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A 200-gram jar of golden honey.
This jar of honey costs $2000.97. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Tina Tiller

BusinessApril 24, 2023

It’s ‘gritty’, ‘earthy’ and unstable – so why does this jar of honey cost $2000?

A 200-gram jar of golden honey.
This jar of honey costs $2000.97. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Tina Tiller

The trick to making rare, unique and expensive mānuka honey is a closely guarded secret. Beekeepers would very much like it to stay that way.

Michael Kerr has secrets he doesn’t want to share. “I don’t want to give away too much,” he tells me at one point during our interview. “It’s a little bit sensitive, I suppose,” he says at another. If I probe too much, or go too far with my questions, he scoffs and says: “We’re not going to tell you that.”

From the outset it’s clear the founder of Bee+, a luxury honey crafted by Aotearoa honeybees and sold mainly in China, has topics off limits. Kerr can’t be pressured into revealing details about how his honey’s made. It’s competitive out there, he says, and there are trade secrets to protect.

But Kerr’s picked up the phone because he has something he does want out in the world. Next week, Bee+ is launching a product Kerr hasn’t had his hands on before, a jar of mānuka honey with a UMF rating of 30+. The higher the UMF rating, the more antibacterial properties it has, and the more potent – and sought after – it is.

In the world of mānuka honey aficionados, a rating of 30+ is incredibly rare. It’s a reason to celebrate. “We haven’t had much of it in the past,” says Kerr. It’s the first time he’s been able to offer it for sale, and admits there was a buzz in the office when they found out what they had. “There’s just not a lot of it around.”

More than $6000 of honey is contained in this image.
Three jars of honey would set you back more than $6000. (Photo: Supplied)

This, says Kerr, is the holy grail of honey, and beekeepers go to great lengths to get it. Remote wild mānuka plantations need to be found. Contracts need to be signed with landowners to lock out competitors. Beehives need to be helicoptered in at the precise time of year when the mānuka flowers bloom. For six weeks, bees are tracked and monitored using GPS, then the hives and honey are extracted. At Bee+’s Taupo production facility, all that mānuka honey needs to be treated and stored extremely carefully.

Kerr admits they’ve very careful about their “hive-to-table” process, but even then they don’t know what UMF rating they have on their hands until much later. Once honey is stored, its UMF rating can increase over time. “When honey stays, it grows,” he says. “When we bring it in and it starts as a UMF5 it can end at a UMF9 or 10.”

But 30? That’s virtually unheard of. How’d they do it? That’s one of the things Kerr won’t tell me. He won’t reveal where his bees managed to manufacture this level of mānuka magnificence.”This honey’s from the North Island. That’s all I can say.” He won’t even say when these honey bees did their work. “That particularly honey could have been harvested a year ago, or two years ago,” he says. “It may have been harvested this year – but we’re not going to tell you that.”

That scarcity means honey from this hive comes with a price tag. Compared to supermarket clover honey ($4.20 at Countdown) it’s incredibly expensive. Kerr has 1,500 200-gram jars of the good stuff available for a whopping $2003.74 each. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. “We’re not guaranteeing we’re going to have any more, that’s for sure.”

He believes he won’t have any problem selling them. Most of Bee+’s honey goes to China, where New Zealand mānuka honey is incredibly popular for its health benefits, a remedy used for colds, sore throats and stomach ailments. There, Kerr says expensive honey is given as gifts, “a bit like people may gift a really nice whiskey”.

The big difference with honey, though, is that it needs to be used. It can’t sit on a shelf. It won’t age like a fine wine. A high UMF rating means the product is unstable, and its antibacterial properties can change if it’s stored incorrectly, or left in the sun. This honey comes with a two-year shelf life. After that? “It’s quite susceptible to change.”

So what does it taste like? That’s something Kerr can comment on. “Gritty, earthy,” says Kerr. He admits its taste might be too strong for anyone used to the cheaper supermarket stuff. “It’s not a sweet honey that you’d put on your toast dripping with butter,” he says. “You’re not going to do that with this. It’s not that sort of honey.”

What do you do with it? Kerr brings up the memory of his mum giving him honey in hot water to soothe his sore throat as a child. Yes, after buying their $2000 jar of honey, many will grab a teaspoon and stir it into hot water. “This is sort of … the extreme version of what my mum used to give it to me,” he says. “It’s the magic elixir.”

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