Know Your Honey: How is it processed?

I’ve been discussing the effects of processing on honey with commenters Eric and Dick Adams. You can check it out for yourself here. Liquid honey that you buy has been processed by the beekeeper and possibly by a packer. Knowing what they do and why can help us understand how it affects our honey and our mead.

Filtering: Why and how

Filtering honey can solve some problems, and which problems you want to solve dictate how you might filter. Honey from the comb can have a lot of debris in it, like wax, propolis (something bees use like cement or caulk), or bits of dead bee. Even the most anti-processing die hards wont be happy to find a dead insect on their toast, so removing them and making honey aesthetically pleasing is a goal shared by almost everyone involved in selling honey. This sort of coarse filtering might be no more sophisticated than a large section of cheesecloth.

Another problem that beekeepers or packers might wish to solve is crystallization. Partially crystallized honey can invite spoilage. As honey crystallizes, it loses moisture to the surrounding honey. If the moisture content of this honey rises above 19% water then some of the wild yeast naturally present in honey will go to work, and you won’t like the result: off flavors and acetic acid. Crystals form when nuclei, like a bit of dust, pollen, or anything of the right size, are available. So, filtering these nuclei can delay or prevent crystallization.

A finer degree of filtering, called ultrafiltration, can produce an even cleaner purer product. Some commercial meaderies use ultrafiltered honey because the resulting mead is drinkable much sooner than mead from ordinary honey.

Heat: Another problem solver

Heating honey liquefies any crystals in it and destroys some potential nuclei for crystallization. Enough heat for enough time (180F for about a minute) can pasteurize honey, killing wild yeasts. A low level of heat can also help honey flow. In fact, a lot of modern bottling equipment requires some heat to operate.

Too much of a good thing?

Anything can be overdone. Some amount of filtration can remove contaminants and improve the honey, but taking this too far can strip out “contaminants” that make honey what it is. How much is too much? I have a hunch, but don’t know for sure, that ultrafiltration goes too far. I’d love to take a batch of honey, ultrafilter part of it, and compare the two. Since I can’t do that, I follow the “no more than necessary” rule. When I buy honey, I don’t want to pay for wax or bits of hive, just honey. That means I want just enough filtration to remove foreign matter, but no more.

The same goes for heat. Beehives get hot in the summer, and so does the honey stored in them. So there’s not much point in insisting that honey not be heated at all. I prefer “raw” honey, which is never heated above 120F. This allows for easy bottling, but doesn’t pasteurize. I can’t say that pasteurization harms the honey, in fact I’ve boiled the honey-water mixture in some of my meads without noticing any ill effects, but I don’t think there’s much benefit.

As I continue this series on honey, I plan to talk about the effects of age and how important “freshness” is. I’ll also take another stab at that always touchy subject of buying honey from beekeepers or packers/wholesalers. You may want to subscribe to this blog. It’s the free and easy way to make sure you don’t miss an article without having to keep checking back manually.

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