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What I Learned During the Honey Harvest in Portland

Bee Local beekeepers share why you should avoid honey bears, some unusual uses for honey, and what Portland chefs are whipping up with their single-origin honeys.

Drizzled on fried chicken. A final flourish to a peanut butter and banana sandwich. A next-level glaze on meats.

Once I got the beekeepers of Bee Local talking about their favorite uses for honey, there seemed to be no end to its potential. Everything sounds better with honey: crunchy granola, biscuits slathered with butter, wood-fired pizza with spicy pepperoni. You can even wash your face with it—beekeeper Ryan LeBrun keeps it in the shower.

Yet not just any old honey will do. As I learned tagging along with the duo behind Portland, Oregon-based Bee Local—Founder Damian Magista and Beekeeper Ryan LeBrun—during the annual honey harvest in early September, not all honey is created equal. Many of us think we’re making a healthy choice when opting for honey over sugar, but we may actually be pouring on the chemicals and pesticides. Those ubiquitous honey bears are cut with high fructose corn syrup (a common sweetener found in soda)—and are a far cry from the pure, single-origin honey Bee Local is bringing to the market.

During a recent trip to Portland, I received a crash course in all things honey, learning how (and why) we can all be smarter when it comes to reaching for the elevating effects of honey when we cook and mix cocktails at home.

Beekeeper Damian Magista

Sauvie Island, Home to Millions of Bees

“Stick your finger in,” Ryan, the gloveless beekeeper, instructed me. He was holding a frame just pulled from a hive, and after a few firm shakes—sending countless bees soaring in all directions from the honeycomb—he held it out for me to taste. “Get your finger in there, give it a try.”

We were standing in a field next to a blueberry farm on Sauvie Island, a quick 15-minute drive outside of central Portland and the scenic, peaceful home of 24 Bee Local hives. On arrival, I covered up with long sleeves and pulled a mask over my head and face. Before I even tiptoed near the hives, a bee flew straight for my left eye, bouncing off the facemask.

Obeying beekeeper orders, I plunged my pointer finger through the wax that caps each cell and straight into the honey, still warm from the sun directly overhead the hive. Damian was one step ahead of me, tasting the honey and remarking on its berry notes (the hives are next to a blueberry farm, after all) along with its round, soft feel. Like a child, I brought my finger to my mouth with a sense of wonder—and after maneuvering the humorous obstacle of the mask covering my face—got a taste of my own.

As I went back for seconds, I did a little mental math. Each hive is home to between 40,000 and 50,000 bees. At 24 hives, that’s a total of up to 1.2 million bees buzzing around this single location. In 2011, Bee Local started out with 4 hives. Now in 2015, they have 120 hives and are releasing 12 different space-based (from a single place and never blended) honeys this year. Looking forward, the goal is 1,200 hives, and expanding the locations, particularly along the Oregon Coast.

“Different hives each have their own distinct personality,” Damian told me, as I watched the pair work from a safe distance. “This hive here—seriously AGRO. Right from the start.”

Digging my hands deeper into my pockets, I asked about stings, noting the beekeepers bare hands. They only laughed in reply. “I’ve been stung 5 times already today,” Ryan said. “It still hurts, but the phobia of bees goes away over time.”

If you want to see these hives yourself, this rustic, stylish AirBnB on Sauvie Island is a close neighbor to 24 Bee Local hives.

More hives on Sauvie Island

An Unlikely Harvest Site: The Nines Hotel in Downtown Portland

After the pastoral feel of Sauvie Island, I wondered if the rooftop of a downtown hotel would be an ideal place for a beehive. Yet stepping out onto the rooftop of the Nines Hotel—home to (but a safe distance from) Departure, a stylish rooftop restaurant—I could immediately see why bees would thrive in this environment.

Chef Chris Starkus of Urban Farmer, also in the Nines Hotel, is one of the several Portland chefs that have become interested in honey. Yet Starkus has taken his interest one step further and is hands-on with the upkeep of the hives. He has also planted an impressive rooftop garden, the diversity of which is like a big buffet for the bees. Instead of zipping around in a monocrop environment, the bees here have a bounty of choice—a variety that is reflected in the honey. The flavors of the honey depend on what you grow nearby, and Chef Starkus is having fun learning this firsthand, one experiment at a time.

We cracked open a hive and huddled around a frame for a taste. The difference from the Sauvie Island honey was stark—this honey was herbaceous, bright, and full of punch. “An ideal finishing honey,” Damian noted. “I’d drizzle it on cheese.” Honey from the rooftop is mixed into cocktails at Urban Farmer and has accompanied dishes such as foie gras.

When Chef Starkus is tending his rooftop garden or visiting the hives, donning his chef whites, people raising a cocktail at Departure take note. “The hives are a conversation starter,” he said, “an experiment that continues to allow knowledge to spread.”


How to Up Your Honey Ante

After harvest, Bee Local honey goes through very little before reaching the jar. Unlike commercial honeys that are blended, ultra filtered, and heated to temperatures that rid the honey of its health benefits—think of vegetables that have been boiled for a long time, eradicating flavor and nutritional content—Bee Local honey is only lightly filtered. It is not heated above a certain temperature or pasteurized. In its raw form, the abundance of aromatics sticks around, and it retains its nutritional qualities.

Specifics of the science aside, it’s damn tasty, with a pure quality and spectrum of nuanced flavors that inspires a second taste. And when you know your beekeeper, you know that the honey hasn’t been cut with high fructose corn syrup or subjected to a range of chemicals.

After my experience during the honey harvest in Portland, I brought a few jars back to my tiny New York kitchen—along with a little advice. Honey is shelf stable, and will never go bad, though it can sometimes crystallize. When this happens, Damian recommends gently warming it to get it running again. This could mean placing the jar in a sunny window, or half submerging it in a warm water bath. Whatever you do—don’t put it in the microwave. It’s raw, remember?

Damian and Ryan have one final piece of advice when it comes to their honey: Get to Portland and see what local chefs are whipping up. Munch on the crispy pig ears with spicy honey at Lardo. Order the Farmer #3 cocktail (vodka, St. Germain, honey, and grapefruit) at Urban Farmer in the Nines Hotel. Taste the impact of honey on fried chicken at Woodsman Tavern. Sample food and cocktails made with honey from the rooftop of contemporary Italian restaurant Renata. These dishes are a display of the collaborative spirit found in Portland—and it turns out collaboration is mighty delicious.

Want more? Check out our list for the the best places to eat in Portland!