08 May 2014

Sourcing honey

Honey is the most important ingredient in mead (duh!), and using quality honey is the first step to making quality mead. But how do we get it? Where can I find it? And what is it?

Let's start with what quality honey is. I'm going to say that unheated, minimally filtered, fresh honey is the best; we'll call this "raw" honey. Having said that, not all "raw" honey sold meets this definition: many products labelled as such have been heated and filtered beyond what I would prefer. It is very important to get to know your beekeepers for this reason, but I'll get to that in a bit. You should also be aware that not all honey that matches my definition tastes good, some types of honey, from certain vintages or floral sources, just tastes downright bad. Some honeys taste great, but make bad mead. And some honeys taste terrible and make great mead. Some need to be blended with other types and end up being very interesting, or they can ruin a batch. This is all part of the risk in using exotic honeys, or trying new honeys that you haven't had before; and there is very little advice anyone can give for many of these as they may work great sometimes and turn out bad other times, it's a matter of personal taste.

Where to find honey
 Start local; it will be fresh and you may know exactly where it came from. It also give you a sense of "terrior" in your mead making (sorry to use the controversial wine term, but it's the best way to get the idea across). I will also say that small does not always mean better; a large honey producer who cares about his product is better than the small "honey guy" who has no concept of quality.

Your first stop should be any of the several homebrew/meadmaking/winemaking forums. Post something saying where you are and try finding mead makers in your area. You can also try your local homebrew shop; ask if anyone makes mead in the area, they might also have local honey and a quick conversation with the owner may get you somewhere.
Next stop is the USDA honey board locator. While it will not list all the producers in your area, you are bound to find some. They usually list some form of contact information (website, email, phone, etc.) that you can use to contact the producer. The site also lets you see what the common honeys produced in your state are.

Local farmers market are your friends when it comes to finding local producers. Any good farmers market should have a honey booth (or several), and if it doesn't try another one. Try as many as you can drive to, and try them several times a year as some honey producers don't show up year round. When you do find a honey booth, try every sample they'll let you have, if you have to give the guy 5 bucks/quid/euro/whatever do it.

The next thing to try is a local Whole Foods, health food store, or other hippie store (no offense, again best word for the job). Go to their honey section (usually near maple syrup) and look for any products labelled as local, or start looking at the containers to find the producers address and try to find one that's near your area. Buy some honey from the producers you find and start tasting it; if it's good, try to contact the producer. If you don't have a hippie store in your area, move (seriously, it's probably a bad indication no matter what you views are). Local supermarkets (the publix/target type, not Walmart) sometimes carry local honey as well, try to find some and contact the producers.

After this, if you can't find anything local your in a tough spot. You can try contacting your local university extension office and see if they have any registry of apiarists, or a local club. Even a hobby beekeeper can produce a decent surplus that you can buy or trade some mead for. Don't be afraid to stop at roadside honey venders either, they usually have their own hives or buy from someone local.

Honestly, if you can't find a local beekeeper your either not looking hard enough, or your in a place that humans should not live. However, there are a number of alternatives.

Many large scale apiarists have websites and commonly ship honey cross-county. Beefolks has high quality honey at a good price and can ship you many different varieties. Dutch gold, while limited in offerings and processing their honey a little too much for my preference, is another such company.

The last resort should be generic store honey. Costco's, BJ's and Sams club all have large containers of honey. I find Costco's to be the best of the three, but all are cheaper than regular supermarket honey.

Befriend your beekeeper(s)
 While not necessary, it is a very good idea to get to know your beekeeper. He'll let you know what crops aren't good in a certain year, and can point you toward some interesting rare honeys he might get. After you've tasted his honey selection and deemed it worthy, bring a bottle of mead and offer it to him, if he refuses for reasons other than religious or philosophical, check to make sure he's not a Dalek, cyberman, or other "bad guy". Often times a reduction in price can come with buying a certain volume or bartering with mead, and a good level of trust in the person supplying your most precious ingredients is not something to shy away from.

 The best strategy for any investment portfolio, and trust me, mead making is an investment, is to diversify your sources. I get most of my honey from two local sources, one in central Florida (Webbs honey) and one in south Florida (Smak attack, or something like that) by me. The first is a larger producer who can sell by the barrel, and I get great consistency from him. The latter is very small and gets certain rare honeys that are hard to come by. There is a price difference, but there's also a difference in hive locations which allows for more complex meads via blending (either within varietal boundaries or not). I have also bought from larger online producers, and roadside vendors, and even used generic bulk honey for some melomels (though I tend not to anymore). The more options you have, the more creative you can be, and the better bargain you can get. I think the strategy of "infinite diversity, in infinite combinations" is a very good one to adopt when it comes to honey varieties and mead making (is my geek showing?).


  1. WVMJack, over on GotMead?, brought up the point that people should try local beekeeping groups first. I think it may be better general advice to start at a homebrewshop/forum, just so you get to know the community if you don't already, but he brings up a valid point that it may be better to start with the beekeeping groups.
    To clarify the ideas in this post, I think it is incredibly important to try all of these suggestions. It is amazing to realize how many beekeepers there are in a given area, most of the times, and many go unnoticed unless you put forth the effort to seek then out. Once you find your beekeepers, there is no harm in seeking additional ones just to diversify, if they're good people that you've established relationships with, they will understand.
    Hope this helps!

  2. Jack, I welcome any further comment, or ammendment, with glee!

  3. Thoughts from WVMJack:
    Our first mead was like everyone else, costco honey, it was ok but nothing special. Then we noticed we hadnt seen any bees for a couple of years and had been getting only a few apples so we found a local beekeeper and he suggested we join up to the local club and we have been playing with good varietal honeys and great wildflower every since. I am trying to expand my hives aftter this brutal winter, including some Russian queens that can take our winters like a vacation. I would almost suggest that if you are really really into making mead you should even join the beekeepers club, its pretty cheap, ours is like 5$. Its where a lot of beekeepers are, you find the local guy who sells woodenware and empty hives and tools and that guy knows everyone and can put you onto some good leads, so besides the local group find a supplier of beekeeping equipment also. Another good source for honey is in the BeeCulture magazine, I have published a couple of stories on making mead in BC. I did one on our local Meadery and Ciderworks and they got a lot of business out of it, the sidebar of the article was that beekeepers should find their local meaderies and ciderworks and talk to those people as potential customers. A lot of the contacts the meadery and ciderworks got was from beekeepers wanting to see what was going on and hadnt thought about seeking out these places as customers. Farmers markets are ok except that they have to pay to be in them in our area so they have to raise the honey prices to cover the table charge, much better to go to their house, they always like to have you taste all kinds of honey they have, you might even get to dip into their private stash of exotic honeys. The local guys also know who sends their hive to certain areas, like one of our guys puts his on some knapweed, another goes to sourwood, locals have tulip poplar and locust. The bee groups are the pulse a serious mead maker needs to tap into to up his game. Worst case scenario is you teach one of the beekeepers how to make mead and then you have to compete with your own honey source to get good honey before they ferment it themselves. One of my beeguys up and bought more carboys and equipment than I have, lucky for me I can mentor him in meadmaking and he helps me keep my bees alive!!