In Ethiopia, where a honey wine called t’ej is a traditional drink, hollow beehives are hung in trees to attract bees. They produce only a few pounds of poor quality honey per year — while “modern” frame beehives invented in 1852, produce up to 10 times more honey.
The people in the Kafa region of Ethiopia live on a few dollars a day due to outdated farming practices such as these traditional hives. Meanwhile, their low incomes are forcing them to cut down the important Kafa rainforest — where coffee originated — for planting crops and to make charcoal from the wood. Ironically, fewer tree flowers means less honey.
After a visit to the Kafa forest in 2008, Solomon decided to make honey wine in California and use the sales to finance modern beekeeping and beehive conversions and earn families five times more household income while saving their forest and reducing carbon emissions.
With partners, he is working on a much larger project to conserve 600,000 acres in Kafa, share forest carbon revenues with communities and convert thousands of beehives to modern ones. Solomon plans to source rare honeys from Kafa forest to make ultra-premium varieties of Bee d’Vine in the future.
At present, Solomon’s Bee d’Vine brand is made in a winery in southern Napa County from local honey by renowned winemaker Wayne Donaldson.
According to Donaldson, who’s had high-level positions at companies as diverse as Domaine Chandon for sparkling wine and Gallo’s premium north coast wines, good honey wine has to be made from fresh honey, not honey that is stored. Most honey is harvested in the spring, then stored.
It also has to be fermented cold like white wine, which takes special equipment commonly used in winemaking. He adds cultured yeast and ferments the mead dry, then adds a little honey to sweeten it if desired.
As with beer, the water used is important since it’s a bit part of the mix. Spring water is best; preservatives like chlorine in city water can impact the process.
You can buy Bee d’Vine honey wine at Vallergas Market in Napa. Bee d’Vine comes in crisp brut for those who fancy drier wines, and the semi-sweet wine demi sec for those preferring slightly fruit-forward wines. The 375 ml bottle costs $24; 750ml is $43.
Solomon has created a slight book, “The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine,” that you can download free at beedvine.com.
Honey wine joins local wine, beer and ciderAlcoholic beverages can be made out of almost anything that contains sugar – or can be converted to sugar like other carbohydrates in grains. Wine is the simplest. Grapes and some other fruit have the right amount of sugar (say, from 18 to 30 percent) for wild yeasts to ferment the sugar, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide, which bubbles away unless it’s captured to make sparkling wine.
Some fruit, and certainly things like rhubarb, can be basically used to flavor wines made from sugar because they don’t contain enough sugar on their own to make a stable wine, which generally has 8 to 16 percent sugar.
Beer and other grains require an enzymatic reaction to convert their starch to sugar, a more sophisticated process than winemaking, but so compelling that some authorities think man started cultivating grains partly so they could make beer — the start of civilization.
A few fruits, like dates and honey, contain so much sugar that you have to dilute them with water to ferment, for super-sweet compounds are natural preservatives and will kill the yeast.
Honey wine or mead was long a popular beverage in northern areas where wine grapes couldn’t grow, but also in areas like Ethiopia, a Christian country that has long made a honey wine.
Honey is about 70 percent sugar, so it has to be diluted significantly to ferment.
Oddly, most honey wine is pretty bland, so it was often kept a little sweet or flavored with everything from herbs, spices, fruits and even hops to make it more interesting; some act as preservatives, like hops do in beer.
Honey wine, like hard cider, is undergoing a bit of a renaissance here in America. Unlike cider, however, it faces a few obstacles besides unfamiliarity and the assumption that it’s always sticky sweet.
For one, honey is expensive. Secondly, honey bees across America are dying and no one is sure why, whether viruses or other diseases, climate change or pesticides. Honey bees aren’t native to America, so may have encountered something they have no immunity to, just as wine grapevines are killed by phylloxera bugs that don’t bother native grape vines.