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Creating Your Own Creamed Honey

This article appeared in the NZ Beekeeper No. 194, in Winter, 1987, pp 18-19.

What are you going to do with all that honey you produced? A good question it is, too! Here you are, a proud hobbyist with three or four hives, and you've just produced your first really good crop of honey. Let's assume that you did manage to get it all extracted.

In the process of doing that, you probably ruined a variety of kitchen implements, and you probably tracked honey all through the house, transferring it from comb to hands to door knob to the rest of the family. So up to this point, you've done it all just the way everyone else does the first time. If you're really smart, you will have filed away all the information for the next time.

Things like the hand crank extractor and the way it walks across the floor unless someone holds it down. Next year you'll remember to arrange some turnbuckles to securely fix it to the floor.

And that bag of cappings that hung around for a week to drain! Next year you'll arrange a proper place to hang it, away from the ants and the carpet. So this year, you probably ran the liquid gold directly from the extractor into all the various sized jars you could locate. You ate a lot of it, gave away a lot more to friends, neighbors and relations. You maybe even sold some of the excess to workmates.

With this article, I'd like to get you to thinking about how you as a hobbyist can best prepare and package your honey for presentation to others, whether as a gift or to sell.

The three most important quality control factors in dealing with honey are completely within your control. Too much heat, too much moisture and too many bee legs are the three things that can most easily damage your product.

Heat is an easy one for you as a hobbyist, nothing at all like the problem that it presents for the commercial beekeeper. There is no reason in the world that you should need to heat your honey at all. Apart from the heat of the uncapping knife, your honey can be handled at room temperature. If you extract it immediately after removing it from the hive, so much the better.

Excess moisture, leading to off flavors and fermentation, can be avoided through attention all the way through the honey-from-the-hive to honey-in-the- jar process. Don't extract honey until it is thoroughly ripened. Often, especially if the flow is still on, it may not all be completely capped. Take a frame and shake it over the open hive; if it is thoroughly ripened, it should not shake like water out of the comb.

Once you have extracted the honey, keep the containers covered. Honey can take moisture from the air, so don't leave it exposed, especially if you have to store it in moist or less than favorable locations.

Try to avoid incorporating small air bubbles with the honey as you run it through a fine strainer. Don't simply let it drip through the strainer and into a container; place something in the container so the honey will run down rather than fall into the honey already in the container.

No matter how well you strain the honey after extracting, you will still need to 'skim' it a day or so later. The froth that floats to the surface of the honey will contain small bubbles and wax particles. Gently skimming it from the surface of the honey container will remove it and greatly improve the visual quality of your honey.

Depending on the quantity of honey you have to deal with, there are some excellent containers available to hold your honey until you are ready to run it into its final jars or plastic bottles. Food grade plastic containers can be fitted with a plastic tap. Fit a rubber seal and tighten so there will be no leak. If you don't have enough honey to justify such a container, plastic Polypails make a good storage container.

Have you ended up some years with jars of honey granulated so hard that you couldn't even get a knife into it? Honey so hard it tore the bread every time you tried to spread it? Honey with gritty bits of sugar crystals in it?

It's still honey, of course. Nothing really wrong with it, other than inconvenience and the chance of putting some people off honey forever!

The 'creamed honey' sold in New Zealand would have to be the source of the most often repeated myth about honey. No foreign materials have been added to honey to make it granulate smoothly. No icing sugar, white sugar, flour, cream or lard (yes, I have been told that's what beekeepers add to their honey!) or any other such things.

There is no reason at all that you, as a hobbyist beekeeper, should not have a go a making your own creamed honey, rather than simply rely on good luck to get a smoothly granulated honey. Though the results might be somewhat variable, you'll have a good time learning a little more about your hobby.

Creaming honey is simply controlling the natural crystallization process. Almost all honeys will eventually naturally granulate, most within a few months while others remain liquid for longer. In England, such naturally granulated honeys are called 'set honey'.

The speed and the texture that the honey granulates is mostly a product of the ratio of the two main sugars of honey, dextrose and levulose. For a reason never clearly explained to me, sugars often have two names, confusing things very nicely, thank you. Dextrose is also known as glucose and levulose is known as fructose. And just to add to the confusion, levulose is also known to many people as fruit sugar.

If a honey has a high dextrose to levulose ratio, it will granulate rapidly with a fine crystal. If it has a high levulose content, it will granulate slowly and often with crystals large enough that you can feel their sharpness on your tongue.

To 'cream' honey, the beekeeper mixes in a percentage of honey that has already granulated finely. This honey is called a 'starter', since its crystal structure will start the liquid honey to granulate in the same manner. In order speed up the granulation, the starter needs to be thoroughly mixed with the liquid honey, and then the container needs to be kept cool. Not cold, not refrigerator style cold, but simply cool. The ideal temperature is about 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit).

Keeping the honey at this temperature causes it to granulate as rapidly as possible, and since it has already got a nice grain started, the entire volume will granulate the same as the starter you introduced. It should be stirred occasionally during the process. Once the granulation is well established, the now cloudy looking honey can be run into its final containers. Again, it should be kept cool to assist rapid granulation.

In practical terms, you begin the process by finding some finely granulated honey. This might be some from last season that you have kept back or you could even buy it from another beekeeper or the shop. I like to add as much as possible, even up to 6 kg or so for a Polypail of honey, but you probably don't really need this much. If you like, you can start out with a small amount of starter and bulk it up by carrying out the process twice.

Stir the starter honey thoroughly into the liquid honey. It won't be easy, but you need to completely spread the granulated honey thorough the liquid. Afterward, keep it cool by placing your bulk container (well covered, of course) in a cool room, such as a basement or cold closet.

Stir it several times over the next week. It should start clouding, as the granulation spreads rapidly through the honey. You can now run it into the containers in which you will be distributing it, and again, keep them cool. The honey should be nicely creamed, set with a fine, smooth grain, within a week or two.

Kiwi beekeepers have been carrying out this process for over 60 years. They figured out that long ago a practical scheme for controlling the granulation in honey.

Credit for the 'scientific' approach to creamed honey goes to an American, a Dr Dyce who was a beekeeping professor at Cornell University. He described a complex and detailed method to produce creamed honey that differs little from the basic description given above. He did meticulously give temperatures and amounts, such as the ideal temperature to heat the honey before adding the starter, to make sure there were no natural crystals present in it.

I've always felt that we as Kiwi beekeepers never really got all the credit we really deserved. The way I understand it, Dr Dyce visited New Zealand and saw the process in action several years earlier!

As I mentioned earlier, your results may be somewhat variable. Its possible that, even after following all the directions, your honey might still set hard as a rock. Doing it as a hobbyist as you are, you can't control all the factors involved, but the odds are that you'll produce a better product than just trusting to natural granulation.

If you get really interested in the process, you might care to read further on what is quite a specialized subject. I can't see how anyone could ever tire of being a hobbyist beekeeper, not if you've really got an inquisitive mind about how things work. Beekeeping provides you with all sorts of excuses to go off on tangents as diverse as entomology and food technology, to say nothing of apicultural botany and woodworking!

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