photo by Phil Beard

photo by Phil Beard

According to Ron Phipps’ latest market report of the American Honey Producers Association, the greater demand for honey in the marketplace, matched with the declining bee population and harsh weather conditions, is fostering the concern that demand for quality honey is growing beyond the supply available. With the poor economy, the high price of honey, and “honey-laundering” (the illegal import of substandard honey watered down with HF corn syrup or containing harmful chemicals),  more people are turning to backyard beekeeping, and selling or buying excess honey at farmers’ markets and various local small businesses.

Many consumers (and even some beekeepers) believe that the grades for honey are unregulated. After all, no one can follow each bee to determine the type of flower where she is harvesting nectar. For all we know, she could be the one buzzing inside a littered coke can. But it is fairly simple to determine quality honey if you know what to look for.

Yes, all honey is not of the same quality, and in 1985, the US Department of Agriculture released the US Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey. Quality is determined with a points system. Points are awarded for the percent of solids, the absence of defects, and the flavor, aroma and clarity in the final product.

Honey ranges in color from water white to dark amber, depending on the age and the type of plants used for nectar. Honey can be darkened over time or with the application of heat. Lighter honey has a more delicate flavor; darker honey has a more pronounced flavor. Depending on the way that the honey is harvested and processed, it can be clear or muddy (with crystals, air, or other inclusions). You can also find honey that contains honeycomb in the jar, like the opening picture above.

All honey types have best uses. Lighter honey is great for adding sweetness in cooking, or to replace sugar. Darker honey is great for syrups and spreads that need a deeper flavor. Honey that is labeled “creamed” is actually muddy with air bubbles, and is great for spreads or candies.

Raw honey is the most common honey available from backyard beekeepers. It is simply strained and bottled, and contains the antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, and other benefits that are lost when the honey is heated. Some people believe that it has a better flavor, and that small quantities of local raw honey will help reduce allergies. Raw honey does crystallize faster, but the crystals will not affect flavor, and will melt back into honey under a low heat.

The process for gaining a US standard honey grade costs a lot of money, and must be updated per batch, making the process prohibitive to small or hobby beekeepers that sell in the farmers’ markets and local businesses. Most small producers do not get their honey graded, but it does not mean that the honey is substandard. Often, it is even more flavorful because it is handled in small batches. In these instances, you can use the US grading guidelines to help you buy the best honey.

All honey should follow the following conditions:

  1. No defects affect the appearance of or edibility of honey.
  2. Flavor is at least reasonably free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other additions.
  3. The appearance is not seriously affected by air bubbles, pollen, grains, or other particles (this condition is not applicable for strained or raw honey).

Grade A honey is practically free of defects, with a good flavor and high clarity.

Grade B honey is reasonable free of defects, with a reasonable good flavor and clarity.

Grade C honey is fairly free of defects, with a fairly good flavor and clarity.

Honey that has failed Grade C requirements is given a Substandard grade.

The next time you see a honey booth giving out samples, take a moment to try a bit, look at a jar through the sun, and ask the beekeeper about their bees and how they filter or strain their product. Beekeepers are fun and passionate about their bees, and tasting different honeys will help you learn more about the quality.

In general, if it looks good and tastes good, then it’s a good buy. You don’t need a government grade to tell you what tastes good.

Resources:

Seattle PI on honey laundering
Washington State Beekeepers Association
American Honey Producers
US Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey
Federal regulations governing inspection and certification:

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