By Novella Carpenter | Illustrations by Olivia Heller
The first entry for the 8th semiannual Biofuel Oasis Honey Contest came in a squat jar and smelled like caramel. The next entry was the color of straw. Then they streamed in, held aloft by smiling beekeepers: Here’s my entry for the honey contest!
Our store sits on the corner of Ashby and Sacramento in South Berkeley, a 1930s vintage gas station that sells urban farming supplies, including bees and beekeeping supplies. Our honey contest was dreamed up by the worker-owners at Biofuel Oasis back in 2012 as we began to sell backyard honey. Local, raw, unfiltered honey is an entirely different product from supermarket honey or even farmers’ market honey because it is harvested at such a small scale.
By the 2022 submissions deadline, our box was packed with 18 honeys, whose provenance spanned from Richmond to Walnut Creek to Deep East Oakland. Workers at Biofuel Oasis poured the contestants’ honey into honey bears and assigned them numbers. When lined up in the storefront window, the bears glowed in the sunlight and varied in color from pale yellow to dark molasses.
Each East Bay honey looks different because the beekeeper’s bees gather nectar from different kinds of flowers that are growing in their specific bioregion. The taste, smell, and even texture of honey depend on which flowers the bees visit. And what is blooming depends on the season. In the early spring, for example, vivid yellow acacia blooms first, and the bees will flock to it. Acacia honey is pale yellow, runny, and smells like vanilla. Then comes the mid-spring wildflower flow that can include tree-fruit blossoms like plum but also wildflowers like California poppy and trees like black locust. By summer, East Bay bees’ nectar sources are a patchwork of lavender, succulent flowers, fennel, bottlebrush, borage, passionflower, blackberry, echium, and more.
Catherine Edwards, 80, a beekeeper in Richmond, notes that bees can travel up to three miles from their hive but says, “my bees don’t … travel far because they don’t have to: Their kitchen is not far from their bedroom.” The gardens, parks, and hills of Richmond are filled with nectar sources like mustard, anise, coyote bush, and blackberry that create Edwards’s Richmond Gold honey. Edwards, who has short gray hair and a wry wit, didn’t start beekeeping until she was in her late 60s; she found herself in a stressful job and was feeling anxious. “I needed something to love, so I took up beekeeping and fell in love,” she said. When I joked that she can’t exactly cuddle a bee like a cat or a dog, she deadpanned: “It’s an unrequited love.”
For the honey contest, we set the numbered bears on a round table in the shop with ballots for everyone—staff and customers—to vote for their favorites. We included space on the ballots to write down tasting notes, but since words to describe honey can be elusive, we provided the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Centers’ Honey Flavor Wheel to help everyone describe what they were tasting. Number 9, for example, had a nutty flavor profile with hints of spicy clove at the end. I heard that this spicy note could have come from buckwheat flowers.
Jerry Przybylski, a longtime member and vice president of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association (ACBA) reckons that there are 20 to 200 main sources of nectar for bees to collect here. “From San Pablo to Milpitas, there [is] a family of honey flavors, often including eucalyptus,” he said. These Australian imports make a butterscotchy honey. Jerry raises his bees near Mills College, and his honey, called Brujita, is a mix of the euc honey with floral notes from the Oakland hills’ trees and flowers. It is incredible. I had asked Jerry to enter the honey contest, but he just smiled and said, “Let’s let someone else have a chance.”
Honey bear number 7 in the contest held a dark and thick honey named Cosmic Goo, and over the week of honey judging, the ballot box was consistently crammed with votes for this number 7. It came from beekeeper Sarah Chung, 32, who lives near Poet’s Corner in West Berkeley and is a relatively new beekeeper.
“There are apple trees all around our house, and when I tasted the Cosmic Goo batch,” Chung said, “I tasted green apple and caramel.”
Charles Carlson, 75, keeps his bees in Berkeley’s Elmwood district. He has an easy smile and once worked at the Exploratorium. His clue to what the bees are foraging is the pollen color. Honeybees, famous for their pollination capabilities, collect not only nectar from flowers, but also pollen, a protein-rich food that they carry on fine hairs on their back legs that we call pollen baskets. If you watch the entrance of a hive, you can see that some of the bees tumbling in from the fields are weighed down by full “baskets” of pollen, all different colors.
“The pollen that comes in spring to summer,” Carlson said, “can vary widely in color from white, yellow, to red and purple.” The red pollen, Carlson guesses, comes from rock purslane, a bright, fuchsia-colored flowering succulent you see in gardens all over the East Bay. Blue pollen can come from borage family plants like tower of jewels. White pollen is often a sign of eucalyptus nectar-gathering.
Noting the pollen color on the bees’ legs will give you a clue about what nectar the bees are collecting, but as Charles points out, “Plants are competing for interest from the bees, and different blooms happen at different times, so it’s hard to predict.”
After a couple days, a few of the honey bears became very hard to squeeze out. They were getting crystallized. Jerry from ACBA explained that the nectar source dictates the texture of the honey as well as the flavor. “Honey is a saturated solution of glucose dissolved in fructose. When the percentage leans toward fructose, the honey won’t granulate. When glucose is above a threshold, the honey does granulate.” Ivy honey is a classic almost-instant crystallizer in the jar, while clover honey almost never granulates.
How the honey is processed also affects whether the honey crystallizes or not. If there are pollen grains or bits of wax in the honey, that can speed granulation. Heating honey or super-filtering it will get rid of these crystallizing agents. Most backyard beekeepers don’t heat their honey and put it through a strainer instead of a filter. Honey sold at Safeway or off the Sysco truck never loses its pourability—it’s been super-processed. Our honey contest entrants minimally processed their honey, and so many of their entries were getting crystallized.
As we reached the last day of voting, it was clear Cosmic Goo would be the People’s Choice winner. To formalize the contest, we asked Susan Donahue, a local chef and ACBA member, to taste and rate the honeys, so we could award a Judge’s Choice in addition.
Susan arrived with a honey tasting kit and set to work. It took her over an hour to taste each of the 18 honeys. She used a small crème brûlée torch to heat the honeys before smelling and tasting each of them. Her scoring system evaluated texture, mouthfeel, smell, and several flavor notes. Honey bear 17, from Lake Merritt was, “Fall mix/Ivy/Light malt/Strong”; honey bear 3, from Alameda: “Super light/Candy.” After the epic tasting session, Susan named her winner: Honey bear 13, submitted by Brenda McCormick, from a hive in North Oakland. The judge described her honey as “Summer-Fall-flower/Grass/Full Mellow.”
Awards in the form of Biofuel Oasis gift certificates were given, and then we broke down the honey bear tasting station. We were sad but relieved. Relieved because the honey was sticky and was attracting ants. Sad because it had felt so rich to have such diverse samplings of East Bay honey on offer. The contest had attracted so many people–new beekeepers, super tasters, honey lovers, people who had never tasted backyard honey before. We had created a community. The shop felt extra quiet post-contest. To cheer ourselves up, we just had to remember: There’s always next year…. ♦
This year’s Honey Contest will be held in October. To enter, harvest honey any time in 2023 and bring 10 fluid ounces labeled with your name, hive location, and harvest date. Find details at biofueloasis.com.
Novella Carpenter is a worker-owner at the Biofuel Oasis. She is the author of Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer and The Essential Urban Farmer.
Olivia Heller is a mixed-media artist and illustrator from the Bay Area, currently based in Berlin, Germany. View her work on Instagram @oliiviaheller.