By Paris Wolfe, Food & Travel Expert
Traveling inevitably leads to food for me. In 2016, I visited The Bee Charmer and indulged in a honey comparison tasting. Here’s their story.
In 2010 Jillian Kelly and Kim Allen were ready for a life and career change. Done with hard-charging careers in Chicago, they wanted something more. Because their son was still in high school, they had time to plan.
“We started to talk about it three years before we moved,” recalls Kelly. “We began the process of fixing up the house. You can’t just move, you have to have plan.”
Looking in the rearview mirror, their path was destiny.
First, in 2008, Jillian discovered food allergies. “I love to cook and had to give up gluten and dairy. While cooking one day, a recipe called for two cups of white refined sugar. That seemed like a lot, so I called a chef-friend and she suggested honey.”
“She gave me a basic ratio and explained I may not be able to eliminate white sugar completely, but I could reduce it,” notes Kelly. “In time, I got the hang of it and I started to buy a lot of honey from a grocery store.”
Second, the cost of honey began to add up. So, Jillian went to the source. She enrolled in beekeeping classes. Soon, she was addicted to bees, foretelling a seismic shift in her life.
The need for change and the need for honey eventually came together. They let their imaginations run and envisioned a honey bar.
Kelly and Allen continued the dream and decided to launch that in Asheville, N.C., “We have friends who lived on Elk Mountain in Asheville,” says Kelly. “We’d been visiting them for about 10 years and fell in love with the area.”
The mountain city, with a hipster vibe and thriving tourist industry is full of independent local businesses. Their honey bar concept fit right in.
“We moved here without a store front, just a desire to have a honey bar and do some bee keeping as well as a help support local business.”
The Bee Charmer, 38 Battery Park Avenue, stocks honey from a variety of flowers and countries. Shopper can also choose among infused honey including cocoa and ghost pepper.
While beekeepers know honey varies by source, location, etc. – what winemakers call terroir – the public doesn’t. The honey bar is an opportunity to educate and foster appreciation for bees and honey. Beekeepers might visit to sample what their peers are doing in Africa or, perhaps, with meadowfoam flowers.
At the five-foot long ambrosia maple bar, a hostess interprets what the taste buds perceive. The experience goes far beyond sweetness and color. Flavor profiles can be boldly obvious and if they’re not, they become so when the “bee-rista” points them out.
Sourwood honey — made from the flowers of a tree that grows in southeastern forests of the United States — is a local specialty. Its characteristics are considered superior, by some, to clover, orange blossom, fireweed or any other honey.
- Sage is herbaceous with a finish of tobacco and roses,
- Dandelion is grassy, and a bit like a French Sancerre (sauvignon blanc).
- Meadowfoam has a toasted marshmallow finish.
It’s hard to stop. But, most palates are toast before they hit 10. That’s when a hostess who has time might reveal “reserved” honeys, those which have sold out because of popularity or rareness. For example, leatherwood honey from Tasmania. Like a fine wine, it has three movements. Up front it has big floral characteristic. The midnotes are leathery. And, the finish is light menthol.
Making money selling honey is the obvious goal, and it’s working. So is educating the public.
“You don’t need to be a beekeeper to help save bees,” says Kelly. “We tell people to plant native plants and not to spray chemicals. We encourage them to cook with honey and reduce white sugar intake.”
“We feel good about our message and enjoy meeting our customers. We never realized when this journey began that, when people sit around the honey tasting bar, they’d share memories about someone in their life who might have been a beekeeper or about a memorable meal that their grandmother cooked.”
“People share joy through these memories every day,” she says. “And, we get to be a part of that. We’re very fortunate and we know it…and appreciate it. We love the bee keeping part of it just as much.”
As the women expand their beekeeping operation, they are working to place hives on downtown rooftops. “We’re really trying to help in every way we can,” says Kelly.