2022 August-September Analysis Featured

Markets abuzz over revival of Georgian specialty honey

Tending to their ‘jara’ hives, housed within hollowed logs in the remote mountainous areas of Georgia’s Adjara region, local beekeepers are producing a honey steeped in tradition. The growing notoriety of this jara honey, akin to a fine wine with its pronounced flavor and specialized production methods, has both domestic and international markets buzzing with delight.

Beekeeping generally evokes images of multiple boxes, kept at ground level and abuzz with activity. This method is common around the world, and for good reason; the uniformity allows for easy transport, streamlined care, and an increase of production that encourages massive quantities of honey to be produced in a relatively short amount of time.

However, something can be lost in this process. Much like how sommeliers are critical of large-scale wine production that seeks to remove the grapes from their terroir, honey too can suffer the same fate. Its unique qualities can be stripped, its flavors muted until it resembles the simply sweet amalgam golden syrup the world generally regards as ‘honey.’

There is nothing wrong with this method of production; in fact, this style of honey harvesting has allowed the culture of honey to spread around the world, piquing interest in places it would not have otherwise reached. But for those who have tasted a truly great honey — one imbued with the story of the land that birthed it — seeing the mass marketization of what could be a fascinating, complexly flavored product brings doubts about its future.

Nowhere is this conversation stronger than in Georgia. In the Soviet era, beekeeping fell victim to the same pitfalls as other agricultural products. Its creation was streamlined, and while different regions offered their own distinct takes on the good, its universality brought with it questions of quality and a removal of the traditions that came with the practice.

This was especially damaging for Georgia given its strong connection to beekeeping. Historians believe that the nation was one of the first in the world to cultivate honey, citing evidence of a host of honey varieties dating back at least 5,500 years. At that time, it is speculated that honey served an otherworldly purpose as well as a culinary one: before people died and journeyed on to the afterlife, they were given a jar of honey to accompany them on their travels.

It is unsurprising, then, that honey holds such a dear position in the Georgian heart and equally saddening that some believe the honey culture to be making a comparable departure. Thankfully, as the Georgian Beekeepers Union will gladly tell you, true Georgian honey is not going away — in fact, it’s only gotten better.

Beekeepers treating Jara hive in Ajara

Jara: the ‘fine wine’ of honey

Georgia boasts an incredible range of honeys, but the one that has brought it international attention and acclaim is the 100% pure and wild harvested Jara honey, which is one of the reasons the Georgian Beekeepers Union has opted to make the sale of this honey one of its primary projects.

But what makes Jara honey distinct from other honey varieties? According to Lela Putkaradze of the Alliances Caucasus Programme, a large part of its uniqueness comes from its purity.

“The honey is 100% organic… nothing artificial is used when producing it,” she explains. “It’s also traditional — it’s harvested in remote villages in a mountainous region where there is, I would say, no pollution, because there is a standard of distance that [beekeepers] must keep… from any kind of pollution, like central roads or factories. It is also mainly small scale beekeepers who are the producers of Jara honey, so all of the benefits go to small scale beekeepers.”

Speaking of tradition, the oral history of Jara honey is an interesting one —and one that recently led the practice to be dubbed a marker of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Georgia.

Beekeeping has been common in Georgia since before the Common Era, and ancient beekeepers were obsessed with discovering new flavors and methods of honey production. After generations of beekeeping, some beekeepers noticed that the most delicious honey came from bees that made their hives in certain trees.

Their interest in this treasure honey grew, and slowly, they began to artificially replicate this process, discovering fallen logs or chopping down and hollowing out the trees to create a natural, but controllable, home for bees. In these conditions, they could capture the complexity of the honey while doing away with the danger and uncertainty that came with a fully natural harvest.

Of course, there were issues. These logs, which came to be known as “jara,” often had to be lifted high into the trees to avoid intrusions from curious bears. But the practice, and the delicious honey it produced, stuck around, creating a timeless good that has continued production into the present day.

As far as taste is concerned, Jara honey is incredibly complex compared to other honeys, with even a small touch offering an unmatched depth of flavor. The honey has a gentle touch of caramel, complemented by a range of florals rooted in the many flowers pollinated by bees in the Adjara region.

Naturally, this sophisticated flavor comes at a premium price point.

“I would say there is a large difference [in price],” Putkaradze details. When compared with other Georgian honeys, which are typically sold in simple glass jars, Jara honey often comes in exquisite boxes, each one filled with the natural honeycomb and declaring the specialness of the honey.

“500 grams of Jara honey is about 60 lari in a Georgian market,” she continues. In contrast, she adds, “if you buy, for example, 500 grams of Chestnut honey, it is 20 lari… [and] Chestnut honey is second in [terms of] price. The price range is high.”

This point notwithstanding, it seems people are willing to pay a few extra lari for such a superior flavor. Now, with assistance from the Georgian Beekeepers Union along with the Alliances Caucasus Programme, the multifaceted flavor of Jara honey is spreading around the world with great success.

New markets

Both of these organizations engaged in considerable work before getting to this point. After years spent researching the practice, the Union set a standard for Jara honey production, ensuring that everyone who purchased a natural honeycomb would receive the same beautiful flavors that inspired the creation of the tradition. They also set to work promoting the honey both locally and internationally; local beekeepers could learn how to produce Jara honey, and international consumers could welcome this Georgian lifeblood onto their dinner tables.

The results of this promotion have been notab le. Since starting the program, there has been a 69% increase in Jara honey producers in Georgia. Eight VET colleges have begun teaching courses on Jara honey production, with several others soon to start. The number of Georgian honey brands in shops has increased by over 250%, and the Jara Honey Mark has also been registered as an IP.

Furthermore, the actual quality of Jara honey has improved dramatically. While the product could already proclaim its high standard, teams like the Georgian Beekeepers Union have ensured that the influx of Jara producers continue to meet the high bar set by the beekeepers of yore. To do this, they have improved coordination in the sector and ensured that antibiotics be removed from production, with the amount of antibiotic use falling 48% since 2017 and the amount of organic care products increasing by 20%.

Flavor-wise, the results speak for themselves. Jara honey has been exhibited at festivals, the Gulf Food Expo, legendary beekeeping meetup Apimondia, and the London International Honey Awards, where it won four Silver Quality Awards. With credentials like these, it’s no surprise that Georgian honey is now found in over 15 countries, with that number increasing annually.

Jara beekeeper harvesting honey from Jara hive in Ajara
There are still some issues that need to be addressed, however.

“The main constraint remaining is the volume,” Putkaradze notes. “Now it’s low, low volume, but it has potential.”

This low volume can be observed through the Georgian honey market’s current output. While over 190 tonnes of Georgian honey has been exported since 2017, just 6.4 tons of Jara honey have been commercially aggregated by the private sector since 2018. To increase the volume, Putkaradze says her organization is working to pull out all the stops for producers, which includes increasing their testing capacities.

“We are… currently implementing laboratory testing capacities in the factories themselves for quick testing,” she details. “In order to aggregate in high volumes, honey companies need to aggregate different samples from different regions from different beekeepers, and they need to test it quickly… At this time, that’s not available in Georgia, or it takes a lot of time.”

By improving and speeding up these testing facilities, Putkaradze hopes that Georgian beekeepers can increase production, and groups like hers can focus on marketing the product abroad.

“As testing increases, volume increases,” she observes. “Then, it’s mainly about promotion in export markets so that order volumes increase. It is already an increasing trend; before, there was no export, and now it’s being exported to the USA, Canada, Qatar, Hong Kong, and there’s a new market also for Jara honey in Japan. So we expect an increase in the export market.”

But Jara honey’s home is in Georgia, and locals and tourists alike can now delight in the fact that they can taste this beloved good in the same manner it was meant to be enjoyed all those years ago, putting Georgia in its rightful place atop the global honey map.