Glistening drops of different honeys, in shades of brown and yellow, were served on a platter that looked like a painter’s colour palette. I was at a honey-tasting session, with a group of about eight, during a tour of Moonshine Meadery. It’s located in Pirangut, about 150 kilometres away from Mumbai, and the honey-tasting session—one of their tour highlights—is reserved for the last.
We were told to take a bit of honey with our fingers, lick it and identify the flavours. Notes of caramel, citrus and camphor with creamy, grainy and light-bodied textures tingled our tastebuds. The experience, to me, was surprisingly similar to a wine-tasting session.
Honey is the main ingredient to make meads. Here they started the Moonshine Honey Project by end of 2020 to sell it in small batches. With the demand for immunity-rich foods at an all time high, their timing couldn’t have been better. They retail three types—Sidr, mustard and acacia sourced from beekeepers. Last week, I got on a call with Rohan Rehani, co-founder of Moonshine Meadery, to know more about Indian honey. Edited excerpts:
What are the three things you wish people knew about honey in India.
First, let’s bust the biggest myth, which is that crystallised honey is spurious or has gone bad. Crystallisation is a natural process in this product, which is a supersaturated solution of fructose and glucose. If the ratio of these elements crosses a certain threshold, crystallisation occurs. At some level, it’s an indication of purity and good quality. Take some of that crystallised honey, spread it on hot buttered toast and relish it.
Secondly, most Indians are used to multiflora honey commercialised by brands like Dabur and Patanjali. It means the product is a blend of multiple floral sources. There is a world of uni-floral honeys—derived from one floral source—just waiting to be discovered. My suggestion is for people to try these different uni-floral honeys from tulsi to neem, sidr and acacia. For instance, there is ajwain honey laced with slightly spicy notes, and mustard honey enlivened with citrus flavours.
Thirdly, in India honey doesn’t have a supply problem, the issue is with low demand. If you think about it, most honey in this country is consumed as an Ayurvedic treatment for cough and cold. But it’s so much more than that. Use it as a sugar substitute in beverages or to make desserts. Growing sugarcane is a water-intensive process, whereas it isn’t so for honey. More demand for it creates an impetus for beekeepers, who help with pollination leading to better crop yields benefiting farmers.
India exports more honey than it consumes, and that’s rather sad. I get that honey is expensive and can be unaffordable for certain income brackets. People go abroad and bring home Manuka honey from New Zealand. I think that’s a brilliant marketing campaign by the government of that country. If we look within India, we have equally good, if not better, honey.
Are we harming bees by eating honey?
There are two ways to extract honey: through bee boxes and hives found in the natural environment. Bee boxes have been designed to not harm bees, because then one risks losing the entire lot. These are home to bee species like the Apis cerana indica and Apis mellifera.
The hives found in forests have a different species, Apis dorsata or rock bees, which are slightly more sensitive and need careful handling. There are NGOs, like Under the Mango Tree and The Last Forest, which work with forest-dwelling communities who know exactly how to handle those bees without harming them or getting stung.
A conscious beekeeper—unlike a commercial beekeeper—will not harm the bees. Someone who genuinely cares about the environment and their bees, it will reflect in the quality of honey. As a consumer, one can become aware to know where to put your money.
What do we not know about bee-keeping in India?
Most beekeeping is migratory beekeeping, which means beekeepers take their bee boxes and go to places where there is a food source for their bees.
The predominant reason for this is mono-cropping. About 80 years ago, crops would be sown seasonally and a variety of crops were grown in one plot of land. Then floral sources for bees diminished, and bee-keepers had to migrate in search of flowers. For example, to get our mustard honey, bees need mustard flowers, which bloom in Punjab and Rajasthan in December and January. That’s why it’s a small batch product.
Would you say mono-cropping is responsible for diminishing bee populations?
In India, our biggest issue is climate change and rising temperatures. You see, crops and flowers follow a seasonal cycle, but extreme temperatures and unpredictable weather proves to be challenging, and beekeepers are not able to migrate fast enough. For instance, let’s say mustard flowering happens 15 days before the due season, and beekeepers aren’t able to make it on time, they end up collecting less honey, which shoots up the prices for the consumer.
What can we do to protect bees?
If we can reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, and move to a more natural way of farming, it is better for the environment and bees. Ideally, one day I would like to see a situation where people actually get involved with bees and keeping bees in their homes as pets.
I remember reading that in Paris, city-dwellers are involved in rearing bees on rooftops, promoting a culture of urban beekeeping. Bees help pollinate flowers and make a city more beautiful. Ask any beekeeper, and they’ll tell you that bees don’t sting if they don’t feel threatened.
How can one discover good honey?
Go beyond the sweetness and explore different flavours. These depends on the flower source for the bees. They are super-efficient in their nectar collection, and would only go to the closest floral source. My colleague, Devashish, has a good way of putting it: bees are like single guys in their 20s who don’t put in any more effort than they have to. So, if they need groceries, they will go to the nearest store instead of exploring something fancier further. If a honey bottle specifies flavours, it means the bees fed on that specific flower source which was closest to them.
Those who say honey is boring, haven’t really tried any of the varietal honeys which are uni-floral. So my suggestion is, try a variety of homegrown honeys. Most indie brands sell small samples. When you taste, try to decipher their flavours and textures, and experiment with different foods. Add them to your daily cup of tea or coffee, drizzle them over salads, pancakes, toasts, fruits and even cold cuts.
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