When you've taken capped frames of honey from the bees, that honey is at its peak of flavor, aroma, and clarity. Once honey has been extracted, it is up to humans to maintain that high quality. Such things as moisture content, protection from dust and other foreign matter, choice of storage containers, and temperature all can affect the quality of that excellent honey that the bees produced. Through care and attention to detail, you can do the honey justice.
One of the key details is the moisture content of the honey. Nectar is slightly sugary, with so much moisture it must be fanned and tended for weeks by the bees, in order for it to be thickened up into real honey with a moisture content of under 18.6%. The bees cap each cell of honey with wax when it’s down to the proper moisture. When honey is ripe (18.6% moisture or less), it will not spoil. Its very thickness gives it antimicrobial properties. Harvesting and bottling unripe honey may result in fermentation, and bulging buckets or plastic bottles. Lids may pop off glass bottles. The taste has a sharp, kind of sour tang and it’s thinner than expected. If you only harvest combs that are 90%+ capped, you'll have good thick honey. If you want to use a scientific tool to check moisture content, you'll need a refractometer. Be sure to properly calibrate the refractometer before use each time. If you have supers that weren't capped enough, it's possible to draw more moisture off the combs by putting them in a warm sealed room with a dehumidifier. But after it's extracted, the only way to thicken it is by using an expensive honey dehydrator.
Before extracting, the cleanliness of your gear is important. Dust, slight remains of honey, or water in the extractor or buckets or strainers will adversely affect the honey. Clean and dry all gear thoroughly first. Clean the room too! During extracting, the extractor will run with its honey gate open above a bucket. Take care to not let anything (pet hair, your hair, etc.) fall in the honey. Honey readily absorbs moisture from the air, so keep your uncapping tank and buckets covered as much as possible, and reduce humidity in the work area. Do we need to mention, extracting should take place indoors away from the bees? If not, bees and wasps will be attracted from miles around.
Honey warmed to 100° F flows through the strainers better than room temp honey, so you may want to warm each bucket before straining honey. A coarse strainer above a fine strainer is sufficient to catch bits of wax, bee parts, scrapings of wood from the frames, etc. Our double plastic sieve has the finest mesh we offer: 20 openings per cm. Large producers who want to ensure their bottles of honey never crystallize on store shelves use high heat and superfine filters to remove all solids, even pollen grains. Nylon filters commonly available to small producers will leave pollen in your honey, which though invisible, is attractive to some customers. Interestingly, some beekeepers use an analysis of pollen grains in their honey to find out exactly what flowers the bees foraged upon. Allow honey in your bottling bucket or bottling tank to settle for 4- 5 days before bottling so bubbles created during spinning the honey will rise to the top, and thus your honey will be clarified.
Your bottling tank may be as simple as a 5 or 6 gallon pail with a nylon honey gate near the bottom. This is fine for raw (never heated) honey. Raw honey should be bottled soon, because when it inevitably starts to crystallize, it’s best if that happens in the bottles, not in a large bucket! Raw semi-solid or solid honey is perfectly fine to use, and neater for kids!
If you want to judiciously warm your honey to slow onset of natural crystallization, use a heated bottling tank or a “bucket blanket” which electrically warms a bucket.
There are 3 possible reasons to heat: 1) ease/speed of filtering and bottling, 2) killing yeasts (usually needed for preparing to make creamed honey), and 3) slowing the start of crystallization.
Warm honey definitely flows better than cool honey through sieves or filter cloth. However, even 75°F honey will eventually go through fine filters.
Some authors recommend heating quickly with agitation to 140°F, holding it there for 30 minutes and then cooling very quickly to kill yeasts but not affect color or flavor. The difficulty for hobbyists is to heat quickly and cool quickly enough. Bottling immediately after heating and then separating the bottles from each other will cool them faster than putting all the bottles in their boxes. If your honey has low moisture as measured by a refractometer, and you’re not making creamed honey, this high heat step is unnecessary and risks harming your crop.
That brings us to the third point, crystallization. If you or your customers are concerned about honey that is not liquid, you can heat all of it at the time of extraction and bottling, and it will stay liquid for 3-4 months. At Betterbee we heat our crop to 115°F, which by some definitions is considered raw honey, but it is likely to stay liquid for the fall and winter. We are not pasteurizing and certainly not boiling. Overwarming or keeping warm for too long will affect the flavor and aroma, and darken the honey.
If you plan to make creamed honey, there is a specific set of instructions called the Dyce method, which if followed closely will result in honey that is smooth like butter and solid at room temperature. The Dyce process guides you through heating, cooling, mixing in some creamed honey “seed” and storing at a specific temperature for 2 weeks. Creamed honey still is 100% honey, and thus, not taxed in most areas. It also doesn’t need to have a kitchen inspection certificate in most areas (check yours). When an ingredient is added to honey, such as crushed pecans, cinnamon, powdered raspberries, or infused with spicy peppers, it then is a value-added product with more than one ingredient, and falls under different production and taxation laws. When adding items to honey, be cautious of any that will increase its water content.
In the case of honey storage, strangely, if honey is frozen, it will not crystallize. Generally, it's best to keep it at room temperature, like on the breakfast table. Fluctuating temperatures, or keeping honey steadily at about 50°F is most likely to cause crystallization. But I have to emphasize after all this talk of preventing it, in my opinion, crystallized honey is nice! It melts right away in hot drinks, and doesn't dribble out the side of my PB+H sandwiches.
Honey is widely viewed as a pure, wholesome sweetener that has been highly sought out for centuries. Let's care for it after taking it from the bees, and make sure it keeps that high quality.