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What is Tupelo Honey?

You most likely have heard of Tupelo honey. This famous honey has made its way into multiple pop culture references, including the 1997 movie Ulee’s Gold, a film that follows a beekeeper and his family troubles. Both the famous 1971 Van Morrison album and title track, Tupelo Honey, written in Woodstock, New York, and Tim McGraw’s song, Southern Girl, mention love interests as sweet as Tupelo honey. But what exactly is Tupelo honey? What makes it stand out among the rest? Why has it been referred to as the champagne, or the Cadillac of honey? 

Tupelo honey is the blissful result of many different aspects of nature and labor coming together during a short period of time. Together Mother Nature, geography, and skilled beekeepers come together at just the right time to yield this sweet substance. 

Geography

One common misconception is that Tupelo honey hails from the city of Tupelo, Mississippi. Tupelo honey is only commercially produced in a specific geographic region of Southern Georgia and the Florida panhandle, home to the Apalachicola River Basin. This system of  winding rivers and swamps creates the perfect environment for Nyssa ogechee, also known as the White Tupelo, Ogechee Lime, or White Gum Tupelo tree, to thrive in large numbers. The roots and bases of this tree prefer to stay submerged in water. Most years, there is a Tupelo Honey festival held in the town of Wewahitchka, Florida. This area is notorious for its Tupelo Honey production, and here, beekeepers from the surrounding area come to show off their best product. There is a bit of a rivalry between which state, Georgia or Florida, produces the best of the best when it comes to Tupelo honey.

Environmental Risks

This region and its unique ecosystem have faced environmental factors that have led to a steady decline in Tupelo honey production since the mid 1900s. The New York Times now estimates that there are less than 200 beekeepers producing commercial amounts of Tupelo honey, as of 2019. Dams built along the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers and an increase in agriculture in Southwest Georgia have led to a decline in the floodplain and tributaries of the Apalachicola River. A 2006 U.S. Geological Survey Report, "Water-Level Decline in the Apalachicola River Florida from 1954 to 2004 and Effects on Floodplain Habitats”, shows the loss of 3.7 million white Ogeechee tupelo trees due to the increasing lack of floodplain water flow since 1954. Another U.S. Geological Survey Report, “Drier Forest Composition Associated With Hydrologic Change in the Apalachicola River Floodplain, Florida”, describes the loss of at least 44 percent of Ogeechee tupelo trees from 1976 to 2004. In October 2018, category 4 hurricane Micheal came through the river basin area of Florida and Georgia, and damaged beehives and Tupelo trees, throwing off the normal Spring bloom schedule and resulting in a poor harvest season. In addition to the normal threats to beehives, such as mites, pesticides, and Colony Collapse Disorder, the increasing commercialization and development along these river basins, a decrease in floodplain water levels, and other environmental factors like hurricanes, could lead to the production of Tupelo honey continuing to decrease over time.

Harvest Season

Historically, beekeepers constructed and used wooden barges to float their hives on, right in the rivers and swamps, as close as possible to Tupelo trees. In order to get their beehives on these floating barges, they had to transport their hives on boats. These days, it is more common that beekeepers use land located close to the river’s edge, and place their hives there, eliminating the extra labor of the boat to barge hive transport. Land close to the river’s edge is high in value to the beekeepers, and is either passed down through generations, or negotiated between beekeepers and landowners. The promise of a few jars of pure, fresh Tupelo honey in exchange for a few weeks of hive housing is one I, myself, would not turn down!

Beekeepers have to act right on schedule, as Tupelo trees only bloom for a few weeks between April and early May each spring. If the environmental conditions aren’t just right, and it is too windy, too dry, or too rainy, this window will be shortened. These imperfect conditions will disrupt the bees ability to collect the pollen and nectar necessary for a good harvest. Other plants and trees, such as the Black Tupelo, Ti-ti, Black Gum, and Willow bloom just before the desired Ogechee Tupelo tree, and beekeepers must make sure they empty their hives at just the right time and replace them with empty frames. The same goes for the end of the few week window, as other plants, such as Gallberry begin to bloom. The bees do not differentiate between one plant and another, and follow whatever nectar source is available at the time. It is up to the beekeeper’s perfect timing to ensure the honey harvest is truly monofloral. Vaughn Bryant, the director of palynology at Texas A&M, where he tests the exact pollen and nectar makeup of honey, says many samples people send to him believing to be Tupelo, are often Gallberry. This means the beekeeper’s timing of emptying the hives, both before and after, was off. This demonstrates the importance of environmental observance required of successful beekeepers.

Taste

Tupelo honey is unique for its high fructose to glucose ratio. Because of this ratio, raw Tupelo honey is very slow to, and rarely ever crystallizes. The higher fructose to glucose ratio also makes Tupelo honey one of the sweeter honey options. Fructose is less taxing on your body than some other forms of sugar, and less likely to result in any “sugar crash”. Fresh Tupelo honey, straight from the hive, takes on a slightly green hue, due to the green pollen of the trees. Tasting notes include at first, a touch of cinnamon, then jasmine or citrus, before opening to a light and buttery sweet finish. We suggest trying it paired with a lightly oxidized oolong tea, such as Nantou Four Seasons, our June Tea of the Month. Or try it as a sweetener in our summer tea "sangria" recipes!

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How to Substitute Honey for Sugar in Baking

Sugar has a bit of a complicated socio-political history, and its reputation has only gotten more complicated in recent years with studies linking sugar consumption to heart disease and other chronic illnesses. 

So, it should come as no surprise that lots of us are looking for other alternative sweeteners like honey or maple syrup to flavor our cookies, cakes, tea, and coffee. 

Honey is an excellent and much healthier substitute for sugar in baked goods and cooking, but swapping honey for sugar is not without its challenges. Read on for our recommendations on how to make your favorite recipes with honey instead of sugar!

 baking with honey - a rustic baking scene featuring a bowl with flour, eggs, honey, and other ingredients in unmarked jars for baking

How to Substitute Honey for Sugar in Baking or Cooking

There is no magic ratio for substituting honey for sugar because they are not equivalent ingredients (honey is a liquid while sugar is dry; honey is sweeter than sugar, etc.), but as a general rule use 1/2-2/3 cup of honey for every 1 cup of sugar... then follow the guidelines below to make sure your recipe still rises and doesn't burn!

Rules for Swapping Honey for Sugar in Baking and Cooking

1. Choose your honey wisely.

Anyone who's spent time doing the rounds in our honey room knows that honey comes in all sorts of colors and flavors. From our light and delicate Acacia honeys to the rich and dark Black Forest, each honey has its own character and flavor profile.

When baking or cooking with honey, it's important to take things like color and flavor into account. Just like you probably wouldn't sub brown sugar for granulated sugar, you might not want to sub a dark honey like Buckwheat in a recipe where the honey's robust and molasses-like flavor will overpower the other ingredients or make your batter oddly dark.

For everyday substitutions, we love the sweet and buttery flavor of our Alfalfa honey. Some quick breads like banana or zucchini bread might benefit from using Black Forest or Buckwheat honeys, but we recommend starting lighter and working your way around the color spectrum until you find your perfect fit!

2. Honey is much sweeter than sugar, so use 1/2 - 2/3 cup honey for every cup of sugar in your recipe. 

Because honey is sweeter than sugar, you might not want to substitute at a 1-1 ratio (even though you can up to one cup). We recommend experimenting with a ratio of 1/2 - 2/3 cups honey to 1 cup sugar. 

It's also worth noting here that a lot of American recipes tend to call for more sugar than they actually need, so don't be afraid to err on the low side with the sweetener!

3. Honey is a liquid ingredient, so you will need to adjust other liquid measurements.

Generally, you should subtract 1/4 total from your liquid ingredients for every cup of honey. Make sure you do this evenly, as baking is quite a bit like chemistry and things like fat content really matter!

4. Honey burns at a lower temperature than sugar, so don't forget to adjust your oven temp!

We recommend lowering your oven temp by about 25 degrees F when baking with honey. This will keep your baked good from getting too dark before it's finished baking through.

5. Add extra baking soda, even if it's already in the recipe. Trust us.

Adding 1/4 tsp of baking soda for every cup of honey will help balance the flavor, and because honey is acidic the baking soda-acid reaction will add a nice rise to your baked good!

6. Make your measuring cups and spoons non-stick.

Honey is very sticky, so using some crisco or oil to make your measuring tools non-stick is very helpful in the baking process!

Now it's up to you to get baking - share your successes and failures with us on Instagram, Facebook, or via email

 Click through CTA with "Shop Honey for Baking" Superimposed over image of dripping honey

 

 

Does Honey Go Bad?

honey dripping into a blue and white watercolor teacup from a wooden honey dipper

Unsurprisingly, we hear the question "Does honey go bad?" fairly often in our Honey Room. In an era when almost everything has an expiration date or a best-by date on it, it's a little disconcerting to pick up a jar and not see a date telling you when you should really think about cleaning it out of the cupboard (then putting it back in, saying you'll use it for something later in the week, and forgetting about it until the next time you pick it up, look at the date and repeat the cycle - anyone else? Just me?). Well anyway, the short answer is it's totally fine to pull out the honey, look at it in wonder, and put it back in the cupboard - because the shelf-life of honey just might be forever.  

Does Honey Ever Expire?

Wondering if honey will expire and whether or not crystallization means your honey has gone bad are two of our most frequently asked honey-related questions here in the shop!

To address both questions: raw honey does not expire and crystallization does not mean your honey is bad! 

But just to prove it to you, we're going to delve into the science of why honey never goes bad (and, just to be contrary, when it might). 

The Science: Why Honey Doesn't Go Bad

Raw honey is unlike anything else in your pantry - even other similar items like molasses. So what is it, precisely, that makes honey shelf-stable for eons? (Yes, literal eons... archeologists are pulling perfectly edible honey out of Egyptian tombs and even found 5500-year-old linden honey in Georgia!) 

The chemistry behind honey's extraordinary shelf-life

As sweet as it is, honey is very unhospitable to bacteria and microorganisms that make other foodstuffs spoil. Honey is a sugar, which means it is hygroscopic (containing very little water). In fact, honey is about 70% sugar and only 20% water. Since honey naturally has so little moisture, bacteria and microorganisms literally cannot survive.

On top of its low moisture content, honey is quite acidic. According to Amina Harris, Executive Director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at the University of California, honey "has a pH that falls between 3 and 4.5, approximately, and that acid will kill off almost anything that wants to grow there."

So, not only is honey inhospitable to bacteria and microorganisms, if anything does try to grow, the acidity of the honey makes it virtually impossible for it to do so. 

You might be wondering, isn't molasses very similar to honey? It is. But honey has something molasses doesn't: Bees. 

The magic of bees and honey's antibacterial properties

When bees make honey, they do two things that contribute to honey's longevity. First, bees regurgitate the nectar in their mouths into the honeycomb. During this process, the nectar mixes with an enzyme from their stomachs called glucose oxidase. This, in turn, creates two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. 

Hydrogen peroxide?! Yea! Hydrogen peroxide! Bees are so freaking cool.

Bees also flap their wings in the honey-making process and essentially dry-out the nectar (which is naturally 60-80% water in contrast to honey's 20%.

Now we know that honey is low-moisture because bees are awesome, acidic because of chemistry, AND honey contains hydrogen peroxide that fights anything clueless enough not to take the hint - and that's why honey doesn't expire.

Sometimes Honey Does Go Bad - But It's Not Honey's Fault

The first thing to note here is that if your honey is bad, you will know your honey is bad because it will be fermented and it will taste sour instead of sweet. Crystallization is a natural process and does not mean that the honey is bad. You can simply put your crystallized honey in a warm water bath to re-liquefy it or enjoy your honey creamed and spread on toast! We'll get more into crystallization in another article, we promise! For now, know that crystallization is normal, natural, and does not mean your honey is expired.

For honey to go bad, there needs to be something inside of it that can spoil. For this reason, it's not a great idea to leave honey out and unsealed in a humid environment for a long time. As we learned above, honey is naturally very low-moisture, which means that it will suck in any available moisture it can... and then spoil. But as long as you keep the lid on your honey when not in use and don't add any water to it, you're good to go for, well, last count was 5500 years! (If you make simple syrup with your honey like we do here for iced teas at the Tea Bar, we recommend storing the syrup in the fridge for no more than a couple weeks, just like with a refined-sugar simple syrup.)

Ready to try some raw honey and see if it lasts long enough in your home to go bad? (We'd take a bet that it won't!)

click through image of dripping honey with the words "shop honey"

Resources:

Geiling, N. (2013, August 22). The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life  | Science      | Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Magazine; Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-science-behind-honeys-eternal-shelf-life-1218690/

Hamdan, K. (2010). Crystallization of Honey. Bee World, 87:4, 71–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/0005772X.2010.11417371