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, and 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 love our guidelines and rules, so it is 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 rules 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.  

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 crystallized 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 whether the honey is ripe. 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 horizontally? 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 honeycomb 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 in 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 reflected by the honey will turn part of the scale white, creating a line that shows the water content. A beekeeper must ensure 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 correct, the combs are ready to be centrifuged to sweep the honey out of the combs.

However, it is not only the water content that allows German-made honey the seal of approval from 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 many rules and regulations. But the caution isn't unfounded. The valuable honey market is vulnerable to fraud, with fake or contaminated products passing as genuine honey frequently making it onto our shelves. An EU-coordinated action on honey adulterated with sugars was carried out between November 2021 and February 2022. Of 320 honey consignments tested throughout the EU, 46% were suspected to be adulterated.

If you want to be sure you're getting the real deal, strict guidelines and testing by countries like Germany might not be such a bad idea after all. 

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