IT'S a sticky situation, being a honey judge.
The honorable task requires tireless tastebuds, balanced blood sugar, and a whole lot of little plastic spoons.
Tasting more than a dozen different varieties of local honey in one sitting also demands the utmost focus, lest one lose track of which one has the light floral notes and which one smells like fresh-picked blueberries. After each sweet slurp, it is essential to remember to cleanse the palate with a cracker to give the next contender fair consideration.
The members of the Coastal Empire Beekeeper’s Association spend countless hours cultivating their hives and risking stings to collect the precious stuff, and it is not a task to be taken lightly.
A total of 38 samples were assessed with great scrupulousness last week at CEBA’s monthly gathering at Oatland Island, where the sweet entries were narrowed down to five outstanding specimens.
Still, the judging panel—comprised of Elizabeth on 37th executive chef Kelly Yambor, Food Day director Joanne Morton and this bona fide honey freak who buys it by the gallon—did not possess the official skills necessary to choose the final winner.
Fortunately, there was a professional in the house.
Clay “Bear” Kelley is a Certified Welsh Honey Judge, a title bestowed upon a dedicated scholar who has completed a rigorous protocol of training and stewardship that produces palates so refined they can detect the difference between honeys created from pollen from two different orange groves.
Honey shows are serious competitions worldwide, where Welsh honey judges wear white lab coats and jaunty white fedoras to signify their status. Entries judged by the Welsh method are examined for flavor as well as color, aroma, clarity, viscosity and cleanliness. A tiny piece of crystallization is cause for disqualification as is honey that’s too runny—a telltale sign of fermentation.
However, since CEBA has a number of beginning beekeepers and local Welsh judges are in short supply, the evening’s contest consisted of a single category.
“Tonight we’re just going to go with a Black Jar contest,” he informed the judges before the spooning commenced, pointing to a stack of small jars wrapped in black tape to obscure the color. “You’re going to base your scores solely on taste.”
He gave a crash course in the nuances of honey flavors, warning that undiluted, raw strains taste very different than the blended-down varieties found in the supermarket. Then, as Welsh quality standards dictate, he left the judges in the care of CEBA member Laura Lin in order to maintain his objectivity and the purity of the competition.
In addition to serving as a judging mentor, Kelley was also the guest speaker for the CEBA’s monthly gathering, clicking through a colorful Powerpoint presentation and offering advice on honey collection and overwintering to the 60 or so attendees who sat rapt.
Tall with a rumbling voice and generous belly, he resembles his sobriquet physically as well as in his fondness for honey. He waxed gloriously over honey’s myriad useful properties: It’s antibacterial, antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-allergen. It’s been used in medicine and to heal wounds since Roman times. And it can last for thousands of years as long as it’s stored properly.
But it’s the creatures that create it that are his true passion. Kelley operates a 10-hive apiary in Cordele, GA, tending to the bees as they go about their business of pollination and serving their queen. The retired military officer is also something of a papa bear to the beekeeping community and serves as the president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association and on the board of the American Bee Federation.
His wife, Marybeth, who often accompanies him on his many presentations throughout the state, says that while honey is a delicious perk of their shared hobby, it’s secondary to the thrill of watching how it’s made.
“We got hooked by the girls,” laughs Marybeth, reminding that all of the workers and foragers of any hive are female. Males, called drones, serve only to mate with the queen, “then die with a smile on their face.”
She and Bear want folks to appreciate that the beautiful ballet of bee life isn’t simply about what it produces, but its essential role in sustaining life on earth. Bees are responsible for pollinating the majority of food crops, and commercial almond farmers in California have taken to “renting” bee colonies from around the country to ensure maximum production.
The Kelleys’ concern for keeping hives healthy mirrors the widespread concern over colony collapses worldwide, many due to pesticides and chemical usage. Minnesota beekeepers experienced massive collapse last spring, and increased mosquito spraying due to fear of the Zika virus killed an estimated 3 million bees in South Carolina last month.
Marybeth says she understands the public health threat of Zika, but more care needs to be taken to protect the fragile systems that govern ecology and agriculture.
“It’s not just the bees. It’s killing all the pollinators—the butterflies, the moths, all of them,” she warns.
“People need to understand that if we don’t have pollinators, we don’t have food.”
One of the ways to combat this terrifying possibility is to cultivate more bees. Hobby-level urban beekeeping is on the rise in major cities across the U.S., and CEBA has seen an increase in membership since it became legal in 2015 across Chatham County with the adoption of the revised animal ordinance.
“We have a lot of new faces, and there’s a lot of interest,” said current CEBA president Greg Stewart, who began keeping bees in the 1980s when he lived across the street from the now defunct Savannah Science Museum. “We welcome folks to come to our meetings or one of our Saturday workshops.”
While cultivating happy bees is the objective for dedicated beekeepers, sharing their honey is one of the joys of the job. It can also be lucrative, since demand for local honey far surpasses supply. (Kelley stressed in his talk that beekeepers must always leave enough “liquid gold” for the bees to feed on during the winter months rather than feed them sugar water.)
“We want the club to be excited about honey competition and the Welsh method,” continued Stewart, who was only allowed to talk to the judges because he didn’t have a jar in the fight.
“We’re starting simple with the Black Jar contest, though we’d like to work up to adding more categories in the future.”
Learning about how hard both the bees and their keepers worked to yield the amber elixirs lined up across the table conferred an even greater sense of responsibility on the judges. After much deliberation and discarded spoons, the panel—aided by Chef Yambor’s eight year-old son, Leo— agreed upon its top five.
Bear stepped up to rank their order, first inhaling the aroma of each one then watching how quickly it drizzled back into the jar. Finally, his Welsh-trained tastebuds chose the winner: The champion honey came from Cynthia and David Linvill, former farmers who cultivate a couple of colonies in their midtown backyard.
The couple collected their certificate with quiet pride, though Cynthia denied any credit for their winning entry.
“All we did is collect it,” she demurred with a smile.
“It really is all about the bees.”