Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Getting that sticky stuff in the jar!

Lots of beekeeping books recommend that you extract your honey into buckets and store your honey in the sealed buckets until just before you sell it.  Before you can put the honey into jars, you have to warm up the honey in the bucket, which needs some kind of warming cabinet (or I guess an airing cupboard if you chuck all the clothes out of it first).  Then you tip the warm honey into a 'ripening tank' (tank with a valve at the bottom), possibly filtering it when you tip it in.  Then you leave the honey for several days so that any bits float to the top.  Then you can skim off the 'skum' from the top (actually mostly tiny bits of beeswax).  Finally you can put the honey in jars.  Then you clean everything ready for the next time you want to bottle some honey!

Call me wierd, but this seems like a lot of extra work!  As my wife will confirm, anything that involves the processing of honey causes the house to become coated with a thin layer of honey, so doing everything in one go seems to make a lot of sense to me!

I may feel differently when I reach the heady hights of having tonnes of honey, but my few hundred jars are as easily stored full of honey as empty! 

I extract my honey straight into the 'ripening tank', which is a big stainless steel drum with a 2 inch diameter valve at the bottom.  The honey sits in the sealed tank for a couple of days, then it is ready to put into jars.  First the top of the honey is skimmed to remove the bits that have floated to the top.  This is mostly tiny particles of wax and pollen.  This is processed later to extract the beeswax.

Before the jarring can take place, the jars need to be cleaned.  I always wash my honey jars in my dishwasher so that they can be cleaned at high temperature and then air dried.  Although honey is a 'low risk' product for food hygene risks (it kills bacteria by sucking the moisture out of them, and it is naturally antiseptic) I wouldn't want to sell anything that was not as pure as possible.

I mostly use 0.75 lb (12 oz) jars for honey, which I buy by the pallet load.  When I first started beekeeping, nearly all honey was sold in 1lb 'honey jars'.  However, the supermarkets started selling honey in smaller 'jam jars'.  The perception then became that Local Honey was expensive compared to shop bought because the consumer didn't notice that they were getting about a quarter as much again in the honey jars.  Also inflation increased the price of honey, and £5 for a jar of honey sounds a lot, whereas a smaller jar can be sold for a lower price.  Most of my beekeeping friends have now moved to the 12 oz jar and I only fill 1lb jars where I still have recycled jars from friends and neighbours who save and return the glass jars.

By picking the right style and size of jar, you can make ite easy to make sure that you always put enough honey in the jar that you are never under weight.  I check weigh filled jars to confirm that they are too heavy not too light.

To actually fill a jar with honey is a delicate matter.  Honey can flow so slowly that you think you have enough time to do something else, so you start putting the lid on the previous jar, or getting the next empty jar ready.  If you time it right, you can get a little production line going, which, in a strange way is quite satisfying!  However, you really don't want to forget about that jar filling up, because honey flows slowly, but also completely silently, so it will overflow without a sound!

Once the jars are filled, you need to label them.  I decided that I wanted to design my own labels so I looked into the regulations.  There appear to be more regulations about the label than there are about the honey inside the jar! 

As an example; when I started beekeeping, there was a regulation in place that said that honey could only be sold in certain specified amounts, 1lb, 12oz, 0.5lb etc.  This regulation was many years old and so was quoted in imperial measurements.  Then along came the EU and metrication, which stated that everything had to be sold in metric measures.  So, beekeepers had to sell honey in jars marked 454g, which is of course 1lb converted into metric units!  In fairness to the government, this has been repealed in the last year or so and now you can sell honey in any unit you want ... which explains why you cannot now easily compare the price of honey in the supermarket, because the jars are all different sizes!

The final product - honey in jars ready for sale
 Once the jars are lidded and labelled then the majority are taken back to Hanbury Hall for sale, either as jarred honey, or they are used in the tea-room and made into a whole range of products, from cakes to honey ice cream.

It isn't the only reason I keep bees, but nevertheless, it is immensely satisfying to hand over a jar of honey thinking 'my bees made that'!