Knysna beekeepers, Owen and Christa Williams, might be long-established beekeepers but they are complete newbies to the world of honey competitions – but that didn’t hold them back.
To their astonishment, they recently won a top award at a leading international honey competition in the United States. It was the first time they had ever subjected their honey to a judging panel’s scrutiny!
The competition – known as The Black Jar Honey Contest – is organised by the Centre for Honeybee Research, based in Asheville, North Carolina. The Williams’ won in the African honey category.
Owen is modest about the achievement, describing the winning honey as one of their “stock standard multifloras”. He mischievously adds “the exceptional stuff was not ready for harvesting by entry cut-off date!”.
The Black Jar Honey Contest started out as a local honey competition, but this year entries were received from countries all over the world including Brazil, Canada, Scotland, Egypt, Kenya, Hong Kong and Hungary. The grand prize is $5,500.
The organisers say the major goal of the contest is to educate the public how pure, unblended honey reflects the unique terroir of the regions in which they are produced. Judging takes place via a blind tasting with black straws so the colour of the honey is not discernible.
Owen says he wasn’t even planning to enter the competition, but did so after some prodding by the director of the Centre for Honeybee Research, Carl Chesick. He met Chesick in South Africa in 2009 when the US scientist was doing some research on the Cape honeybee.
Owen says “there’s obviously tremendous marketing clout that comes with an award”, but the winning honey was no different from what his customers normally receive. He and Carla, who own a company called Honeychild, have always stuck to the belief that only 100% capped honey should be removed from the hives. “Even with hundreds of hives we still select frames individually,” he adds.
Two beekeepers from the Knysna area, both trained by Owen, have previously won awards in The Black Jar Honey Contest. While Owen believes the Knysna area does produce honeys of distinction, he maintains that honey “from every biome in South Africa is just as special”.
Owen reckons there are 15 to 20 different honeys along the Garden Route alone. He says Karri gum (Eucalyptus diversicolor) has traditionally produced the “most sublime honey” but that its days are numbered because of the wholesale felling of the trees. Sharing the frustration of so many fellow beekeepers in South Africa, Owen says the Karri gums “are being culled increasingly due to misinformation or rather withholding information from landowners by alien clearing agencies. Landowners are not advised they can apply to the Department of Environmental Affairs for ‘departures’ to retain and manage existing trees”.
Owen spirits lighten again when he returns to the subject of South African honey, of which he is clearly extremely passionate. He encourages other beekeepers to enter competitions like The Black Jar Honey Contest.
“We clearly produce very small quantities of exceptional honey and this really should be exported at a respectable price. This would allow many more artisanal honey-producing beekeepers,” he says.
Once again echoing the sentiments of his fellow beekeepers, Owen takes a swipe at the price South African honey generally fetches: “We have gold then sell it at the price of plastic!”