Local Oregon beekeepers share the secrets—and secret benefits—of single-origin honeys.
Drizzled on fried chicken. A final flourish to a peanut butter and banana sandwich. A next-level glaze on meats. 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—there seems to be no end to its potential.
Yet not just any old honey will do. As I learned tagging along with Damian Magista and Ryan LeBrun—the duo behind Portland, Oregon–based Bee Local—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 my trip to Portland, I received a crash course in all things artisan 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.
Where the apiaries are
“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 face mask.
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.
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.
“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 laughed in reply. “I’ve been stung five times already today,” Ryan said. “It still hurts, but the phobia of bees goes away over time.”
An unlikely harvest site
In 2011, Bee Local started out with four hives. In 2015, it had 120 hives and released 12 different space-based honeys—each from a single place (and never blended). Now, Bee Local has apiaries across Oregon, including ones on Portland rooftops that serve restaurants throughout the city.
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 and bar—I could immediately see why bees would thrive in this environment.
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 hive at the Nines Hotel rooftop is mixed into cocktails at Urban Farmer and has accompanied dishes such as foie gras.
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 City kitchen—along with a little advice. Honey is shelf stable and will never go bad, although 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, Oregon, 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 wildflower 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.
This article originally appeared online in September 2015; it was updated on July 17, 2018, to include current information.
>>Next: The Wild Story of Manuka, the World’s Most Coveted Honey