Brent Edelen, a sixth generation raw honey producer in Alamosa, Colorado, makes some of the best honeys we've ever tasted. Like grass-fed beef, you can literally taste the terroir in the honey that Edelen makes under the Grampa's Gourmet label.
In part, that's because right about now he's packing up his beloved bees and driving them to warmer climates. In New Mexico, they'll feast on tamarisk blossoms; in Texas, mesquite blossoms when he can find them.
For longer treks — like this Spring, when he'll cart the bees to California — Edelen flies his bees on a prop plane. Not a bad ride: You can follow Edelen's grungy motel room and mesquite blossom reflections as he treks across states with his bees on his blog.
There is more to the story, of course, as Edelen subscribes to the raw side of the honey equation, among other things. Turn the page.
If you are a honey aficionado, you know that there is also vast difference between small-batch honey and the bulk honeys that we see on grocery store shelves (Edelen's other family members still farm this way; many bring their bees to California to pollinate agriculture crops, then the honey is blended to create most honeys we see today).
There are also discrepancies among even the smallest honey producers on what defines natural honey. For starters, not all make raw honey, nor do they dedicate time to finding very specific “feasting” grounds for their bees to develop unique flavors as Edelen does. But we'll let Edelen tell you about that.
Squid Ink: You've always been a beekeeper?
Brent Edelen: No, actually I hated it when I was a kid. My grandfather and my great grandfather were both bee keepers, and you learn quickly that it is pure hard work. I graduated in college with communication degree, doing radio production, but soon after I realized that I couldn't stand being in an office. I knew I had to be back outside with the bees.
SI: So you learned from your grandfather?
BE: By then, my mom's uncle was the one who was still the beekeeper in the family. He's the one who taught me. He's a great guy, and very good at it.
SI: Is he still a beekeeper?
BE: Yes, but he makes bulk honeys.
SI: What's the back story on bulk honey?
BE: Well, during the 1950s honey was just sweetener to most people, nothing more. And in my opinion, that's when beekeeping took a wrong turn. Honey became categorized with a gradation system so you sold honey from “light” to “dark,” not by the varietals anymore. That's also when they started to processes honey so it stays liquid on the shelf and doesn't crystallize. What they do is pasteurize the honey like milk, but the heat takes everything out of it — the good pollens, the enzymes, the unique flavors of the flowers that the bees bring back to the hive.
SI :It sounds similar to what happened to the bulk commercial cheese industry years ago. Pasteurization led to consistency, but also consistently dull flavors. Distinct mold on the outside of some cheeses, like granulation in honey, is actually a good thing but we've been programmed now after decades to think it's bad.
BE: Yes, it's very similar to cheese. Bees literally bring in different pollens and enzymes back to the hive, so when you pasteurize honey you kill everything they've been out gathering.
SI: You don't believe pasteurizing is necessary, from a health standpoint.
BE: My kids eat raw honey and they're fine. There was like one case when a kid got sick on honey back in 1950s or around then. That's when it all changed to pasteurized honey, but you didn't hear much else about it after that.
SI: You make your honeys “naturally,” which is always a tricky word in the food industry. What does it mean in terms of what you do?
BE: Well the big commercial guys use chemicals a lot to control things like mites. The big problem we [honey farmers] have is mites. Chemicals are the easy solution to control them. It's really labor intensive to do it naturally, but that's what I do. Powdered sugar is one of the ways. Splitting columns at certain times of years also helps. The mites also like the males — the drones — better, so you can literally scrape off the mites from the drones.
SI: Your uncle is one of those big commercial honey makers, essentially.
BE: Yes, he is the best beekeeper I've ever known in my life, been doing it 65 years. But he's also stuck in the old school mentality. He runs the bees fast and still treats them with chemicals. That's where I branched off.
SI: Run them fast?
BE: “Fast” means more pollination, chasing money with them, keeping a large numbers of bees so you get larger honey crops. Barrels are then sold to the highest bidder, that's how honey ends up in places like Miller's Honey near L.A. [in Colton]. They buy honey from beekeepers all over, blend it and then sell it in bulk.
SI: Essentially the bulk honey we see everywhere that is getting a lot of criticism now. How can we spot bulk honey when we're shopping?
BE: It's mostly called “clover honey” if it's light, and “wildflower honey” if it's a little darker. That's probably bulk honey.
SI: Which is different from the desert wildflower honey you make, or wildflower honeys some smaller farmers make.
BE: Yes, because it isn't blended. That means my desert wildflower is made from X desert, but it's also a desert with hundreds of flowers that make up that honey, so I can't call it one flower, like mesquite blossom. It's truly wildflower honey, but not bulk blended wildflower honey.
SI: On that topic, how much of a role does a beekeeper like you truly play in how a honey tastes?
BE: I'd like to say a lot, that it is all me. [Laughs] But what's really unique is the Southwest, not me. It's basically giant desert compared to the Midwest and East Coast. Scarcity is what makes these honeys unique. When the flowers bloom, they're stressed from no water, and I think they are very intense and they really produce a flavor that is more concentrated.
SI: Interesting. A bit like growing wine grapes, that scarcity side of things. Your honeys were truly startling when we tasted them – so unique, and not just the color. Tasting through each one-by-one as you suggested, like tasting wine, we could literally taste the flowers.
BE: Yes, I always try to get people to do that, taste several at once. It's an entirely different experience. The textures, the flavors, the colors.
SI: You've tried honeys that many of us never have. Do you have a favorite style or type?
BE: I really like pure mesquite honey from the Chiricahua Desert. It's pure white and naturally turns really smooth like a creamed honey when it granulates. You can only get pure mesquite honey in a drought when there are no other flowering plants around, so I rarely produce it. Maybe once every few years, sometimes even 10 years, because that's the only time I can get enough because there are so few blossoms.
So usually, I just use mesquite honey as the starter in my creamed honey. But that's also partly why I like it so much. We use quite a bit of honey here at the house. My daughter loves it. We always switch it up, use tamarisk one week, clover the next. Just whatever we have that week. But mesquite is still my favorite.
SI: So explain how exactly you “make” a specific varietal of honey.
BE: Well, you do have to manage the bees to keep the florals separate. That's really all you're doing. There are different ways. Usually it comes down to placement or timing. Like the chamiso “rabbit brush” blooms only at a certain time, so the key there is getting the other honey you've been making [harvested] and starting a new one right away when it blooms.
SI: Is that why you are flying/driving thousands of miles with your bees?
BE: Yes, well that and we're up at about 8,000 feet in Colorado. It gets too cold for the bees in the winter. My grandfather traditionally moved bees in wintertime when he got those really cold weeks of 30 degrees below. He'd go down to New Mexico and Texas to winter the bees.
The other thing is that today we're making more bees, more honey, than my grandfather did. You lose a lot of hives, too. Like 500 and 600 hives today. My cousin has the prop plane. His dad is my uncle, the one who had the bees and taught me. We usually team up as a family and go down there together. They do their bulk [honey] thing, I do mine.
SI: We've always heard bees don't live as long in the summer. Is that true?
BE: Yes, bees usually die because they work themselves to death. It's true. Summer they're so busy. The thing is, a colony of bees is an animal in and of itself, too. The bees are like the cells of an animal. The queen continually produces cells – bees – to replace old ones that die. It's pretty amazing.
SI: You're clearly passionate about bees and the traditional methods of honey cultivation.
BE: Well, this is a company that I believe in. We started Grampa's Gourmet really only to survive doing what we're doing. You have to make more money to keep doing it these days. Honey is actually worth enough now that I'm not all that eager to sell it. It stays fresh for years, so I can store it away for later years. If we get back to the ways of trading [goods] again, like in the old days when you traded your honey for vegetables or whatever, I can trade my honey for something I want from someone else. It's my source of liquid gold [laughs].
SI: Ha. How very California of you. But along with that comes a sort of Catch 22. Your grandfather was selling to locals, to other farmers. Today, you often have to charge a lot more money for small-batch products to justify the increased labor costs. So in a sense, your honey isn't necessarily accessible to neighbors in your surrounding community as it once was.
BE: It's true, and that's the one thing I'm struggling with, actually. Honey prices for things like mine keep going up because all the commodities are going so high. I'm struggling because I know I have to charge so much, so some people who have always bought my family's honey can't afford mine anymore.
SI: The same thing is happening with so many other “artisan” versus bulk industries. The back-to-basics food revival is great but the luxury goods side to it is somewhat counter-intuitive.
BE: Exactly. It's sad, but I also can't afford not to charge this much. It's what's been happening lately, there's no way around it. We have to charge more to stay in business, but it also means people who used to buy our products can't afford it. I'm hoping it works itself out, eventually. We'll see, won't we?
Grampa's Gourmet honey is available online.
[More from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com]