International buzz: Asheville’s Black Jar Honey Contest supports global honeybee research

A MATTER OF TASTE: The Center for Honeybee Research's annual International Black Jar Honey Contest is unique in that it asks judges to evaluate through a blind tasting based solely on flavor and enjoyment.
A MATTER OF TASTE: The Center for Honeybee Research's annual International Black Jar Honey Contest is unique in that it asks judges to evaluate through a blind tasting based solely on flavor and enjoyment. Photo by Jack Sorokin

“I don’t make honey, and neither do my bees,” explains Carl Chesick as he passes a plate to a server clearing the table. “Bees just make wax; the honey is nectar from flowers. They may put in some enzymes to cure it, but bees didn’t make it — they are just incredible collectors.”

Those left at the table seem to be talking a little faster than usual, despite a two-hour lunch. But seeing as we’d spent the last few hours tasting samples of honey and silently weighing their merits, the frenetic sugar high is understandable. It was a long morning at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, tasting sample after sample in hopes of tallying a consensus for the winner of the sixth annual International Black Jar Honey Contest.

Chesick is executive director of the Asheville-based Center for Honeybee Research — an international organization that supports long-term pollinator research. He founded his organization in 2010 and has been hosting global honey competitions in Asheville since 2011. This year, he and his volunteers organized a panel of judges for the final evaluation event on Feb. 7, including chef Katie Button of Cúrate and Nightbell, food writer Stu Helm, Phyllis Stiles of Bee City USA, FEAST co-founder Cathy Cleary and yours truly.

Thirty honeys from around the world were selected as the 2017 finalists from among hundreds of submissions. At the final judging, numbered samples were arranged into regional categories and doled out to the judges by bee-costumed volunteers in a blind-tasting format in an effort to provide an unbiased assessment of each entry. Judges rated each honey on a scale of 1-10, based purely on enjoyment. The scores were then averaged to produce a regional champion for each category and one overall winner.

A ticketed public cocktail reception that followed the judging on Feb. 9 allowed guests to taste the entries and vote for a People’s Choice winner. But the coveted Black Jar trophy is awarded each year to the judges’ selection as best overall.

QUEEN BEE: In the 2017 Black Jar competition, the grand prize of $2,000 and the Black Jar trophy went to Rachel Coventry of Champaign, Ill.  Photo by Jack Sorokin
QUEEN BEE: In the 2017 Black Jar competition, the grand prize of $2,000 and the Black Jar trophy went to Rachel Coventry of Champaign, Ill. Photo by Jack Sorokin

The Black Jar competition differs from other honey evaluations in that it puts an emphasis on flavor, celebrates terroir and aims to solicit each judge’s subjective reactions. “State fair [contests] — where a lot of honey is ranked — look at the jar, look at the honey, and they see if there are air bubbles, etc., and all of these things tick off points,” says Chesick. “So you can wind up with a best-in-show honey that tastes like crap because taste is not part of their judging process.

“But as beekeepers,” he continues, “we’ve always felt that honey is about taste. So our deal is, if you can’t see it, and all you have to go on is a sense of taste, then that’s how we want to evaluate it. There’s no right or wrong in a sense of taste.”

Chesick also notes that the event is, as far as he knows, the only contest of its kind in the world that honors honeys from all over the globe. “You may not realize it, but there are a lot of beekeepers in almost every country, and their honey is unique to the flowering plants around them,” he points out. “There are 4 million beekeepers in Turkey, for example — compared to about 2.2 million in the U.S. — which is a country about the size of Texas. So we are just scratching the surface.”

He shares the story of a winner from a few years ago, a retired Merck Pharmaceutical representative from Knysna, South Africa. After winning the Black Jar trophy, Eddie Hart became perhaps the most famous beekeeper in South Africa, a particular shock to him, having simply packed his product in a plastic milk jug for safe keeping during the airmail journey to the other side of the world.

But the annual honey competition isn’t the focus of the Center for Honeybee Research; it is just a fundraiser. The daily work for Chesick and his volunteers is to monitor bee colonies around the world using tiny computers called Raspberry Pi, which record data and video of the hives. Chesick says there up to 150 hives around the world that regularly broadcast data to the CHBR, with participants in Australia, Ireland, France, Belgium, Norway and Italy, and he expects many more to join the initiative in the coming year.

“We don’t charge dues or have a membership,” he says of the organization. “It is open to anybody who is interested in bees.” And, appropriately, he has modeled the CHBR on the configuration of a hive. “Honeybees don’t have structured leadership,” he explains. “They see something that needs doing, and they do it — so some of the alpha bees that start something convince others to follow their example so that everything gets done. We’ve modeled the center around the same thing. If someone has the energy to volunteer, we let them take it away.”

That liberty allows for lengthier studies on pollinators. Long-term, unbiased research is a rare thing in the world of apian analysis, he says, noting that many bee researchers are facing drastic limitations that affect the scope of their studies. “They now have to find their own funding, they have to publish on a timeline to keep their jobs. So as a practical matter, they don’t want to spend time fundraising and applying for grants, so they usually find something simple that they can finish in six months,” Chesick says. “Well, none of those studies are very helpful in finding out what is really going on with bees. There’s no real incentive to tackle the harder problems.”

Beyond that, he adds, much of the funding for existing research was provided by companies that might have a vested interest in curating results rather than generating impartial research. “We need something that is a little bit more objective than our current system.”

The 2017 grand prize of $2,000 and the Black Jar trophy went to Rachel Coventry, a beekeeper with the Curtis Orchard farm in Champaign, Ill. This was Coventry’s second time to take home a prize at the Black Jar Honey Contest, but her first grand prize at the event. The people’s choice winner was Francesco Colafemmina of Puglia, Italy.

Regional and category winners hailed from places as far-flung as Israel, Italy and California. But local folks won accolades as well. The Southeast regional champion was Leigh Knott of Burnsville, the Clubs’ Champion for wildflower honey was Buncombe County Beekeepers member Colleen Thomas of Leicester, and the top prize for sourwood honeys went to “Sourwood” Sharry Mikell of Old Fort. Each category winner received $150.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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