Interview: Honey Master Sommelier

The quality of the food we eat is critical to our health and wellbeing and supporting independent growers, farmers and producers is essential for sustainable living. This month I asked Gruffydd Rees, a beefarmer since 2010, why single-origin honey is so important, and what makes it taste so good.

Food fraud is big business. Generally, it’s the foods that we pay the most for that are most at risk of fraudulent practices. Foods such as coffee, olive oil, wine, and honey. While single-estate wines are not new there has also been a rise in independent specialist coffee roasters, offering beans from single-estate growers. Traceability is important, not only with regard to quality but to ensure fair prices and best practices, and blended products don’t offer that reassurance.

So when it comes to the honey you drizzle over your breakfast porridge, you want one that’s not only full of taste but is produced sustainably from a reputable source.

Beekeeper, Gruffydd Rees, produces honey from individual, single sites. Rees wanted to be a farmer from boyhood. While his parents were both teachers, his grandparents lived on a farm.

“I have fond memories of spending a lot of time on the farm as a child and this is what started my passion for nature and animals. As I grew older I wanted my own animals,” he says. For most of us that means a family pet such as a dog, or a more exotic reptile like a tortoise.

“My great-grandfather was a beekeeper, so there must be something in the blood.” Gruffydd Rees.

Starting from scratch after completing studies in Countryside Management, he began looking into the practicalities of keeping animals with only minimal land resources. Bee hives take up minimum space, and as the bees ‘fly off onto other peoples’ land to forage’, that seemed a good option. A local beekeeping course and a ‘load of books’ later and Rees was smitten.

Green, green grass of home

Inspecting the bees. Photo Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd.

In the same way that a terroir is imperative to wine making and growing coffee cherries, the location of bee hives is critical. It’s possible for bees to forage for a distance of up to five miles. Wales gets a lot of rainfall which is good news for the famously green and lush grass, as well as other plant growth, including the wildflowers that thrive in the fertile soil.

Unspoilt countryside, with no commercially grown crops, is also the ideal location for Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd’s hives at different sites. With an abundance of wildflowers to forage the resulting honey is full of blossom with a rich, deep flavour that develops in the mouth.

100% pure

A good year’s harvest from a wine estate produces fine wines. Similarly, honey from one individual site ensures unique characteristics and qualities from colour to taste. Rees nows farms around 100 hives.

“The easy thing to do would be to blend it all together to make life easier but single origin is important and that’s how it should be enjoyed… just like the bees made it and intended.”

“You don’t want to filter the honey too much either as you want the pollen to be present in it. Honey that is pressure-filtered through a super fine filter takes this and the rest of the goodness away.”

Bees can forage for up to five miles. Photo Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd.

Honey is alive with enzymes that are destroyed if the honey is pasteurised so Rees recommends looking for a product that is unpasteurised (raw).

Wildflowers are considered the best source for quality honey. Cardiff University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences are using Welsh Wildflower honey in an attempt to find new drugs to treat hospital infections caused by antibiotic resistant superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

A day in the life of a Honey Master Sommelier

Stackable bee hives for easy access. Photos Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd.

Technically you need over 40 hives to be called a “beefarmer” in the UK. Rees believes that 100 would be more realistic. “It takes years of learning and a genuine love for the work and the bees to be considered a beefarmer. I would consider a sommelier a beekeeper with enough experience (10 years or so) with a committment to the craft, who has experienced enough crops by then and tasted a lot of varying honey.”

Beekeeping began as a hobby but soon developed into a passion for Rees. When he and Angharad married five years ago they purchased a smallholding and the hobby turned into an independent business.

Single origin honey. Photo Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd.

A typical day at Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd involves looking after the bees, managing them and building the equipment. Angharad looks after the business side of things from ‘jarring’ the honey, sending out the orders, marketing and sales, and looking after existing clients. Business is good and they have started purchasing product from other carefully selected, hand picked bee farmers with the different honeys remaining separate and single origin.

Want to find out more?

Beekeeping workshops. Photo Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd.

They also run workshops, such as the One Day Beekeeping Training for Beginners at the Rees’ Bryn Bach farm nestled in the Tywi Valley, Carmarthenshire. The day combines practical hands-on beekeeping with the relevant theory. Bookings are open for 2021. Price £115 per person.

Save our bees

Bees are under threat with multiple factors contributing to the loss of colonies, including diseases, parasites, pesticides, limited floral resources, fluctuations in the honey market, and winter survival rates. A British Beekeepers Association survey (July 2020) shows higher losses of 17.3% of colonies compared to last year of 9%, although the losses are slightly under the average measured across all the surveys so far of 18.2% it’s not good news.

Bees play a major part in the global food chain and COVID-19 has exposed the work still to be done on protecting the environment including wildlife. Rees would like to see more effective liaison between environmental groups and the farming community.

More areas planted up with native trees (but not, of course, fertile farmland) native woodland, hedgerows and wildflower meadows. Incentives to encourage farmers to plant up wildflower areas at field boundaries, or even whole fields. 

Help from the government in support of farmers to find new markets for products. For example planting borage as a crop supports bees and other pollinators and the oil can be used in pharmaceuticles

The Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd Adopt a Hive scheme offers businesses and other organisations an effective way to boost their environmental credentials (and receive samples of honey). From May 2021 it’s planned to offer a ‘bees experience day’, postponed this year due to the pandemic.

This year Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd has teamed up with several local and national companies, including Cardiff Airport and Iceland Foods who currently support hives.

Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd Award Winning Unpasteurised Single Origin Welsh Wildflower Honey is available online.

Mêl Gwenyn Gruffydd are seeking to raise awareness of the massive environmental problem of pollinator decline. Rees also offer talks and presentations, naturally in his native Welsh, and in English.

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