Written & Photos by Group 87 Volunteer Sarah Cash
Every morning I wake up to a chilly breeze silently, invisibly, invading my room. I curl my toes and shrug the blankets up to my chin. I stretch out my body, and think of my awaiting bowl of steaming oatmeal. Like clockwork, I fill up the kettle with water, flick my thumb across the lighter so the flames catch and the water boils, and add cinnamon to my bowl of instant oats. Before the kettle’s shrill cry alerts me to add the water, I pause. Bending down to grab the rum sized bottle of honey, I tip it so the golden liquid eases onto my spoon, forming an amber pool that gleams when it catches the sun. Without honey, my oatmeal would be an insipid mush.
After learning one year ago that I could get honey from local beekeepers, I vowed to get it nowhere else, and that has been one of the easiest promises to keep in Jamaica. More difficult has been deciding which honey to buy. Should I buy the esteemed logwood honey from St. Elizabeth, supposedly sweeter and more coveted than the others? Should I buy uber-local honey, from the woman across the hill in St. Andrew whose bees could very well pollinate my host family’s coffee blossoms? Or should I buy honey from the first place I purchased it in Jamaica in St. Thomas, where I trained to become a Peace Corps Volunteer? Decisions, decisions.
So like any lusty glutton, I decided to purchase all three bottles and conduct a taste test.
Before buckling down and tucking in, I spoke to fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and beekeeper extraordinaire Alec Bramel, who lives in St. Thomas, and helped process one of the bottles I will be tasting. He works with farmers in the area to maintain a community apiary with the goal of educating locals about the environmental and economic vitality of beekeeping. Because people are often afraid of bees, Alec first gives presentations to local groups about their benefits, then invites participants to the apiary for a hands-on lesson.
Honey is in high demand in Jamaica, so there’s money to be made in this quietly up and coming market. In 2013, the St. Thomas Bee Farmer’s Association went through six weeks of training and received equipment to create their own apiary, which they did in 2014. In 2015, they doubled the size of their apiary, changing site and producing pollen, honey, and honey water. Since then, Alec has worked with his fellow beekeepers to sell their products across St. Thomas and Jamaica, from small meetings and events to a Kingston-based farmer’s market that attracts an upscale crowd.
In order to ensure this work continues after Alec finishes his service, he has worked with his community to build a storage/work facility that houses necessary equipment when not in use. It used to be exposed to the elements, but in a hurricane prone country like Jamaica, one storm could irreparably damage all their beekeeping equipment. Fortunately, the building will soon be completed, and their work safeguarded from any mischievous weather.
Alec has been busy as a bee*, working to create a better future for his community’s residents, insect and human alike. But how does his community’s honey compare to mine and St. Elizabeth’s? It is time to crown a winner (Queen Bee?) in this Battle of the Bees. In contemplating the diverse tastes and aromas of the following honey, I researched the bee’s terroir in an attempt to discover what makes the perfect honey. Alec told me that bees will travel two-five miles, so their honey could come from any flowers in that vicinity.
First up, St. Elizabeth. This honey comes from logwood blossoms, said to be the best source of food for the highest quality Jamaican honey. It had the lightest color, almost clear when the sun poured in and washed away its pale golden hue. When I licked my finger, I thought of gentle summer breezes, braiding flowers into crowns, and picnics on soft grass with cucumber sandwiches. If sunlight could be honey, St. Elizabeth made it happen. Though I didn’t find this honey as sweet as the other two, I liked its freshness and think it would be perfect on fruit, in granola, and even by the spoonful.
The honey from St. Thomas tasted light at first, but the second lick brought to mind butterscotch, and those too sweet hard candies I still avoid. When accidentally added to my tea, however, the cinnamon tea was sweetened to perfection. The St. Thomas bees feast on flowers from breadfruit, mango, and coconut trees, as well as some logwood. This multi-floral honey is perfect to add to any recipe needing a shock of sugar.
The St. Andrew honey was the darkest in color, and had partially congealed, making it impossible to drip languorously from the bottle onto my outstretched finger. The coffee blossoms and wildflowers in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains produce a honey richer and thicker than our other contenders. Nevertheless, when I tasted it, I was instantly transported to Quebec, a sugar hut covered in fresh snow, and maple syrup freezing on a block of ice. St. Andrew’s honey is sweet like candy, just enough to make you want to lick the spoon for a while with eyes closed, imagining mornings with pancakes and bacon on the stove, and the smell of coffee slipping in from the kitchen. I recommend this honey with any and everything.
Enough with the Proustian flashbacks, you think. Who won? Well you might call me biased, but I have to pick the parish in which I reside- St. Andrew!
It’s almost sunset, which means dinner time. After hours at my keyboard tapping away, on the phone chatting about bees, and on the internet googling things like “why does some honey congeal, but not others?”**, I feel tired, but more importantly, hungry. And there is only one thing I want to eat…
**There are many different kinds of honey, and each has a slightly different crystallization point, depending on the flowers and region in which the honey was produced. For more, read this article.