When I drove down to the Headquarters of Airborne Honey in Leeston on New Zealand’s South Island, it was a scorching hot Summer’s day, not unlike today’s weather six months later here in the UK. I’m on my second summer this year, which is excellent! Airborne Honey is owned and run by Peter Bray, who is the grandson of the founder of the company back in 1910, William Bray. At its peak in 1990 they operated 6,000 hives of honeybees, but just seven years later they took the decision to specialise in the packing, marketing and distribution of honey, and the hives were sold off.
Peter told me that at first, he was reluctant to join the family business because, unlike his father and grandfather, he was not excited by the keeping of bees. However, he did possess a keen analytical scientific mind and was drawn to the opportunities presented by the processing and packing side of the business. Once he returned to New Zealand after completing his time at Queensland Agricultural College in Australia, he became interested in being able to differentiate kinds of honey according to their source. In the early 1980’s the company invested in a laboratory, which was initially a bench with a microscope, and the Airborne analytical journey began.
Today there is some extremely sophisticated honey analysis going on in Peter Bray’s laboratory. I met the staff who were either conducting pollen analysis using a microscope or doing some sugar analysis using something called ELSD (Evaporative Light Scattering Detection). As Peter says, “in New Zealand, one other company has just started, but we are essentially the only company doing sugar analysis of honey. Sugar is 80% of honey, and the sugar chemistry is highly complex. We can look at things from an identification perspective, or a nutritional aspect, or a performance aspect.”
What happens is that beekeepers send in samples of their honey to the lab and after it is analysed and has met the standards set by Airborne the bulk honey will be sent in for processing. It makes a lot of commercial sense for beekeepers to concentrate on keeping bees, which is what they are best at, and sell it in bulk to the likes of Airborne Honey, who specialise in the other stuff. The location of the hives of all suppliers across New Zealand is known so that at all times the Company can say where each barrel of honey is sourced.
So what are the advantages of doing all this high tech analysis? Well, one thing is the ability to differentiate honey types based on the main flora from which the bees gathered nectar. The number of pollen grains from one kind of plant can result in being able to sell monofloral honey such as clover honey or viper’s bugloss (which we call borage) or Rata (which is delicious), each of which has its own distinct characteristics and its own group of devoted customers. It goes without saying that the whole honey market is very skewed by the prices commanded by Manuka honey, and Peter Bray has some revealing and interesting things to say about that whole issue, but that is something I’m saving for the book.
Another advantage that I hadn’t considered is that by knowing the exact sugar composition of all of the different batches of honey, Airborne can reliably produce a consistent product every year. Their clover honey from last year will be indiscernible from this year’s or the year before, because by blending they can achieve the same sugar and pollen balance each time. Furthermore, if you want runny honey to stay runny, you have to know the sugar composition, particularly the ratio of glucose to fructose, and that is something that Airborne can do with ease.
Peter showed me some large horizontal cylinders at his plant, each of which contained two barrels of honey which were being rolled around at a predefined speed and temperature. He explained that this was how crystalised honey was brought back to a liquid state without getting it too warm, which would result in high HMF (hydroxymethyl furfuraldehyde) levels.
One impressive result of all of this careful attention to detail is the unique label which adorns each jar of Airborne Honey. I think it is impressive (see photos). For a start, the batch number can be input into the Airborne website, which will give the customer a lot of information on the honey, such as the composition, the HMF levels and even a map showing where the honey came from. I don’t know of anyone else that can provide this much detail, and I think it helps build trust between the company and consumers.
My clover honey, which I brought back to the UK and which is sadly now gone, contained 86% pollen from clover, which is indeed enough to justify calling it “clover honey.” It also had only 4.8mg/KG of HMF, and by inputting the batch number, I can see a map which shows me that the honey is all from the South Island, mostly located on the Canterbury Plains within 30KM of Christchurch. I can see that it has 34% glucose and 41.5% fructose. To me, geek that I am, that is fascinating, and it makes me feel closer to the product because I know so much about it, and more trusting that I am consuming a healthy and delicious natural product in tip-top condition.
I remember how David Kemp lamented the loss of the white meadows of clover back in the 1960’s as he said that clover honey was his favourite, and how now the landscape has changed so much. I am so pleased to have been able to sample several pots of delicious, thick, creamy clover honey from New Zealand, a place obsessed with keeping food products pure, and it indeed is wonderful honey. It’s not my favourite; that accolade is reserved for my own personal stocks of “Honey of the Walrus,” but I can’t tell you my HMF levels or the sugar composition or what types of pollen it contains. I wish I could.