I’ve discussed labelling jars of honey previously. In addition to a legally acceptable label, any honey sold via a third party should probably have a tamper-proof seal. More correctly, these should be called tamper-evident seals as they don’t stop anyone tampering with the jar. These usually take the form of an adhesive strip that connects the lid to one side of the jar, although there are other styles. Some of the shops I sell through insist on tamper-evident seals, for understandable reasons.
DIY isn’t always best
I’ve made my own tamper-evident seals using my trusty Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. This simple thermal printer has two print heads. One prints individual labels and the other prints to tape. You can purchase thin, clear adhesive Dymo tape which makes quite good tamper-evident seals. It can be printed with a website address or other information in black ink.
However, I’ve standardised on square jars with black lids and the black text on the clear Dymo label was therefore unreadable in places. In addition, the tape is quite expensive (about £11 for 7 metres†), increasing the ‘packaging’ costs of my honey. Finally, the strip that must be removed from the back of the tape was infuriatingly fiddly (hence tamper tantrums), so slowing the labelling process. Perhaps I need glasses?
C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal …
Instead of persevering with a DIY solution I now purchase rolls of 1000 clear tamper-evident labels from C. Wynne Jones for about £27. These are easy to apply as long as you develop a system to keep fingerprints off the underside of the label. They adhere well and are very unobtrusive.
Importantly, any attempt to remove the jar lid stretches the tamper-evident label destructively, making it very obvious that the jar has been, er, tampered with.
Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals
When the jar is finally opened, the first thing that happens is the tamper-evident seal is destroyed. This isn’t too worrying since they cost less than 3p.
Finally, if you want to support a good cause and use tamper-evident seals consider purchasing them from the charity Bees for Development. These are also available from Thorne’s who developed the scheme. With these, 10p from each jar sold goes to support their work promoting “sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty and to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.”
† At this price the Dymo tape costs quite a bit more than personalised tamper-evident labels from Thorne’s. These are are available in a wide range of colours and styles.
I’m conflicted. As a beekeeper I appreciate offsetting the cost of indulging my hobby from honey sales. In a good year I get much more honey than I could ever give away to friends and family. Despite making some of my own equipment, there are the costs of purchasing (yet more) boxes, miticides, extraction equipment and winter feed. There’s also an ever-growing wishlist of things that, whilst not essential, would be very welcome. Abelo’s heated honey creamer looks very nice 😉 Bottling, labelling and then selling honey – either from the door or from local shops – provides a few quid to help … a sort of self-perpetuating process in which I transfer all that summer effort by the bees into the coffers of Thorne’s and C. Wynne Jones.
However, I regularly get asked for local honey to ‘prevent the symptoms of hay fever’. Emails or phone calls go something like this:
“My son/daughter/husband/wife suffers really badly from hay fever and I read that locally produced honey could help her symptoms” … followed by a request to confirm that what they’ve read is correct and could I sell them some honey.
As a scientist I can’t do the former and so usually fail to achieve the latter. No way to run a business perhaps, but honesty is the best policy∑.
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen in the air. About 20% of the population have, or will develop, hay fever. I never had it as a child, but in my 30’s developed a strong reaction to some grass pollens that still makes a fortnight or so in mid/late June pretty miserable. Hive inspections with bad hay fever are really miserable.
Symptoms are characteristic – itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose (where does all that stuff come from?!). Anti-histamines, either prescription or over-the-counter, help prevent the allergic reaction from occurring. Usually this is sufficient to make the symptoms bearable.
Severe hay fever symptoms, where anti-histamines or corticosteroids are insufficient, can be treated by immunotherapy. Over several months, the patient is exposed sub-cutaneously or orally, to low and increasing doses of the allergen (the compound that causes the allergy) to help develop immunity. Full desensitisation takes about three years.
Honey contains pollen
Honey contains small amounts of pollen. The presence of the pollen forms the basis for lots of tricky questions in the BBKA examinations and is a feature used by food standards to discriminate between flavoured sugar syrup and real honey.
This is probably where the ‘honey prevents hay fever” stories originate. It’s this small amount of pollen that is supposed to stimulate the immune system of hay fever sufferers. A sort of DIY desensitisation course using toast or porridge to help deliver the allergen. Tasty 😉
All this seems pretty logical and straightforward. Honey contains pollen. Low doses of pollen are used to stimulate immunity that, in turn, stops hay fever from developing. Local honey prevents hay fever … I must get this printed on my labels to boost sales further.
Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good theory∞
Unfortunately, there are a couple of irritating facts that scupper this nice little theory. The first is a sort of error of omission, the second is the absence of evidence supporting the theory (or, more accurately, the evidence that the theory is wrong).
Honey certainly contains pollen. At least, real honey does. Melissopalynologists – those who study the pollen in honey – can identify the genus of plants that the bees have been visiting and so may be able to deduce the geographic origin of the honey.
The key part of that last sentence is “that the bees have been visiting”. The vast majority of pollens in honey are from the flowers and trees that they visit to gather nectar. These pollens are usually large and sticky so they adhere to the passing bee and are then transferred to another plant when the bee moves on.
What’s missing are any significant quantities of pollens from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses. Studies have shown that almost all pollens that cause allergies such as hay fever are from these wind-pollinated species†. It’s logical that these pollens are largely absent … since the flowers, grasses and trees that produce them are anemophilous (wind-pollinated) they don’t need to generate nectar to attract bees, so the bees don’t visit. So there’s little or none of this type of pollen in honey.
No bees legs …
Testing, testing …
So that’s the error of omission. What about scientific support, or otherwise, for the theory that local honey prevents hay fever? After all, this must be an easy (and tasty) experiment to do. Feed a group of people honey and compare their hay fever symptoms with a group fed synthetic honey (or perhaps imported pseudo-honey sold from a supermarket near you).
Researchers in Connecticut did this experiment in 2002. They published their results in a snappily-titled paper “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis” published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Rhinoconjunctivitis, or perhaps more correctly, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, is the symptoms of hay fever – the itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. Three groups of a dozen hay fever sufferers, pre-screened for reactivity to common wind-borne allergens, were randomly assigned to receive local ‘raw‘ honey, filtered non-local honey and honey-flavoured syrup (the placebo group). They took one tablespoon of honey, or substitute, a day and recorded their hay fever symptoms. The abstract of the paper neatly summarises the results:
Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.
… leading the authors to conclude that:
This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.
Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence
So, this study does not confirm (prove) that honey prevents hay fever. What about the opposite? Can we use it as evidence that honey does not prevent hay fever symptoms?
1934 Loch Ness hoax
Tricky … as the skeptic James Randi asserted, you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. However, in the absence of convincing evidence that it does exist, I can be reasonably sure that Nessie is a 6th Century tale, embellished in the 19th Century and blatantly exploited by the 21st Century tourist industry.
Of course, lake monsters are ‘found’ worldwide, which isn’t evidence that any of them actually exist 😉
We’re getting into the messy intersection of science and philosophy here. I think it’s sufficient to say that there’s no scientific evidence that honey prevents hay fever. The Connecticut experiment was a properly controlled random study. To my mind (as a scientist) this is much more compelling evidence than any amount of anecdotal stories to the contrary.
An abbreviated version of which is what I tell potential customers who want me to confirm that buying my local honey will help alleviate their hay fever symptoms. Essentially, it won’t.
Sure, they might not get hay fever after eating my honey, but that’s almost certainly a coincidence. It’s a coincidence I’m happy to live with, but not one I’m happy to promote as a reason to buy my local honey.
Why buy local honey?
I don’t think it’s necessary to cite dubious medical benefits when encouraging people to buy local honey.
Why claim something that’s probably not true?
Far better to claim the things that are true, some of which are also clearly demonstrable:
It’s local, from the hedges and fields within 3 miles of the apiary. It wasn’t imported by the tonne from a location or locations unknown‡.
It’s a very high quality product – clearly to claim this you need to ensure it looks wonderful and that there are no legs or antennae lurking in the jar.
It hasn’t been excessively heated before jarring – all the goodness is still present, including pollen, just not the sort of pollen that will prevent hay fever.
The honey hasn’t been micro-filtered, pasteurised or tampered with in any way.
It varies during the season as the forage changes – a jar of spring OSR honey is very different in flavour from a jar of mid-summer floral (hedgerow) honey. It’s a wonderful edible snapshot of the changing seasons.
Buying it supports a local cottage industry.
It tastes fantastic – clearly demonstrable.
The ‘taste test’ is usually the deciding factor. A couple of tester jars – clearly labelled – a limitless supply of plastic coffee stirrers and a discard pot will allow customers ample opportunity to ‘try before they buy’.
Which they surely will … 🙂
∑ Honesty is the best policy is an idiom dating back to the late 16th Century when Sir Edwin Sandys, a founder of the Virginia Company and one of the first settlers in America, stated “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie”.
∞ A corruption of the saying by Mark Twain “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
† Jean Emberlin (2009). “Grass, tree, and weed pollen”. In Kay et al. The Scientific Basis of Allergy. Allergy and Allergic Diseases. 1:942-962. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444300925
‡ This isn’t xenophobia. The UK is a net importer of honey. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported – 50% of the 34,000 tonnes imported in 2012 came from China. Most honey on the supermarket shelves contains some rather vague term like Produce of EU and non-EU countries. You don’t know where it came from, and probably nor does the supermarket. There have been bans on imported honey due to it being not honey (just doctored corn syrup), or being contaminated with antibiotics.
I sell the majority of my honey in 8 or 12 oz (227 or 340 g) square glass jars. They are easier to fill than hex jars and look distinctive on the shelf. These, together with 16 oz (454 g) jars, are the ‘conventional’ weights in which honey is usually sold.
However, the regulations allow the sale of honey in any weight. The polypropylene, airtight “Lock and Lock“-type containers have a silicone seal and are ideal for packaging and selling larger quantities of honey. The 1.4 litre container (above left) takes almost four pounds of honey when filled – perfect for those that like lots of honey on their porridge, or for storing the ‘seed’ for preparing the next batch of soft set honey.
Four pounds of honey is, conveniently, about the upper limit for making a gallon of mead; if you regularly sell honey to mead makers a tub like this is both easier to empty (with less waste) than jars and reusable.
These containers are sometimes available in Poundland. It’s worth shopping around as the increased packaging costs will otherwise have to be taken into account in the sale price.
These incubator elements are usually purchased be people rearing chickens or gamebirds. An alternative supplier listing Ecostat kits in 50 and 100 eggs sizes is Strangford Incubators in Northern Ireland. You will almost certainly need the 100 egg size to generate enough heat to melt OSR honey properly.
Shop around before you purchase as there can be quite a variation in prices … £64 vs £93 (including P&P) for the two suppliers listed here 😯
Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines ‘raw’ as meaning: 1. said of meat, vegetables, etc: not cooked. 2. not processed, purified or refined. … and then wanders off into definitions of ‘raw’ silk, weather and wounds, though no mention of raw honey. Clearly honey is both a foodstuff and ‘not cooked’, though if it’s heated excessively it has to be sold as ‘Bakers honey’.
However, is it processed, purified or refined? I operate my extractor with the gate open. I run the honey through a coarse filter (~2 mm) directly into 30 lb. buckets. This removes the worst of the lumps that really shouldn’t be in honey … big pellets of pollen, scraps of brace comb and bits of bees. I really don’t want any of these on my toast in the mornings, and I don’t want them floating on the – inevitable – scum when the jar is opened as I would really like to attract repeat customers. I store the 30 lb. buckets until I’m ready to jar the honey, re-filtering it through a fine mesh and removing the scum before bottling. The end product looks great and has a good shelf life.
Since ‘purified’ means to remove contaminants I suspect the pedantic would consider the honey is no longer raw.
Raw honey on labels
Honey labelled for sale must carry one of the following reserved words that describe the product … Honey, Blossom Honey, Nectar Honey, Honeydew Honey, Comb Honey, Chunk Honey, Cut Comb in Honey, Drained Honey, Extracted Honey, Pressed Honey, Filtered Honey and Baker’s Honey. If the predominant nectar source is known the reserved word can be prefixed with the source e.g. heather honey.
It’s notable that raw, organic, unfiltered or unheated aren’t reserved words and yet are regularly found on honey labels, sometimes immediately preceding the word ‘honey’.
The taste test
The jar at the top of the page is coarse filtered ‘raw’ honey run straight from the extractor into the bottle. It’s slightly cloudy and has bubbles and a sort of swirly, almost birefringent, appearance when you hold it against the light. It will almost certainly crystallise unevenly and unpredictably. It might have an antenna lurking in its murky depths.
It tastes absolutely delicious.
But then so is honey that’s been allowed to settle in the buckets, gently warmed in a honey warming cabinet†, filtered through a fine mesh filter, allowed to settle again, skimmed (to remove the bubbles that rise to the surface) and then carefully bottled in pre-warmed jars. This is still ‘raw’ – as in uncooked – honey but it’s also certainly a more refined product. It’s beautifully clear, it looks great on the shop shelves or the breakfast table, it sells well and it attracts a premium price. Like all pure honey that hasn’t been heated to very high temperatures or filtered excessively it will eventually crystallise, but it has a long shelf life and will remain attractive for the duration.
No bee legs or antennae …
It might be interesting to conduct a blind taste test of a jar of ‘raw’ honey with one refined just enough – as described above – to look really good and sell well. It might also be interesting to auction an unlabelled jar of each and see which is more attractive to the customer … or see whether customers who find bee legs in the jar make repeat orders 😉
† Going by the number of visitors who come to this site having searched for a ‘honey warming cabinet‘ I suspect that the ‘raw’ honey sold by most beekeepers is at least partially refined. As an aside that last link also takes you to details of the cabinet sold by Abelo’s, which looks lovely (a lot more aesthetically pleasing than my DIY effort), but costs an eye-watering £599 and doesn’t enable you to pre-warm supers before extraction. A missed opportunity.
A honey extractor is one of the most expensive individual pieces of equipment a beekeeper is likely buy †. If you’re lucky, your association might own one or more extractors and make them available to borrow or hire. However you get hold of one, after use they need to be thoroughly cleaned before storing (or returning) them.
Don’t, whatever you do, follow the advice on some websites or beekeeping forums (fora?) and leave the extractor outside “for the bees to clean”. This is a very bad idea. The feeding frenzy that results is a perfect way to spread disease.
Patience, cold water, more patience and a hairdryer
The used extractor will have quite a bit of residual honey adhering to the sidewalls and floor. You can scrape this out using a flexible silicone spatula but it’s a messy process and almost guaranteed to cover you from wrist to oxter in honey. It’s far easier to:
close the honey gate securely
tip the extractor up at a steep angle so the honey runs towards the gate
turn the heating up in the room and leave it overnight
The following morning the majority of the honey will have drained down towards the honey gate, this can then be bottled for home consumption or used for mead or marmalade making. It’s not unusual to get a pound or more of honey like this … it’ll be a bit frothy and might be less well-filtered but it will still be delicious.
To wash out the residual honey, wax and propolis from the extractor:
level the extractor
close the honey gate securely
fill it completely with cold or cool water and leave overnight
empty out the water, rinse well with more cool/cold water
mop up the dregs with clean kitchen towel
dry with a hairdryer set on ‘low’
Avoid using hot water as it melts any residual wax and makes it a lot harder to clean. The easiest way to complete this wash is to stand the extractor in the garden late in the evening (after the bees stop flying), fill it from the hosepipe and then empty it early the following morning. Almost all of the honey residues will have dissolved. The extractor can then be wiped out and dried with a hairdryer … I simply hang one inside the extractor for half an hour, set on the lowest heat setting and repositioning it periodically to get into all the corners. The stainless steel drum of the extractor warms very quickly, transmitting the heat throughout the extractor.
† Unless you’re semi-commercial or larger in scale in which case you might have bought anything from a €1600 bottling machine to a £really?! Unimog
I managed to source some rather nice small square jars for honey recently. They have a nominal 200ml capacity which, when filled properly with honey, is 8 oz (227 g). Perhaps I should qualify “filled properly” … these have a slightly longer ‘neck’ than normal jars, so you don’t need to fill them to just under the lid. I bought them with black lids to ensure they looked distinctive on the store shelves next to the more usual ‘gold tops’. They are very easy to fill, with the slope of the jar shoulder being sufficiently steep that relatively few bubbles get trapped. In contrast, I find that small hex jars are a bit of a pain to fill as the shoulder is almost at right angles, more or less guaranteeing that an unsightly bubble or two remains after jarring. Even half pound round jars have a rather sharp angle at the shoulder and have a tendency to trap bubbles. Of course, none of these bubbles affect the flavour, but it’s always a good idea to try to make a top quality product look like a top quality product.
200ml (8oz) square jar
It’s easy to apply labels to these small square jars and I’ve printed these on the smallest thermal printer address labels (89x28mm) for my Dymo LabelWriter. Tamper-detection labels were more difficult, with any of the normal ones looking unsightly … both being too large and contrasting unpleasantly with the black lids. In the end I used 6mm transparent thermal tape onto which I printed a website URL. This sticks very firmly to the lid and glass but is difficult to see unless you look carefully. When the jar is opened the tape stretches and distorts, making any tampering pretty obvious. Unfortunately, this thermal tape is rather difficult to remove from the backing paper, so labelling large numbers of jars can get tedious.
Thermal printed tamper label
But as they say “the proof of the pudding” … the jars look good to me but what’s more important is how well they sell.
This was written some time ago. The jars have sold well 🙂
NOTE – in response to the Q from Bridget below and after a bit of searching I discovered that I ordered these from eBay (seller glass_jars_from_jarsdirect). At the time of writing they’re £38 for 100 delivered. One or two of the regular honey jar suppliers also sell a 12oz (~280ml) square jar but the cost is higher still.
A brief – and complimentary – review of St. Andrews in a pull-out extract from Pete Irvine’s Scotland the Best was included with The Times last Saturday. Aside from likening St. Andrews to a posh part of West London (not very accurate in my opinion§), they include the statement:
“Where else are there not one but two stonking cheese shops, three laid-back coffee shops besides old-fashioned bakers and an ice-cream parlour?”
This sentence made me smile for a couple of reasons. The first is that my spellchecker automagically corrects stonking to stinking, perhaps not entirely inappropriate for a cheese shop. The second is that one of those ‘stonking’ cheese shops is Mellis Cheese, where they stock my honey. Mellis (@johnmellishoney) is a well-known name in commercial beekeeping and the cheese shop is run by others in the same family. I’m delighted they stock some of my local Collessie honey alongside their own products.
Janettas Gelateria …
I’ve no idea which of the very many coffee shops The Times considers ‘laid-back’ … with a student population of ~7,500 in a town of about 17,500 it’s no wonder the coffee shops – which number many more than three – do such a roaring trade. In the name of research I’ve tested many of the coffee shops in town but am still no wiser as to which are ‘laid-back’. Perhaps I wouldn’t recognise them even if they were? The ice-cream parlour is of course Janettas Gelateria (‘Four generations, one passion‘) … thoroughly recommended, though be prepared to queue if the sun is out (whatever the month).
Which it usually is 😉
St. Andrews pier
This probably qualifies as a “not beekeeping” post, but with the season about to kick off there’ll be lots to discuss in the near future.
§ It’s certainly got nothing much in common with the relatively posh parts of West London I know … St. Andrews is cleaner, quieter, cobbled (at least in parts), community-spirited and considerably closer to the sea 😉 There’s also free parking.
What sort of honey labels do you use? Of course, if you keep it all for yourself or just give it to friends and family that question could be Do you label your honey? However, if you sell it via a third party or direct there are regulations that govern the labelling of honey for sale to consumers. I’m not going to attempt to decipher these rules or provide guidance on what is legal and what is not – it’s a minefield and involves Packaged Goods Regulations, Weights and Measures Act, Food Labelling Regulations and, last but by no means least, the Honey Regulations. It differs whether you’re selling direct or via a third party and the rules probably differ in England and Scotland. Phew! You are advised to talk to your local Trading Standards people who will advise you.
The beekeeping suppliers offer a wide range of pre-printed and customisable labels. Before moving to Scotland I used colour, high gloss, ‘easy-peel’ removable labels. Although they looked attractive I was never sure they actually contributed significantly to sales. The investment in labels discouraged me from from changing from 1lb ’rounds’ to 12oz hex jars (where the profit margins are higher 😉 … How many farm shops, garden centres and similar places now sell 1lb jars?) and I had no flexibility in making smaller batches for particular honey types. Having now moved and got a few buckets of Scottish honey from the summer I needed to make some new labels. Since the majority of my sales initially are going to be direct and local I wanted a simple label that didn’t obscure too much of the jar, was easy to read, straightforward to customise and – ideally – inexpensive and easy to produce at home. I’ve also always liked the rather stylish designs like the Honey Hunter labels at the top of the page (though these probably aren’t legal for 3rd party sales in the UK) and thought DIY label-printing might be an inexpensive way to try and achieve something similar.
Dymo labelling software …
I’ve got a Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. These printers use thermal printing technology so have no toner cartridges or ink. Dymo also provide an application (Mac and PC) for label design and printing (right). It’s relatively intuitive to use but has a few quirks. However, it allows embedding of pictures, barcodes, auto-incrementing numbers and supports the majority of fonts available on your system, though not all font sizes are possible for some reason. Standard format images (PNG, GIF, JPG) can be embedded, resized and rotated. There are useful formatting tools like left/right/top/bottom align, reordering front/back of overlapping objects and the ability to create templates and save label designs. There’s also the ability to create curved text though I’ve not used this. Irritatingly there’s no way to print to the very edge of the label – none of the images or text can be placed closer than about 1.5mm from the label edge and this distance is slightly greater on the left hand side of the label. Nevertheless, the Dymo Label™ software makes designing and printing labels, one at a time or dozens sequentially numbered, a doddle.
Simple honey labels …
It was straightforward to design and print labels for 8oz, 12oz and 1lb jars in small numbers, each carrying a different batch number, best before date, honey type etc. The printing is very sharp, smudge-free (even immediately after printing) and water-resistant, though the label probably isn’t. The original Dymo labels can be easily and cleanly removed from jars without leaving a residue. I used these labels in the run-up to Christmas and – although functional and perhaps a little utilitarian – received no adverse comments. Since I have apiaries in several locations I can easily run off customised labels for individual places, without significant investment or breaking the plethora of regulations that govern honey labelling. If you sell honey to guest houses or garden centres (for example) it is easy to prepare personalised labels in small quantities very economically.
Printer and label costs
Although the list price of these printers is a bit steep, the usual online stockists often offer ~50% reductions. At the time of writing Amazon are selling the LabelWriter 450 printer and 3 assorted label rolls for about £50. Replacement Dymo thermal paper rolls are usually a bit over a tenner for 500+ labels of suitable sizes, but you can purchase compatible generic thermal paper rolls for significantly less. For example, Dymo #99012 (36mm x 89mm) are £12.75 for 2 x 260 whereas well reviewed, compatible, generic equivalents are £7.98 for 5 x 260 … or about 0.6p/printed label. However, don’t bother with the generic ‘clear’ compatible labels. Firstly, they aren’t anything like clear (!) and they also smear very badly. Remember that thermal printers use different printing technology and don’t use toner like inkjet or laser printers so there are no additional running costs 🙂
Granulated honey …
Personalised labels …
Small batches …
But they’re not in colour … ?
Thermal printers only print black on the label background colour, which is almost always white. For just a splash of colour you could use fluorescent marker pens, for example to highlight the banding on a ‘cartoon’ of a bee. For more extensive colour it’s relatively easy to produce labels on a suitable laser printer … the subject of a future post. For comparison, suitable Avery labels cost 3-4p per label (excluding the outlay on hardware and toner) but you need to print a minimum of a dozen (one sheet) at a time.
Soft set honey was often called creamed honey before that description was effectively outlawed – at least for labelling purposes – under the trade descriptions act because it ‘contains no cream‘. It’s the stuff that’s spoonable and spreadable, it feels like velvet on the tongue because the crystals are so fine (hence creamy) and it remains looking good for a long time. The long shelf life more than compensates for the (relatively small) effort required to produce it … you don’t have to sell it or give it away quickly before granulation takes over and the appearance is spoiled. Winter is a good time to prepare soft set honey as it requires low temperatures.
Granulated honey label
All honey granulates. At least, all honey that hasn’t been subjected to the sorts of heating and filtration used by commercial packers to produce a uniform and sometime bland product with a very long shelf life. The rate at which honey granulates is related to its composition. Honey with a relatively high glucose to fructose ratio – such as oil seed rape – granulates faster. Granulation is also influenced by temperature and particulates (e.g. pollen) that acts as a ‘seed’ for granulation. My honey carries a label indicating that granulation is a completely natural process and is a sign of high quality honey.
Soft set honey
Soft set honey is honey in which the granulation has been controlled. A small amount (~10%) of honey with a soft, fine grain, is used as a ‘seed’ for liquid honey. As the latter granulates it takes on the consistency of the seed honey. The principle is straightforward and an industrial process was patented by Elton Dyce in the 1930’s. However, this requires rapid heating and cooling of bulk honey, something most beekeepers are unable to achieve. There are some good descriptions online about making soft set honey, including a useful video by ‘BeekeeperDevon’ on YouTube. There are also a lot of conflicting methods published and some that are, frankly, either nonsense or wrong.
This is how I do it … followed by some details on a few of the critical bits.
Extracted honey should be left to completely crystallise in honey buckets. This might take several weeks. The honey, particularly if it’s OSR, is likely to be spoonbendingly hard. In the following description I’m assuming the honey has only been (at least) coarse filtered on extraction, so will almost inevitably still contain bits of wax and the odd leg or antenna.
Melt a full bucket of crystallised honey completely. For a 30lb bucket I find this takes about 24-36 hours at 50ºC in my honey warming cabinet. Stir it once or twice during this period if you get the chance – this speeds up the process. Honey should not be kept at elevated temperatures for extended periods to avoid the build up of HMF.
Cool the filtered honey to 35ºC in the honey warming cabinet. At the same time, warm the seed stock (see comments below) to 35ºC in bucket with a tap. By keeping the temperature below about 40ºC the all-important fine crystal structure of the seed stock will not be destroyed.
Add the filtered bulk honey to the seed stock. Mix gently but very thoroughly. The intention is to completely disperse the fine seed stock crystals throughout the mixed honey. You can use a stainless steel corkscrew and drill, or a honey creamer. Of the two I prefer the latter. Try and avoid incorporating air during the mixing (hence ‘gently’) to avoid frosting in the final product.
Cool the honey to less than 14ºC, mixing every 12 hours or so. It’s easy to achieve this temperature in winter in an unheated outhouse, pantry or conservatory. In the summer you can do this by adding a succession of freezer blocks to the warming cabinet (but it’s hard work). The honey will get increasingly hard to mix and will – within a week or less (and possibly within a couple of days) – set. This is soft set honey.
Re-warm the bucket of honey to 35ºC and bottle it. See comments below.
The seed stock
You need about 10% by weight of a suitable seed stock to make soft set honey. You can use more or less, it’s not critical. Much less than 5% and it won’t be enough to ensure even crystallisation, or will take a very long time to finally crystallise. More than 10% is unnecessary and you’d be better saving it for another batch of soft set honey. If you’ve not got a seed stock of a suitable consistency (by which I mean of the consistency you want your final soft set honey to have) you can make, borrow or buy some.
Pestle and mortar …
To makeyour seed stock grind hard set crystallised honey using a pestle and mortar until it has a wonderful, even consistency. It will start as hard unyielding lumps and end up with the consistency of thick toothpaste. This is hard work but you might only need to do it once, so do it well. You can borrow your seed stock from a neighbouring beekeeper who has something suitable, returning the same amount after you’ve prepared your own soft set honey. Finally, you could even buy your seed stock from a supermarket. If you insist on buying the starter, at least steer clear of the “mix of EU and non-EU” honeys (why don’t they just state “sourced from goodness knows where”?) which could have just about anything in them. You are aiming to produce a top quality product. The type of honey you use as your seed stock is immaterial; it will only comprise a small amount of the final product, the consistency is what matters.
Bottling soft set honey
At 35ºC the prepared soft set honey will barely flow through the honey tap. However, with a little effort, and a long handled spoon to gently stir it, the thixotropic honey can usually be made to flow sufficiently to get it into jars. Again, to avoid frosting try not to mix air into the honey; hold the jar just under the honey tap with the bucket slightly inclined.
Keep about 3lb of your first batch of soft set honey – I use these useful sealable plastic containers – to use as the seed for your next bucket. This might be the following week or the following year – I’ve just used up the last of my 2014-prepared seed stock. If you’re preparing batch after batch of soft set honey on a weekly basis you can simply leave the seed stock in the bottom of the bucket with a tap. I’ve found silicone spatula spoons really useful for mixing honey, for getting the last few ounces out of the honey bucket and for quickly removing all the honey from the last three 1lb jars after you realise you’ve just bottled the seed stock for the next batch 😉