose a lot of points for using pickle jars. One reason we penalize mason jars (though personally, I like them) is they are really difficult to compare with standard honey jars. When you have 10 entries in identical containers and a few in unusual vessels, it becomes hard to compare brightness and accuracy of fill, for example.
Brightness is obviously preferred – as opposed to a dull appearance which might indicate wax or crystalline impurities. We compare jars by placing them atop a strong flashlight, as you can see in the pictures above and below.
Accuracy of filling requires headroom of 1.25 to 2.5 cm (½ to 1 inch). Do not under fill – there should be no visible honey-to-cap gap (no air space) visible. On the other hand, if the judge gets sticky because you have overfilled the jar and honey is gobbed under the lid and leaking down the side… the judge will notice and revenge will be swift and furious.
Flavour and aroma are restricted to carmelization and fermentation traits. We see both offenses most years as some beekeepers always over-heat their honey, causing slight burning, or they harvest honey that is not properly cured by the bees and it has high moisture content. On the other hand, judges do not rate honey by how much they personally like the floral source. Honey might be minty, bland, sharp, or mellow and that would be OK. But it had better not be burnt or sour (or both – one year I wanted to give a special award to an unusual entry that managed to hit both taboos at the same time).
Freedom from crystals means that the honey is not granulating. Every year we receive a few entries that look like a wayward chemistry experiment. (This happens in Alberta because of the nearly ubiquitous presence of fast-granulating canola.) You want to show us liquid honey free of crystals, unless you’ve entered it as ‘creamed’, in which case the smoother and more uniformly crystallized, the better!
Density (or viscosity) of liquid honey will be judged either by a timed bubble test or refractometer. Since honey in western Canada can be really, really low in moisture, we use a graded scale and award more points for drier honey. Some entries have run as low as 13% moisture. Refractometers cost around $100 these days. I know that’s still a chunk of change, but sometimes hobby beekeepers team up to buy a gadget. It’s useful even if you are just selling out of the door to your neighbours. Honey over 18.6% moisture gets zero points from us when we judge it because it may spoil and because above that water content, it is no longer legal to sell it as “honey”.
Cleanliness is next to blue-ribbon-ness. Honey is food. Food must be clean. Crystals, foamy air bubbles, and cleanliness is partly comparison-based. The full 20 points is usually not awarded because we almost always find some unusual material floating in home-made honey. Even if it is benign wax, pollen, foam, or granulation crystals, it still detracts from the pristine nature of pure honey. Often – using a magnifying glass – we find a few tiny black specks (smoker soot) and fibers that likely unraveled from some honey-filtering material. These are nearly microscopic and nearly impossible to avoid. But you should check your entry yourself before submitting it and remove a candidate that has such floaters.

Inspecting with persnicketiness.

Inspecting with persnicketiness.

I promised to address a problem that plagues every beekeeper entering competition with low moisture, light-coloured honey. Here is your dilemma: You want the honey to be free of specks, fibers, and suspended air bubbles but these things almost never drift to the surface in thick, low-moisture honey. They stay suspended. However, you have likely discovered that you can get rid of all these problems by heating the honey. Then everything floats to the top and the warm honey can be filtered through really fine cloth to make it extra nice. Unfortunately, too much heat darkens honey and gives it an awful caramelized flavour. So, you either enter honey with suspended air bubbles (losing points for dullness and perhaps granulation) or you heat the honey too much (losing points by burning it).  However, there is a delicate balance that you may achieve with patience and experience.

If you want to keep honey from granulating and want to remove air bubbles, you may need to heat it. If you do, make the honey rather hot, but only for a few minutes. Stir the honey, let it sit a bit, skim the surface, then filter it into a new clean container. Immediately place the new container of hot honey into a tub of ice-cold water to cool the honey off. Skim the surface again. Heat damage is a function of both the amount of heat (Never boil the stuff!) and the amount of time that it stays hot. If you keep honey at 40º C (104º F) for days, you may do as much damage as heating it to 70 C (160 F) for a few minutes. Experiment, but a temperature of about 55 C (130 F) is about right for a few moments – but then chill the honey quickly. Done correctly, this makes lovely clean and sparkling honey for sale or home use with minimal (perhaps no) perceptible heat damage.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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