We recently were announced as the Grand First Prize Winner of the 10th Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest held in Asheville, USA. So, we’re told we can claim that our honey is the ‘Best Tasting Honey in the World”.
Kia ora! I’m Brenda Tahi CEO of Manawa Honey NZ and I’m still getting over the shock of winning this contest. I know I have just shared the story of our awards here in the NZ Outstanding Food Producer Awards, but we’ve been told to get out there and tell the world about our accomplishments. So no shying away from it – here we go… I’m going to share here with you our story in entering this unique contest, covering:
- What got us thinking ‘honey contests’?
- Why The Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest?
- The Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest in 2021
- How do you judge honey by its taste?
- The provenance of honey
- The finals for the 10th Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest
- The Best Tasting Honey in the World!
- What next for Manawa Honey NZ?
- Thank you from Manawa Honey NZ
This all started back in 2020 when Covid-19 had hit New Zealand and was ravaging much of the world. At first, with the panic buying in supermarkets, honey sales took a leap up but we soon found that this was short-lived. As soon as our Covid lockdown began in New Zealand, with borders closed and orders to stay-at-home, honey sales in the domestic market slumped.
Quick visits to supermarkets for essentials; no tourist to buy honey; checks on spending for those who lost jobs – these were all factors in depressing sales of honey in New Zealand. It was a sobering time for us at Manawa Honey NZ, as we had been focused on supplying the New Zealand market, and had not taken a focus on exporting, where prospects for honey were much better in a Covid-battered world.
We had to think up new ways to position us well for recovery from the Covid period, and it was in this process that we decided to enter some contests to get our honey better known. Our research on the topic found that most contests in 2020 were cancelled because of Covid, and had been pushed out into 2021. That’s OK, we thought. That gives us time to prepare our entries, and allowed us to deal with pressing issues such as continuing operations in a Covid lockdown environment.
Our research on honey contests identified a number to enter but the Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest held in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, stood out for us. The organisers of the contest are the Center of Honey Bee Research based in Asheville, who were particularly helpful in dealing with our enquiries about the contest and encouraged us to enter.
The contest is held annually, and started from small beginning 10 years ago, so it’s reputation is growing but it has not as yet reached its potential. The key drivers for us entering this contest worked out to be:
- This contest is international.
- This contest focuses solely on taste.
- The organisation that runs this contest has a driving philosophy that we admire.
Our research found only three honey contests that could be deemed to have the status of international. The Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest is of course one of these.
Another international honey contest is that of Apimondia which is the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations. This organisation promotes apicultural development across the globe and holds it congress with a honey contest every two years. The next one is to be held in 2022, and yes, we’ll be looking to enter this honey contest too!
In most honey contests, a number of aspects of the honey, other than taste, are key to judging. Honey is judged on moisture content, conductivity, clarity, presence of foam and particles, with points being deducted for each defect found. The honey may also be tested for other aspects such as pollen content, sugar profile or diastase levels. In such honey contests, taste sometimes does not count for much, and indeed a winner can emerge where the honey doesn’t even taste very good!
In contrast, the Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest is set up to rely solely on the taste of each entry. The honey jars are covered in black fabric so the judges cannot see the visual characteristics or what’s in the honey. This form of judging is adopted because the organiser want to highlight the unique flavours that come different flowers, and to showcase the honey varieties and flavours that can be found all over the world.
We’ve been told by so many of our customers that our honeys are just the best when it comes to taste. So, we felt that this was the contest for us!
This special honey contest is the initiative of the Center for Honeybee Research, which is based in Asheville, North Carolina USA. North Carolina has one of the highest concentrations of beekeepers in the United States, and there’s more in and around Asheville than anywhere else. It’s no wonder that this city has become renowned for its beekeeping culture such that it was declared the first official Bee City for the USA in 2012.
The Center for Honeybee Research is “a grassroots, educational, research organization founded to collect objective data in an open-sourced, non-proprietary platform for the benefit of researchers, beekeepers, and policy makers — to ensure the survival of the honeybee”(1). It’s a charitable organisation and driven largely by the work of volunteers with passion for beekeeping and the wellbeing of bees.
The Center explains that their focus on survival of the honey bee “is necessary because honeybee colonies are failing to survive winter as never before in their 50 million-year history.” The Center is dedicated to “taking the lead in systematically collecting scientific data to give us answers to the pressing issues plaguing the honeybee”
We admire the grassroots nature of this organisation, its research focus, and its generosity in doing what it does for the good of the world. They hold a philosophy that we would like to be associated with, albeit through their honey tasting contest.
So it was that we entered this honey contest with our range of honeys from Te Urewera, our homeland forests at the heart of the North Island of New Zealand. For the 2021 contest, entries had to be submitted by the end of December 2020, so we sent our entries off to Asheville USA late last year, and then we waited for results that were not due until June 2021.
Since inception, the contest has grown to involve hundreds of entries from countries all over the world. The exact number of entries is not public information, but I estimate over 600 entries for the contest this year, and each year the number of entries is growing. In past years, the majority of entries would come from the USA, but in 2021, other countries of the world accounted for more than half of all entries.
With all entries in by the middle of winter in Asheville, the judging begins in the spring, with preliminary rounds run in the same way as the final. At least five judges are involved in each round of the process. The scores are averaged across the judges scores and then roughly half of the entries move forward to the next round and other half are eliminated.
Multiple rounds of judging are undertaken to get down to the last 30 entries for the final event in the contest, which are the cumulative highest scorers in ten categories. These categories are selected based on an overview of all the entries received that year, and it is different each year.
In this contest, judges are not allowed to see the honey, or to know the category or location of where honey was produced. Codes are used to identify the honey entries, and these are not decoded until the final results are announced.
To obscure the honey inside the jar, black cloth bags are tied around the jars or the jars are wrapped in paper, giving this type of contest its name. Further, judges are not allowed to discuss or reveal their impressions of the honey they are tasting through facial expression or comments.
The judges are ‘spoon-fed’ the honey samples by servers who dip the honey with plastic straws that are black so that the judges cannot see the colour of the honey, and which impart no additional taste or texture to the taste experience. Fruit, crackers, and mild cheese are provided along with water to help cleanse the judge’s palettes.
The contest uses servers for this tasting process, as otherwise most judges dip too much honey at a time, which results in ‘wash-out’ where their palate is quite simply overwhelmed.
In general, each judging is limited to no more than 40 honeys in order to avoid the issue of ‘wash-out’. Judges receive a score sheet with the entries’ index numbers and they rate each on a subjective scale of 1-10, with 10 being “heavenly” and 1 being “I can’t believe you put that in my mouth (lol!)”.
With experience gained over the years in this honey tasting contest, the organisers have observed diverse opinions of the same honey that they can only put down to genetic differences in the human palate. This is why, for each round of judging in this contest, the panel consists of at least five judges.
Judging honey by taste is challenging and tantalises the judges to try and work out where the entrant honeys come from. Honey is made through bees collecting and dehydrating flower nectar. (See our article this topic here).
Every type of honey tastes different depending on the terroir – the apiary’s micro-climate, soil type, geomorphology, weather and nectar sources. So, each year, like wine, honey tastes different depending on the particular flowering, weather and moisture conditions of that season.
One judge commented in a past contest: “What I noticed most about the honeys was acid. Even the least complex could have a lot of acid to them, and then some of them were very rich and lush. I was really trying to identify the provenance of each one.”
In a similar vein, another judge in that same year noted: “The honeys we tasted ranged from mild and sweet to herbal and complex to funky and almost fermented. Tasting these honeys allowed us to taste the essence of the land and what was growing on it – a true ‘terroir.’”
In this way the Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest can certainly be said to be a great celebration of the diversity of tastes of honey that can come from the floral sources and terroir of different parts of the world.
The entire judging process is conducted at the final event for this contest held in Asheville, USA. In 2021, Covid restrictions limited attendance for this event to just 30 people.
In 2021, nine judges formed the panel to judge the final 30 entries. The process for judging the final ensures that they operate under ‘blind conditions’:
- The judging panel is served all thirty honey entry samples.
- They have water and snacks such as fruit, bland cheeses and crackers to act as palate cleansers.
- Their sheet indicates the categories but they are not told what these categories are.
Once the scores are in, judges take a break and the winners in each category are calculated. Then the judges come back and re-taste the ten Category Winners to identify the winner of the Grand Prize.
The results are then taken by the director of the Center for Honey Bee Research, Carl Chesick, who then ‘decodes’ the arbitrary four digit numbers used for identification of the entries in order to announce the Winners in each Category and the final Grand Prize Winner.
You can imagine our excitement, disbelief even, when we received notice of the final results for this contest. We were announced overall Grand First Prize Winners with our Rewarewa Honey for which we now have the ‘bragging rights’ as the Best Tasting Honey in the World.
Our Rewarewa Honey is undoubtedly an outstanding honey that comes from the honeysuckle tree indigenous to New Zealand. We have great groves of the Rewarewa tree in parts of our forests of Te Urewera, that give us a rich amber full-flavoured honey that consistently won the judge’s favour in this competition. We also think of our Rewarewa Honey as ‘beyond Mānuka’ as it is packed full of health-giving properties, from anti-biotic and anti-oxidant to anti-inflammatory.
As an added bonus, two of our other honeys got to the finals in the category “Far World” – Tāwari Honey and Pua-ā-Tāne Wild Forest Honey. You can view all of the results for the 2021 Black Jar International Honey Tasting Contest here.
You will note that the named winner in these official results is Hekenoa (Taawi) Te Kurapa, our Chief Beekeeper. Hekenoa leads our team of beekeepers and ensures that our bee hives are placed to harvest the best honey that we can get each season, so it is only right that he gets this credit.
This contest makes the awards to the beekeepers who have kept the hives and harvested the winning honeys as the organisers of the contest prefer to foster recognition of beekeepers rather than brands or companies. We thought this was an admirable approach to these awards as often the beekeepers, upon whose skill honey brands heavily depend, can often become invisible behind the face of a honey brand.
We’re feeling like this is the ultimate prize to win in 2021. So our first task now is to promote our achievement and spread the word about our Rewarewa Honey as the ‘World’s Best Honey’ and our Tāwari and Pua-ā-Tāne Wild Forest Honey as finalists in this contest. The Center for Honey Bee Research in Asheville, USA has stated their commitment to supporting us in doing this. So a lot of work in front of us.
We think it is important for us and our customers to continue to gain objective confirmation of the quality of our honey. So we are considering another international competition, not to be held until next year. This will be another opportunity for us to test how our honeys fare on this international stage.
Meantime we have entered our honeys into other contests in 2021 and will await those results.
The achievements here are a tribute to all of the team at Manawa Honey – from beekeepers to marketing and office support. Their efforts and developing skill over these years have now produced a world-class winning honey.
It’s also a tribute to all of you out there – whanau, friends, advisors and supporters. Your support has not been in vain. The world is beginning to find out just what you have been telling us all this time… Thank you all for this, we are deeply grateful for all the support and encouragement!
OK, if you’re interested in the World’s Best Tasting Honey – the winner Rewarewa Honey, then here you go…