Four glistening gems sit across the cafe table. Each sparkle under the dinner-hour sun. Unified by spry and minimal black labelling the four jar’s similarities end with their packaging.
Once tasted, each gives way to an odyssey of flavour as unique as the pitch of their hues, which range from golden to a deep almost black gloss.
The wild, pumpkin, blueberry and buckwheat raw honeys represent the latest collection by Toronto honey company Nude Bee, a start-up looking to shake up how people think about their favourite regurgitated pollen.
Edward Okun, one time dull government work horse turned bee puke aficionado, fell into the honey game quite by chance, having stumbled upon quality honey by happening to know a guy’s roommate’s brother who kept a bee farm.
“It blew my mind, like I had only ever known the squeeze-bear, the Kraft bear or the Billy-Bee bear and it tasted so different, it had such a different flavour profile and I conceptualized the idea of jarring it and selling it,” says Okun.
Unlike mainstream honey, diluted and mutilated by pasteurization and homogenization while being doused in cocktails of additives and stabilizers, Okun looked to sell real Ontario honey, as it is, emphasizing and empowering local bee keepers while putting out a high quality and completely natural product.
In short, it was a success. Today the company, consisting of only Okun and his long-time partner-in-crime Ryan Thomas, is fresh off signing a deal with Chapters-Indigo in August, putting their all natural honey on store shelves across the county.
Despite their success the road to a nation-wide honey company was not, and remains a turbulent one. Particularly in this day-and-age when colony collapse disorder, the sudden and unexplained shrinkage of bee populations, constantly simmers beneath the surface of the industry.
“When bees have to rebuild a colony every year because the population is collapsing they’re working harder and not producing as much honey,” says Thomas. “The real terrifying thing is that we’re going to wake up one day and the math wont work for putting it in a jar and getting people to buy it.”
While collapsing colonies will no doubt raise honey price to impossible-to-bottle levels, it also put nearly 80 per cent of the food chain at risk. With so much of the nutrients in the ecosystem requiring the pollination only bees can provide Nude Bee made it their mission to combat the alarming trend.
“It all comes down to this environmental issue which is the reason you should care and be concerned about honey,” says Thomas.
While the collapse of bee colonies has yet to have a confirmed cause, the leading contender is the use of pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids which have been banned in Europe, but remain legal in Canada.
Nude Bee’s approach to combating the issue is three-fold. First, they look to provide a quality product consumers care about, which then leads to more dialogue and passion around the issue as a whole. For Okun and Thomas, this meant their product had to be far different from the traditional “sad bear” honeys many grew up on.
“If you’re not that invested in something it’s really hard to convert you into caring about a specific pesticide that’s used in a farm field that’s very distant from you,” says Thomas.
Finally the pair work hand-in-hand with the Ontario Bee’s Keeper’s Association, not only ensuring the viability of independent bee keepers but also donating proceeds from every jar sold to help fund key research.
“It’s about getting it into a jar at a price point where we can start that dialogue with new consumers,” says Thomas.
Despite their growth the pair are far from remaining stagnant, with both having eyes set on one day scouring the world for new honeys and new opportunities to raise awareness while spurring support for honey bees.
“These issues affect bee keepers all over the world and there is no reason why we shouldn’t bring that awareness outside of Ontario as well” says Okun.