IT WAS the Wild About Game afterparty, where the whiskey flows like beer, the chefs cross-pollinate with the artisans, and impromptu conversations in the keg queue can take one down the rabbit hole that is beekeeping.
Just minutes after meeting Damian Magista, founder of Bee Local, I'd been treated to a crash course in colony collapse, international "honey laundering," the importance of the forage radius, the physiological benefits of getting stung, and the reasons your mass-market honey-bear honey has no flavor. It was quite clear when talking to Magista that if the universe had a center, bees were there.
After gauging the sincerity of my interest, he lowered his voice and asked if I'd like to come taste some honey he had in his trunk. In this and only this context could the answer be yes.
As we tasted our way through a half-dozen jars, he spoke of how honey should be thought of like wine, with terroir and seasonality contributing easily differentiated flavor profiles to the honey of hives only miles apart. It reminded me of the time I spent last year with Portland's chocolate makers, who also face a public that lacks a vocabulary not just to communicate what they want out of the product, but also with which to think about the product in the first place. The honey on my table has always seemed to be the same golden, one-dimensional thing. I'd see an expensive jar of honey that purported to be drawn from bees who fed on orange blossoms or lavender, but doubted anyone really knew where the bees had been, and couldn't make myself pay boutique prices for it.
A week later found me in Magista's production facility in the low, gray industrial stretch west of Ladd's Addition. He had some two dozen honeys to sample. No two of them tasted the same: Ukrainian acacia honey and Oregon buckwheat honey are as starkly different as Sauvignon Blanc and tawny port. The Ukrainian sample—from a country with a rich and renowned heritage in beekeeping—finished with a Saltine-like flavor. Oregon buckwheat honey is challenging, connoisseur-level stuff, dark and barnyard-y and unrelenting, like sweetened natto.
"Let's go off the deep end," Magista says, producing a jar of Italian forest honey. It's made by bees who eat freshly secreted honeydew directly off the bodies of Italian aphids. The nose is unmistakably similar to Marmite, and the flavor is mossy and dank. "The blood of the forest," he says. The next jar is from bees who forage on meadowfoam, and tastes like pure vanilla and marshmallows—like the spread that children slather on peanut butter sandwiches. Soon it becomes clear we have palate fatigue, so we head across the hall to the tasting room of the Commons Brewery, which happens to have crafted a small-batch beer with some of Magista's honey. (Salt & Straw has been using Bee Local honey in its honey lavender ice cream for two years.)
Refreshed, we head back, and now he's a little more passionate and poetic. He thinks to himself for a moment, then asks me, "Hey, you want to try some early-season Creston-Kenilworth? This shit is amazing."
Harvested three months ago, it's from a hive he keeps just a mile away. It's pale, golden, and light bodied, the color of the clearest pilsner. It lands with a fruity, kiwi-like note, then dissolves into an herbaceous finish. From there we go to a bucket he strained that morning. It's from the same hive, but harvested just a few days ago. Thick and dark like molasses, it has a walloping orange citrus flavor, with an intense and astringent finish on the back of the throat. Noticing my astonishment at the difference, he describes his own eureka moment with honey.
"You know how a stargazer lily smells?" he asks me. "When I harvested my first batch of Mount Tabor honey, it tasted exactly like that. I was floored."
His second eureka moment was when he'd installed too many hives in his own yard, and asked a friend in the Brooklyn neighborhood to keep one. When he harvested that honey, the disparity between the flavors of the two hives hit him like a ton of bricks.
This raises the question of home beekeeping, which Magista speaks about with all the seriousness of a firearms instructor. He can't stand the idea of colonies suffering for want of education and training, and insists that prospective beekeepers take classes. Even then, "It takes at least three, four seasons [years] to get comfortable."
Happy to leave the hard work to the pros, I select a jar of the Mount Hood harvest to take home. It tastes unmistakably like elderflower, and is something I'd never have looked at twice the week before.
Visit beelocal.com for a list of shops that carry Bee Local's honey, and also a full list of beekeeping classes. Online sales also available.