Ask the Hippie: Artisanal Honey

Q. I saw an ad for something called “artisanal honey.” What is it, and is it worth an extra $15 to $20 a pound?

A. “Artisanal honey” is a misleading term that a handful of beekeepers with questionable scruples are using to take advantage of ignorant snobs who spend way too much time watching the Food Network and way too little time watching the Discovery Channel.

The term artisanal refers to monofloral honey (that is, honey made from the nectar of a single plant species), which is produced by placing a beehive in an area where a particular plant is blooming, then harvesting the honey as soon as the nectar flow ends.

While this practice gives the beekeeper a measure of control over the flavor of the honey — for instance, tupelo honey is very light and mild-tasting, while buckwheat honey is dark and intense — it does not make the beekeeper in question an “artisan.”

The word artisan refers to someone who is skilled at some type of handicraft: baskteweaving, pottery, metalsmithing, cooking, etc. People who render beeswax and use it to make soap or candles are artisans. People who take honey out of a hive and sell it are not artisans. They are simply beekeepers. There is no “art” involved in picking up a hive, putting it on a truck, and driving somewhere. If moving heavy objects made one an artisan, Mayflower Trucking would set up booths at craft shows and Ren fairs.

I hate it when monofloral honey is labeled as “artisanal,” because the term reinforces the false perception that beekeepers make honey. We don’t. We just give our bees a comfortable place to live, try to protect them from predators and parasites, and swipe a little of their honey now and then in exchange for our services.

I don’t have a problem with beekeepers charging more for better honey. If I end up with a frame or two of unusually flavorful honey, I want it to end up in a good home where it will be savored and enjoyed and not just poured over some toddler’s Chicken McNuggets, so I’ll probably charge an extra dollar a pound for it.

I will not, however, attempt to convince the buyer that I am an “artisan” just so I can overinflate the price. Local honey should cost about $4 to $8 a pound, depending on the kind and quality. Any more than that, and you’re probably getting ripped off, no matter how artistic the beekeeper claims to be.

Emily

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