Inside Our Food

When Honey is Good & Ready

Most of us enjoy honey and know the basics of the production. The bees produce the honey in their colonies, beekeepers take the honey (in their fancy suits) and centrifuge it to get to the sweet goodness.

Turns out there is more to producing honey, especially in Germany. You might know that we Germans (I’m German, just fyi) love our guidelines and rules, so it comes as no surprise that we also have them for honey.

In Germany, there is a honey directive (HonigV)1 that regulates  honey and its content, like how much water is allowed to be present. The ‘German Beekeeper Association’ has even stricter regulations, and only by sticking to their regulations can beekeepers label their honey as “real German honey”. For example the water content of honey is one of the factors regulated.

But why is the water content of honey so important?

We’ve all heard the rumour at some point, that honey can’t go bad. Well, it actually can.

If the water content is too high the water can allow conditions for yeast to grow and then the honey will start fermenting.  Quite frankly, fermented honey does not sound that appetizing.

In the “HonigV”  the maximum water content is 20% for most types of honey. Only “Heather Honey” can have 23%. To get the “Real German Honey” seal these numbers are a bit lower with a maximum of 18% of water (preferably between 15-18%). 2,3 

If the water content is under 15%, the honey might not reach its fine crystalized structure and might become too hard. And, a honey that is too hard does not achieve its full aromatic potential.3

The humidity, more often than not, depends on if the honey is ripe or not. The ripeness of the honey can be identified in a few different ways, one is the refractometer (explained later).

Other methods include a ‘splash’ test. Does the honey splash out of the open combs when compressed and held horizontal? If yes, then it is not ripe yet. Of course, this is not the most accurate test though. 4

Another sign of ripe honey is if the bees have already sealed 2/3 of the honey comb with a thin layer of wax. Again, not the most accurate sign, because they can start sealing earlier, meaning the honey can still be over 18% humidity. 4

So, what’s a refractometer?

Photo Credit: Jane Alice Liu 

Measuring the water content of honey with a hand-held refractometer is a bit of an art itself.

A refractometer is based on how light is refracted in a liquid. Essentially, it’s like a tiny microscope. A dot of honey is wiped onto a glass plate, covering the entire plate. It is then angled towards the light. Inside the refractometer is a scale (often blue), and the light that is reflected by the honey will turn part of the scale white, creating a line that shows the water content. A beekeeper needs to make sure that he or she tests honey samples from both the middle of the comb and the outside to ensure an even water content. 5

An important note is that the honey should be clear. If it is not clear, it needs to be heated until it becomes clear. Otherwise the light wouldn’t be broken properly. 

If the moisture is right, the combs are ready to be centrifuged to sweep the honey out of the combs.

Bonus Fact

But, it is not only the water content that allows a honey made in Germany the seal of approval by the German Beekeeper Association. Fructose and glucose content, saccharose content and many more factors are also important. And let’s not forget that honey is distinguished by the flower bees use as their source (e.g. rapeseed honey must have a certain percentage of pollen from the rapeseed plant). 

So, honey in Germany is surrounded by a lot of rules and regulations (like everything else too). Do you think it’s worth it? Let us know how it works in your country in the comments below!

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