The Wild Story of Manuka, the World’s Most Coveted Honey

New Zealand’s manuka honey is celebrated for its unique healing properties and is in demand from London to Hollywood. This is the unusual history of an even more unusual honey.

The Wild Story of Manuka, the World’s Most Coveted Honey

A honeybee collects pollen from the manuka bush flower.

Courtesy of Shuttershock/M Rutherford

With all due respect to sauvignon blanc drinkers, New Zealand’s trendiest liquid export is something far sweeter than wine. Derived from the nectar of a native bush (leptospermum scoparium), manuka honey has stirred enthusiasm among health-conscious connoisseurs since the early ’80s, when a local scientist first confirmed that it possesses unique, antimicrobial properties. Now, the on-trend sweetener is finding mainstream appeal in the United States as a slightly more savory alternative to its domestic counterparts.

The manuka industry was shipping around $40 million worth of honey a decade ago, and by 2017 that number had swelled to $270 million. As surprising as that boom has been, manuka’s origins are even more unlikely.

The western species of bee necessary for commercial honey production, Apis mellifera, is not native to New Zealand. In fact, the colony-building insects weren’t introduced to the Southern Hemisphere until 1839. Their arrival, along with the subsequent development of an entire industry, is owed to the fastidious stewardship of Mary Bumby—an English beekeeper and sister of a Methodist missionary.

The bees arrival in New Zealand is thanks to the fastidious stewardship of Mary Bumby—an English beekeeper and sister of a Methodist missionary.

“She managed to keep alive her two skeps [woven baskets] of honey bees on a six-month voyage all the way from England,” explains Cliff Von Eaton, author of Manuka: The Biography of an Extraordinary Honey. “That was no mean feat, since skep beehives are much more difficult to maintain and keep alive than hives in the movable frame equipment we know today.”

Bumby established her apiary in the low-lying fields surrounding the mission, along the eastern shore of the North Island, where manuka bushes flourished. There’s strong evidence to support, then, that the first honey produced in New Zealand was of the manuka variety. According to Von Eaton’s historical records, it may have been served at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February of 1840—which established relations between Western settlers and the native Maori tribes.

Manuka honey company Comvita manages 40,000 hives.

Manuka honey company Comvita manages 40,000 hives.

Courtesy of Comvita

Despite its historical significance, manuka honey failed to gain notoriety over the subsequent century. Throughout most of the 1900s, the product was ignored in favor of wildflower-derived alternatives. An international market failed to materialize. This changed in 1980, when Dr. Peter Molan—a noted New Zealand biochemist—confirmed the antibacterial properties unique to the nectar produced from this particular plant. (Its healing properties had already been known in traditional Maori medicine.)

“All honey produces hydrogen peroxide when diluted,” says Von Eaton. “Only manuka honey, however, also contains those extra substances that allow it to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria commonly found in chronic wounds, bed sores and leg ulcers.” Because this characteristic is quantifiable, a certifying group was soon set up to measure what became known as “Unique Manuka Factor.” Today, “UMF” is a prominent trademark on many a manuka label, not unlike the SPF rating you read on sunscreen lotion bottles.

“Medical-grade, sterilized manuka honey consists of manuka with a 10+ [certified UMF] or higher rating,” explains Scott Coulter, CEO of Comvita, the popular brand that helped pioneer the labeling standard. “It contains the compounds that provide manuka’s unique topical support for wound healing, acne and scars.”

Although domestic demand was soaring—along with pricing—manuka honey didn’t become an international sensation until 1991. Bill Floyd, a marketing specialist hired by the National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand, coined the term UMF and advertised it to U.S. media at just the right moment, when alternative health and wellness routines were finding fashion. It’s been something of a cult commodity in the States ever since.

In recent years, manuka has broken into the mainstream as celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Dr. Oz, and Novak Djokovic broadcast praise of its homeopathic virtues. The country’s most talented chefs are also doing their part to showcase the honey’s singular flavor and texture profile.

“I am especially keen on it because it has somewhat of a creamier, whipped consistency, and it’s also easy to whip,” notes Mike Bagale, executive chef at Alinea in Chicago. Running one of the most experimental kitchens in the country, Bagale is a tastemaker, shaping future dining trends. On a recent menu, he rendered manuka honey into an artful meringue, alongside aerated goat cheese. The sweet and savory dessert featured the honey in freeze-dried form, as garnish.

Although his preparation highlights manuka’s slightly earthy, sometimes minty flavor profile, Bagale was initially drawn in by its holistic benefits. “Manuka is a versatile sugar substitute that’s lower on the glycemic index,” he says. “It won’t spike your blood sugar levels immediately in the way white sugar does.”

In 1980, biochemist Peter Molan confirmed manuka honey’s unique antibacterial properties.

In 1980, biochemist Peter Molan confirmed manuka honey’s unique antibacterial properties.

Courtesy of Shuttershock/TY Lim

Back in its region of origin, manuka’s influence is now ubiquitous—particularly in the urban hub of Auckland. Coffee shops and cocktail bars are working it into full-flavored recipes. But its heightened visibility has led to some unintended controversy: Australian producers have been trying to cash in on the trend and a battle is underway over who can own the term. “Both the UK Trade Mark Registry and the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand decided the term ‘manuka’ is a Maori word,” Coulter says. “Just like champagne—which can only be recognized as from a certain area of France—manuka honey can only come from New Zealand.”

He’s right—for now. Australia is challenging the 2017 U.K. ruling, however, despite the fact that the plant is known locally Down Under as “jelly bush” or “ti-tree.” A jar of UMF 50 (the highest grade) can fetch upwards of $200 on U.S. grocery shelves, and outsiders are hungry for a taste of that action. According to current projections, however, New Zealand exports should still reach $1 billion by the end of the next decade. Thanks to a sustainable, organic approach to hive maintenance by local producers such as Comvita, colonies are thriving.

The country’s most bankable export, the world’s most sought-after sweetener: all out of Mary Bumby’s two handwoven bee baskets in the early 19th century. Even with her legendary devotion to honey, it’s likely she never could have envisioned a story so sweet.

In Auckland, dozens of purveyors specialize in selling the local produce. Check out the Honey Store—an expansive merchant in the Parnell neighborhood. In Onehunga, on the south side of the city, Honey & Herbs NZ offers a wide range of manuka honeys, both in edible and medical-grade varieties. You’ll also find a massive selection at the duty-free shop in the international airport, before you reach your departure gate. Close to New Zealand’s many geothermal attractions in Paengaroa, Experience Comvita operates the country’s largest dedicated manuka honey visitors center. Here you’ll find daily tours, tastings, and a virtual reality experience. There’s also a café, incorporating manuka into dozens of forms of freshly prepared food and drink.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Auckland

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist specializing in food, beverage, and travel. He moonlights as a beer and spirits consultant, hosting monthly craft pairings/educational dinners in both Los Angeles and New York, and curating drink menus for festivals and restaurants. He prefers Scotch to bourbon, IPAs before lagers, and In-n-Out over Shake Shack. His favorite breed of dog is unequivocally the Siberian Husky and he suffers from an irrational, unrequited love for the New York Knicks.
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