One of the highlights of my winter calendar is the annual honey competition of the Nelson Hobbyist Beekeepers Club. Not because I’m entering, but because I’m judging.
This vibrant club boasts more than 100 members and meets on the first Wednesday of the month in the Waimea Rooms of the Richmond A&P Showgrounds. It has been my privilege to help judge their annual honey competition for three years in a row and every time I come home full of 1. honey and 2. admiration for such a fun bunch of real people.
These friendly hobbyists, (not to be confused with hobbit-ists although there are some similarities), do take their honey seriously. And let’s face it so would you, if you were brave enough to put the fruit of your bees annual labour up for judgement. But being an old hand now, I don’t let the pressure get to me. Even with A&P presidents past looking on from their gilt lettered honours board.
After introductions, the judges are ushered through a set of sliding doors into the large main bar where the entries are laid out on formica bar leaners in their various categories for judging.
There are usually three judges but this year we had a late scratching due to unforeseen circumstances, so the task fell to Alison Metcalfe from Great Village Holidays and myself. Alison is a judge of some renown in the field of food, having been a regular judge of the NZ Beef & Lamb Awards and an award winning restaurateur. So with her palette and my enthusiasm we stepped up to the the bar (leaners).
This year there were no less than 29 entries. We were given an hour, many ice-block sticks, a jug of water and a clipboard. In the other room we could hear the buzz, (sorry couldn’t resist), of the monthly meeting as the hobbyists progressed with the evening’s presentations and discussion.
Ali and I quickly worked out a scoring matrix based on flavour, aroma, clarity and presentation. She had taken the time to google “Honey Judging”, whereas I was just working by sweet toothed instinct. Let me tell you, tasting and scoring 29 honeys is no picnic, (unless you’re name is Pooh), especially with an expectant gaggle of hobbyists just a sliding door away.
The first thing that strikes you about tasting honey is the variation. Each honey is influenced by the variety of the pollen the bees have dined on and the time of harvest. Spring honeys taste of blossom and the sound of music whereas late summer honey tastes of mellow fruitfulness and the sound of bottling. And if they haven’t cleaned the jar, some taste like pickles. Not unlike wine tasting, the difference in flavour, colour, aroma and viscosity between the entries is astounding.
So what makes a great honey? Well I’ve learnt that a great honey has a strong aroma, a complex and lingering flavour and a pleasing texture and viscosity. Clarity is tricky because of the creamed honeys (you see I do take this seriously). But even a creamed honey can have a clarity score attributed to it – lack of bee bits is a reasonable indicator.
Presentation is another category altogether, which has been the source of much humour over the years. I remember one entry last year of a full 20 ltr. bucket of honey where the owner had clearly run out of time to decant a sample into a pretty jar and just thought sod it – I’ll enter the whole bucket.
This year we awarded a special prize for the best label to “Wal’s Bee Spit” and I was also very impressed by a fancy jar with a two part red and white gingham tin lid whose contents unfortunately did not take line honours.
After we had added our score cards and reached our verdict, Ali and I finished by sampling a cheeky little bottle of rather lovely honey mead, entered in a category all of it’s own by local bee-keeper Lynda Hannah. This cleansed our palette and fortified us to re-join the meeting. We re-emerged through the sliding doors, wired on 30 different honeys, as an expectant hush fell over the meeting.
The president called the assembly to order and handed us the floor to announce the results. The audience, sitting on their entry numbers, awaited our verdict. The town honey winner admitted to having hives in Vanguard Street, not the most salubrious address in town but obviously something of a honey trap.
The country honey category was a tie for first place between a bee whisperer of old who entered an amazing bush honey, and a young up and coming bee-keeper who entered a creamed honey of extraordinary flavour and viscosity, as much to his surprise as anyone’s.
Ceremonies dispensed with, the doors got thrown open for the “people’s choice” where the club members got to taste and vote for their favourite honey. Now Ali and I were a little on show, had we got it right?, had we done the assembled honey’s justice?
But we’re on the level around here and there is nothing like “General Consensus” to bring you down a peg or two. And the people’s choice was in fact a lovely floral spring honey from the town category that Ali and I had rated highly but not quite highest. We thought it tasted of elderflowers but the club members thought it tasted first rate.
If you’re in the neighbourhood stop by and say hello to the Nelson Hobbyist Beekeepers club. They are as socially minded as their winged charges. Unfortunately the presidents honey didn’t get a look in at the awards, for which I was a little sad, but the only deference the honey bee pays is to the Queen. I hope they ask me back next year.