Hive & Keeper: Putting British honey, the bees and the beekeepers back on the map

British honey is a reflection of the magical isle that the bees inhabit – rich, diverse and spectacular with the taste, colour and textures varying widely, from dark brown to almost white, from spicy to nutty and fruity, and from runny smooth to set with a granular bite. Honouring the colourful and epic journey of the bees, and capturing their essence in their most natural state is Emily Abbott, London beekeeper and founder of Hive & Keeper.

Hive & Keeper pays homage to the diversity of British honey by offering consumers limited-edition British raw honeys from small-scale beekeepers. Each honey is taken straight from the hive, left as the bees made it and in its purest state. Each jar of honey provides a snapshot in time of the bees, landscape and weather.

What started as a hobby for the south London born-and-raised Emily Abbott has now turned into a business. “I started beekeeping as a hobby because I love bees and I find them fascinating,” Emily Abbott explains, having taken up beekeeping more than five years ago. It was when the Hive & Keeper founder progressed to having two hives in her own back garden that she discovered that “no two honeys ever taste the same”.

“I had always assumed that honey from an area would always taste the same but it didn’t,” she says. “Whenever I took it from the hives or even between them it was always different and always so much nicer than anything, and anything in the supermarket.”

It was this realisation that honeys are different that led Emily Abbott on a mission to bring that excitement to other people and that sense of discovery. The Londoner spends a great deal of time visiting apiaries up-and-down the country in her quest to bring the varying taste sensations that British honey offers to consumers, while also championing the bees and the small-scale beekeepers that look after them.

In the UK, there are over 40,000 smaller-scale beekeepers ranging from people like Emily Abbott with one or two hives to people with 200 hives. Hive & Keeper currently works with 30 small-scale beekeepers across the UK. Emily Abbott personally visits each apiary and the surrounding area to see where the honey comes from, and to learn as much as she can about the bees and beekeeper that made it. Once she’s made her assessment, she then purchases honey from the beekeeper, which is quite often surplus honey which would otherwise go to waste.

She explains: “For many of them [small-scale beekeepers], Hive & Keeper has been really good because they sell their honey perhaps locally to the local shop – there’s only so much the local shop can take.

“You can’t stop bees from producing honey – if the nectars are there, they will just carry on and on and on until its gone – so some beekeepers have a lot of honey but not the market to get to, and that just feels dreadful to me and such a waste.

“By me buying the honey and being able to access national retailers or people out of their area, I’m able to buy their honey from them at a decent price. I pay them a proper price for doing a proper job and that allows them to put it back into their business. I want to get to a place where dairy co-operatives are effectively – where they guarantee to buy a farmers milk. I want to be able to guarantee to buy X or Y keepers’ honey and to get it onto the shelves of supermarkets across the country so people can buy proper British honey.”

What is particularly special about Hive & Keeper is that Emily Abbott puts a lot of love and energy into telling the story of each honey. A storyteller at heart, the Hive & Keeper founder labels every single jar of honey with a retrospective of the honey – the bees that made it, the beekeeper and a little bit on what the bees have been foraging on. Customers also get a description of all the differences and varieties in taste of each honey.

Meeting the beekeepers has taken the beekeeper and steward to places that she never knew existed and to meet people that she’d never met before. “They’re all so different and we’re all joined by a common fascination with bees – which is a lovely thing and I love bringing those stories to people as well,” she says.

“I buy the honey in buckets you see, it’s an unglamourous thing,” she laughs. “I love the fact that on each jar, all I have to do is warm it gently to no more than the temperature within a hive so that it can pour into a jar and then I label it and leave it. People love the stories – they love the fact that the honeys are completely raw or pure – they love the differences in it, that’s exciting.”

Hive & Keeper stocks honeys from small-scale beekeepers from all corners of the country, but a honey type that Emily Abbott holds dear to her heart is that which comes from her home city. A proud Londoner, and London beekeeper herself, Emily Abbott says: “If you ask a London beekeeper about their honey, we are terribly proud about our honey. London honey is known for being a very floral honey and complex – it’s because of the huge variety of plants that we have around us. Anyone can almost be a beekeeper without keeping bees if they just plant plants really.”

“We never think of an urban environment as being green but actually in London, we’re lucky as we’ve got railway sidings which are left unsprayed and grow wild,” she continues. “We’ve got the parks, scraplands, gardens – we’ve got so much actually. London honeys tend to be a much stronger tasting honey.”

A weekend course on beekeeping held by the London Beekeper’s Association gave Emily Abbott the “beekeeping break” that she required to kickstart her own career. “Part of the course, they offer you mentoring afterwards so you follow an experienced beekeeper over weekends – I loved it,” she reminisces. “I would have carried on following her around for years but in the end it was like ‘get your own bees, you can do it now’. They gave me a nucleus – which is a small colony – and I drove across London and Brixton in my bee suit just in case they all spilled out in the car,” she candidly describes.

In the three years that Hive & Keeper has been in business, it has developed a loyal following through the various outlets it sells to including Farmdrop, Not On The High Street, the National Trust, and Hive & Keeper’s own website, among others. Hive & Keeper also offers its customers a Honey Club Subscription, with 12 totally unique jars of British raw honey sent to subscribers over the course of a year. It is a fantastic way to introduce honey lovers to British honey, something that has been missing from the shelves of supermarkets and shops across the country.

In fact it is through my conversation with the very knowledgeable and animated Emily Abbott that I find out that a “staggering 40% of honey sold in the UK is from China”. Moreover, only 7% of the honey sold in the UK is from British bees. Currently there are only around 250 bee farmers in the UK who are producing huge amounts of honey, which goes to large companies like Rowse.

According to Hive & Keeper, the majority of honey in the shops in the UK is filled with a blend of different imported honeys designed to keep the flavour constant from jar to jar. Also the number of bee hives in the UK is down 18% from 2014 to 2016. Bees and other pollinators are in dramatic decline due to the destruction of wild habitats, disease and pesticide use. And it’s predicted that the UK will lose 6,000 beekeepers between 2017-19.

These are all startling facts that few people in the UK, honey consumers especially, are even aware of. This is where Emily Abbott, as a beekeeper and bee champion, is taking responsibility of raising awareness and getting that information out there.

“On each jar of honey, I’ve put on the sides of our new packaging that ‘7% of honey sold in the UK is British and the rest is imported’,” Emily Abbott explains. “So if you look on the back of labels of honey in supermarkets, the labelling just has to say whether it’s an EU or non-EU blend, so really they could be coming from all over the place and you just don’t know what you are getting. China produces about four times as much honey as the EU – how they do it, I don’t know – because their number of bees is declining – they are pollinating crops by hand. I just don’t understand where it’s actually coming from.

“It raises questions and doubts in my mind and others’ and so I suppose that’s why it’s important to me that I go and visit the beekeepers and that I really know where the honey comes from – I’ve seen the landscape, I’ve seen the bees and I’ve seen the beekeeper, and none of its blended.”

The change that Emily Abbott would really like to see is a switch in consumer behaviour and to get more British honey into the spotlight and into the shops and supermarkets. A large part of this change in consumer behaviour is about raising awareness of the true nature of honey as well as the differences in taste.

“The other part is educating people about what honey should look like and how it should be. Honey should crystallise, crystallising is a completely natural process,” Emily Abbott adds. “We’re educated to expect the same thing and for a particular look whereas if we are eating raw honey they will all look a little bit different – they will all taste a little bit different even if they are within a main fruity or caramel-y category and they will all crystallise in a different way and at different speeds depending on what plants and nectars have gone into it. It’s absolutely fine for honey to crystallise – crystallising is a good sign – if your honey is crystallising, it means there’s enough honey in it – you know it’s not sugar syrup – it’s not filtered, it’s not slowed down – it’s doing exactly what it should do so it’s a good thing.”

A major part of Hive & Keeper’s mission is to increase the proportion of British honey that the UK is consuming from 7% to even 10%. “That’s 4 million jars of honey, that’s quite a lot,” says Emily Abbot. “I work with about 30 beekeepers at the moment and what I really want is to build that to 1000s really. So that means I need to be something other than a small-scale enthusiast – and so, the ultimate aim is to be working with national retailers on a large scale and to give all of the local small-scale beekeepers that I work with through Hive & Keeper, the platform to get their honey out in the market.”

One way Emily Abbott hopes to take the honeys nationally and into supermarkets is through the flavour. “People expect to have the same flavours – this is my main challenge in terms of going national. And if you think of how they [supermarkets] operate they are not going to take 100 jars of this and 100 jars of that. So I have to find a way to make the honey homogenous enough to be able to go through that sort of system,” she explains. “The way that I’m intending to do it – the way that I think it can be done is through the flavour – that I could say to them that because I have such a large network of beekeepers, I could say I can find you a fruity honey and keep you on a fruity honey for example. I can’t say whether it will be a certain variety – but on that palette there will be nothing else but fruity honey. As long as people are looking for a certain flavour, people buy by flavour.”

The task requires Emily Abbott to spread her wings both far-and-wide – a challenge which she embraces without hesitation. The Hive & Keeper founder is both humble and enthusiastic, and with the integrity that she has so graciously built up with her business, Emily Abbott is destined to succeed. “I really do have a feeling that it will expand,” she says intuitively. “It does make sense on so many levels – people on every single side also agree – I don’t feel like I’m pushing at a closed door or anything like that.”

Hive & Keeper honeys are available online from Hive & Keeper

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea

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