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Flavor 2: Mountain Wildflower Honey

April 8, 2014

Jon Christie at Wild Mountain Bees When I pulled up to Wild Mountain Bees in Weaverville, NC at 9:15 on a Wednesday morning the first week of April, I didn't know I had stumbled upon a pillar of the local beekeeping community.

Jon Christie has raised bees for over 10 years, and has been in the bee supply business for five. This Western North Carolina native got into the bee business through his wife's interest in obtaining beeswax for making herbal products. He started with seven hives, but now has 150, most of them in Madison County.

Christie's store was a hive of activity, even 40 minutes before its official 10 a.m. opening time. The swarm was centered on Christie himself, who tended to customers as best he could between a steady stream of phone calls. For four months of the year, Christie tells me, it's nonstop. He is out working bees sometimes until 10 at night. "I'm lucky if I find five minutes to sit down with my daughter," he says.

"I need something to keep my bees alive," one customer entreated. Jon recommended vitamin B liquid. "Lemongrass is a great swarm attractant," he advised another. "People are in a panic," one of the waiting customers remarked, referring to local bee enthusiasts' rush to get queen bees and prepare their hives for the upcoming season. "Yes, we are expecting queens in tonight or tomorrow," Christie said to a customer on the phone, "but most are already reserved."

I had no idea that Asheville was such a hub of interest in the honey bee, but among its other titles, it turns out that Asheville is also the inaugural "Bee City USA." A movement launched by the Center for Honeybee Research, Bee City USA is an effort to reduce chemical usage and create sustainable habitats for pollinators, something the organization considers "vital to feeding the planet." The city boasts an ever growing number of hives.

beekeeping supplies at Wild Mountain BeesSherry Michael says she wants to extend the Bee City USA movement to neighboring McDowell County. A frequent customer at Wild Mountain Bees, she believes the GMO scare is behind the Bee City USA movement and views her own interest in beekeeping as in line with eating organic foods, using honey instead of sugar, and making her own soaps and lip balms. "I'm trying to go backwards, to homesteading almost," she explains.

Christie says he's fortunate not to be very affected by pesticide use. His hives are located in rural mountain areas and are managed using integrated pest management techniques and natural essential oils. I was lucky to grab a few minutes of his time to talk honey before he was overrun by customers.

Appalachian honey? Yes, it's highly prized, Christie told me. In the spring, you've got the tulip poplar honey, with a dark color and a molasses finish. There are often bramble blooms like blackberry and raspberry mixed into that. There's also black locust honey in the springtime, which is a light, almost water-clear honey with a lovely floral sweetness but a bit of a bite at the back of the throat. If the locust blooms early, Christie explains, then you can get a pure black locust honey, which, like other monofloral honeys in general, is highly sought after. Often, though, the bees go in for multiple types of blooms at the same time, yielding a mixed Appalachian spring wildflower honey that reveals itself as either locust- or poplar-leaning depending on the color. Christie describes the mixed wildflower honey as having a more complex flavor with a caramel or molasses finish.

Other well-known Appalachian honeys follow these spring ones, Christie says. First there's linden, known as "lin" honey, a light golden honey that comes from the blooms of the basswood tree and features a citrusy flavor and a mint aftertaste. Later, in late June and early July, the blooms of the sourwood tree (a.k.a. Lily of the Valley or Appalachian Lily) yield the most famous South Appalachian variety: sourwood honey. Sourwood honey is exclusive to the Southern Appalachians -- Western North Carolina, North Georgia, and East Tennessee. Light in color like basswood, it can be differentiated from the former because it is much slower to crystallize. Christie describes sourwood honey as having a rich, butterscotch character.

Sourwood honey's fame and reputation for superior taste and quality parallels its premium price tag, but according to Christie, the renown of this variety may not be from merit alone. "When people think of this region, they think of sourwood honey," Christie says. "But a local beekeeper who's been involved in keeping bees, has a five generation history in his family, he told me one time that, 'We taught all the people to really like the sourwood so we could keep that dark honey for ourselves.'"

All of Christie's dark wildflower honey was sold out at the time of my visit, but I was able to taste some of his vanilla bean and chai spice herbal infused varieties, either of which would delight on a biscuit or stirred into tea. Christie also makes hot pepper, star anise, and lavender flower infused flavors, and says he keeps all kinds of honey on his table at home.

You can put Jon Christie's honeys on your home table, too, by visiting the Wild Mountain Bees retail location in Weaverville or finding them at the Asheville City Market, on the corner of Charlotte and Eagle Streets, every other Saturday through the summer.