On the Trail of Tupelo Honey, Liquid Gold From the Swamps

ODUM, Ga. — The most expensive honey in America starts in these mucky Southern swamps, where white Ogeechee tupelo trees twist up out of water so dark you can’t tell if that was an alligator or a snake that just broke the surface.

For two precious weeks each spring in this slice of southeastern Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle, tupelo trees bloom with pale, fragile flowers that look like pompoms for tiny cheerleaders. Beekeepers tuck their hives along the banks, or occasionally float them out into the water on rafts. Then the bees get to work, making honey that looks and tastes like no other.

Good tupelo will glow with a light green tint, especially when it’s fresh from the comb and bathed in sunlight. The first taste is of cinnamon with a tingle of anise. That gives way to a whisper of jasmine and something citrusy — tangerine rind, maybe? The honey is so soft, light and buttery that the only logical move is to chase it with another spoonful.

“I love it, but it’s not something I can afford to use regularly,” said Kelly Fields, whom the James Beard Foundation recently named the year’s Outstanding Pastry Chef for work at her New Orleans restaurant, Willa Jean. “The real stuff is so sacred down here that if I ever got my hands on some, I’d probably keep it at home.”

Tupelo honey fresh from the comb has a distinctive light green tint.CreditStephen B. Morton for The New York Times
Because of the high ratio of fructose to gluclose, tupelo honey never crystalizes.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

Beekeepers who chase the tupelo bloom are a fiercely competitive and vanishing breed. All told, there are probably fewer than 200 beekeepers producing the honey in any notable quantities in Florida and Georgia, wholesale buyers and agricultural officials estimate. That doesn’t include hundreds of other beekeepers who might secrete a few hives along the riverbanks.

The honey-gathering season just ended, and it was a bad one, at least in Florida. In October, Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the contiguous United States in 26 years, made landfall in the heart of tupelo country. Wooden bee boxes were smashed into kindling or blown away. Trees were bent and stripped of their leaves. Blooms started five months early, if they came at all.

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Altamaha River

Apalachicola River




By The New York Times

“Put it this way: The tupelo trees got beat all to heck this year, so they couldn’t bloom right,” said Ben Lanier, 61, whose family has been producing honey in the swamps of the Apalachicola River basin in Gulf County, Fla., for three generations.

There’s not much about tupelo that Mr. Lanier doesn’t know. He was a consultant on the 1997 film “Ulee’s Gold,” in which Peter Fonda’s portrayal of a solitary, hard-bitten beekeeper with family trouble won him an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Ben Lanier, left, and Justin Sours inspect a beehive last year after several trees were knocked down by winds from Hurricane Michael in tiny Wewahitchka, Fla., one of the few communities that produce tupelo honey. CreditChris O’Meara/Associated Press

Mr. Lanier keeps about 500 hives. A good hive can produce 100 pounds of honey, but not if there are no flowers. Mr. Lanier was able to gather only a little bit of tupelo this year. So in order make a good showing this month at the Tupelo Honey Festival in Wewahitchka, Fla., he had to dig into reserves from last year, when the honey was flowing. Tupelo never goes bad, although it’s best in the first couple of years.

[Browse honey recipes on NYT Cooking.]

In 2018, he got $18 a pound for it. This year, there was a price war among the nine vendors at the festival. He ended up selling his at $12 — a real bargain for honey that can command $22.95 a pound online.

The men and women who make tupelo have more than weather to worry about. Encroaching development and battles between Florida and Georgia over water use have reduced the number of tupelo trees. There’s a constant threat from mites and diseases.

“You have to really fight being depressed,” Mr. Lanier said. “It’s a fickle thing anyway, making a living off insects.”

Tupelo trees, which produce small, nectar-filled light green and white flowers for two weeks each spring, rise out of swamps in the Altamaha River Basin in southeastern Georgia.CreditStephen B. Morton for The New York Times

Here in Georgia, about 260 miles away from Mr. Lanier’s home, the tupelo trees bloomed like crazy in the Altamaha River basin. Florida usually makes about 15 times as much tupelo honey as Georgia, but this year that ratio will change.

If you want to get into one of the South’s great culinary conflicts, try telling a Florida beekeeper that Georgia tupelo is just as good.

“It’s impossible to make good tupelo honey in Georgia,” Mr. Lanier said. “Ask my wife if you don’t believe me. It’s just so special. Real tupelo is rare, and I can tell you it’s not from Georgia.”

Ted Dennard, one of the biggest buyers of bulk tupelo in the country, has tasted great honey from both states. Florida normally has the edge, simply because it produces more. But this year, he said, the best will likely be out of Georgia.

Tupelo producers are among the food world’s toughest negotiators and most enthusiastic trash talkers.

In the well-kept hives tended by beekeeper Fred Merriam in Georgia, every bee has a job to do.CreditStephen B. Morton for The New York Times

“It’s just schoolyard behavior,” Mr. Dennard said. “These guys are the biggest group of characters ever. It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys. These guys love their bees and love their honey, but that’s about it. They are only loyal to one thing: the dollar.”

As they say in tupelo country, the honey is the money.

Mr. Dennard is the founder and head beekeeper of the Savannah Bee Company, which has 13 stores. He sold 37 tons of tupelo last year, some of it to wholesalers and the rest online or in stores. That includes 170 cases of “gold reserve” tupelo that he packages in 20-ounce bottles for $100, each one rolled in a sleeve of Canadian birch and sealed with wax from the same bees that made the honey. You can get it at luxury retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

His reserve on shelves now is from Georgia, and is more than 90 percent pure tupelo. Measuring pollen in a batch of honey can determine whether it contains sufficient quantities of tupelo nectar to qualify as tupelo. The International Commission for Bee Botany requires that honey contain more than 45 percent nectar from a single source in order to be labeled a varietal honey, like acacia or tupelo.

A good honey seller wouldn’t think of selling anything as tupelo that was less than 60 percent, said Mr. Dennard, who regularly sends samples to a German laboratory for testing.

To keep the honey as pure as possible, a beekeeper needs to monitor the day-to-day health of the blossoms and check the frames inside the hives regularly, pulling them out when they are heavy with honey. When the tupelo flowers start to fade, bees will move on to whatever blooms next, which here is often gallberry bushes.

“A lot of the time people send me honey they think is tupelo and it’s mainly gallberry,” said Dr. Vaughn Bryant, director of the palynology laboratory at Texas A&M University and by all accounts the nation’s pre-eminent honey tester.

He has never sampled tupelo from Georgia that was more than 52 percent tupelo. Florida’s samples have had higher tupelo pollen counts, but he concedes that not every producer sends in honey to test.

Frederick Merriam has been keeping bees full time since 2008. He makes honey, sells bees and uses his 1,000 hives to help pollinate crops.CreditStephen B. Morton for The New York Times

Frederick Merriam Jr., 48, is one of those beekeepers who can read the swamp so closely he knows exactly how to produce great Georgia tupelo without having to send it to a lab. He tested his honey when he first started, he said, and it registered as 86 percent pure. But he doesn’t bother anymore.

“It’s easy to fake some honeys, but tupelo you can’t mistake,” he said.

He and his wife, Jackie, own West Meadow Apiary in Tunbridge, Vt. They have nine children, ranging in age from 3 to 18, who live a nomadic, home-schooled life. For six months, the family stays in a southeastern Georgia house near the tupelo trees, surrounded by multicolored hives. The children help out with the business. By June, the family has moved north to Vermont, then returns in November.

The bees move, too. After Mr. Merriam finished the Southern honey season this month, he transported the hives by tractor-trailer to Maine to help pollinate the wild blueberry crop.

Mr. Merriam used to make carriages and sleighs in Vermont, a trade he learned from his grandfather and father, who was an Olympic medalist in equestrian combined driving. He once rebuilt a sleigh for the singer Bryan Adams. Martha Stewart loved his sleigh bells.

Before that, he studied to be a chef at Johnson & Wales University. Mr. Merriam had already started to keep bees when the recession took hold in 2008. He decided to go all in on bees, building up his hives, growing bees for sale and using them to pollinate crops and make honey.

He sells his tupelo only wholesale, except for some the family bottles up for its store in Vermont. “We never have enough,” he said. “It’s sold before we produce it.”

To get the honey, he places hives in 18 secret spots near the Altamaha River. Landowners he has befriended let him park them free, happy for a few jars of honey in return. He processed only about 16,000 pounds of honey this year. The swamps were drier than normal, he said, and the hurricane had hit parts of Georgia tupelo territory, too.

Brandon Tai, a former commodities trader and wine salesman, keeps about 150 hives around Atlanta and sells “ZIP code honey” to residents, along with rare Southern honey like tupelo and sourwood. His company is called Honey Next Door.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

About 10 percent of it will go to Brandon Tai, 42, a former commodities trader and wine salesman in Atlanta who turned to beekeeping and selling honey full time in 2017. Mr. Tai has about 150 hives in 15 neighborhoods around the city, and moves some to the Georgia mountains in summer to capture sourwood, another rare, expensive Southern honey produced in Appalachia. His company, Honey Next Door, sells what some people call ZIP code honey — gathered from the flowers in one neighborhood — at farmers’ markets and festivals. He also does a big mail-order business.

At the markets, he often has to explain tupelo honey to customers. “Literally everyone thinks it’s from Tupelo, Mississippi,” he said.

(European settlers originally called that city Gum Town because of its numerous black gum trees, which are also referred to as black tupelos. The city changed its name to Tupelo after a Civil War battle of the same name. It was incorporated in 1870, 101 years before Van Morrison released the song which you may be humming to yourself right now.)

When the Southern white tupelos are in bloom, Mr. Tai will drive three hours from Atlanta to help Mr. Merriam manage the bees and harvest honey.

Explaining why tupelo honey is so special is part of the work Mr. Tai does at local markets like this one in East Atlanta. CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

Mr. Tai cooks a lot with tupelo, which maintains its distinctive character even when mixed with other ingredients. He might whip it into cream with bourbon to spoon over lemon bread pudding, or mix it with Sriracha, soy sauce and a little apple cider vinegar as a dip for pot stickers. It’s also good simply poured over fresh Georgia pecans.

There is plenty of fake tupelo for sale, he warns. One way to tell it’s not the real thing is crystallization; tupelo’s high ratio of fructose to glucose makes it the only unfiltered honey that doesn’t form crystals. The faking or adulterating of honey is a wider problem, especially with some honey sold at grocery stores. It can also happen with specialty honey like tupelo and sourwood. “There’s way more sourwood sold than is actually made,” Mr. Tai said.

Sourwood honey, with its hint of caramel and gingerbread, has its fans. But to people like Mr. Merriam, nothing compares to tupelo.

“You can almost taste the culture of the forest and the sweetness of the swamp,” he said. “It’s one of those things that is just a part of the heartbeat of the place.”

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