PORTLAND — The air in the kitchen at The Honey Exchange is thick with the earthy, slightly sweet aroma of freshly made honey.
In a typical Saturday chore, Phil Gaven is extracting the sticky substance from a beekeeper’s hive.
He cuts the wax caps off the honeycomb that the bees have constructed in the hive’s frames, then inserts the frames into a centrifuge that spins the honey out. It drips down the sides of the centrifuge and oozes out of a spout into a container.
For this service, Phil and Meghan Gaven, owners of this new honey-centric store on Stevens Avenue, usually get paid in (what else?) honey.
“We keep 30 percent, they take home 70 percent,” Gaven said.
The extracted honey winds up on the store’s shelves alongside honey the couple has bought from other parts of the country.
At The Honey Exchange, you’ll find honeys from all over Maine as well as orange blossom honey from Florida, cotton honey from North Carolina, star thistle honey from Michigan and honey from the New Jersey pine barrens.
“What we’ve learned in this process of having this store,” said Meghan Gaven, “is that most people don’t realize that when they see clover honey on the shelf, that means that honey was made from clover nectar. I had a guy today, in fact, say, ‘I thought that was a brand.’ He had never connected that to a nectar source. If you always buy the same honey, honey always tastes the same.”
And that honey you buy at the grocery or drug store may not even be real honey. A recent investigative report by Food Safety News found that many popular brands have been ultra-filtered to have all the pollen removed, in some cases apparently to hide the origin of the product. Other brands have been cut with corn syrup and other sweeteners. (See the story here: http://bit.ly/vXt6cd.)
All the honey sold at The Honey Exchange is raw and unfiltered, and each 11/4-pound jar is labeled with the honey’s origin. The Gavens have even set up a honey bar so customers can taste the difference between honey from Maine and from Florida, and from honey made in spring versus fall. A light box on one shelf showcases a light-colored spring honey right next to a darker autumn honey. The flavor profile of a honey gets richer as it gets darker.
“This is a spring honey from a hive in Ferry Village, and this is the fall honey from that same hive,” Meghan Gaven said. “So the same bees in the same place, just different times of year, made these two different colors and flavors of honey.”
A recent selection at the tasting bar included a honey made by a police officer/beekeeper in Wells and a basswood honey from Pennsylvania that is “everything I like about honey but with the volume turned way up,” Phil Gaven said. “It’s real crystalline and brilliant.”
There is holly honey from Florida, and star thistle honey from Michigan blended with lemon and raspberry. The cotton honey from North Carolina is malty and tangy, and good for cooking. The pine barren honey is served with slices of sharp cheddar cheese.
“We think about honey being very sweet, but it’s also really very acidic,” Gaven said. “The acidity of it just cuts through oily cheese in the most beautiful way. It’s a fabulous flavor combination.”
The Gavens purchased their first beehive on a lark four beekeeping seasons ago. Phil Gaven, who spent 20 years in the restaurant business, always thought he had to have a big farm and land to keep bees, but then “I realized that you didn’t really need that.”
“Bees are just flying out to find what they need,” he said, “so you have people keeping bees on terraces in Manhattan and Paris. So I thought, ‘We’ve got this little plot in South Portland, we can have bees too.’ “
After he read a long article in the New Yorker about the honey bee crisis, he decided to take the plunge. The couple now has two hives.
“Very few people just get a little into bees,” Gaven said. “Usually, you go bee nerdy really fast.”
But a honey store? Can that really work year round?
Well, the Gavens sell more than just honey. They have a gift store stocked with everything from bee umbrellas for children to bumper stickers with the message “Give Bees a Chance.” They stock a wide variety of meads as well as braggot (“where beer meets mead”) from Denmark, and a honey ale from Bar Harbor. There’s also a selection of honeybee-friendly bulbs to plant for next spring, when they’ll have actual bees for sale.
Even the music in the store is bee-friendly, with selections including Van Morrison singing “Tupelo Honey.”
The Gavens also spend time visiting schools, talking to students about bees and local food. They sell beekeeping equipment and make themselves available to wannabe beekeepers for information and advice on how to get started.
“People who think they want to be beekeepers are wandering in,” Meghan Gaven said, “because there’s really not a location where you can kick tires if you’re interested and talk to somebody that’s knowledgeable and patient and has tried and succeeded right in the middle of Portland.”
There’s been a surprising amount of interest, she said. Turns out, when it comes to raising food at home, bees are the new chickens.
In the middle of the store is a working demonstration hive where customers can watch the bees doing their thing. This hive was started late in the beekeeping year, in August. The bees have access to the outdoors so they can fly away in search of nectar and pollen.
“We’ve given them a little bit of sugar syrup to feed, but mostly this is Deering Center honey that they’ve collected,” Phil Gaven said. “You can see it’s still nectar that’s being cured. It’s still shiny. When it’s done, they cover it with wax and save it for themselves.
“Things have already stopped blooming, so they know they’ve got a long way until that first bloom in April. So that’s what they’ll eat for the whole winter.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]