The Taste of Here

Ames farm revolutionizes the gathering of honey, to flabbergasting effect

The Ames Farm way is a completely opposite process of how honey is usually made. You see, lots of commercial honey makers keep their bees on the backs of trucks and drive them all over the country, showing up in whichever orchard, berry patch, or citrus grove needs pollinating. Then they take all the honey that they gather, from the almond groves, the grapefruit trees, the strawberry patches, or what have you, and then they dump it into one batch and boil it. This keeps it from crystallizing, from spoiling, and from ever tasting like much. If the honey that comes out of this dump-and-boil is pretty lightly colored, they label it "clover" honey. If what comes out is pretty dark, it's called "wildflower," or, increasingly these days, "basswood" honey. In France, if you want to call something lavender honey, it has to, by law, have evidence of lavender pollen in it. Not so here. "For me, it's almost impossible to sell sweet clover honey," says Fredericksen, wincing in physical pain at the insult paid to his little bees when they labor among those humble flowers. "People look at it and say, 'I've had that, it's nothing special.'"

The reason commodity honey producers don't go to the trouble that Brian Fredericksen does is because, well, I'll let him explain: "It's insanity to do this the way I do it." Brian places his hives in locations that are ideal for bees--which is to say, that are heck for humans to get at. He has hives situated in secluded, road-free areas of the Minnesota River Valley, on multimillionaires' private prairie, on a chestnut-tree research farm, and in even more secret places than that. He visits his hives constantly and tries to empty them as often as he can in order to capture, say, the brief flowering of blue vervain, so that it doesn't get mixed up with other honey gathered from later-blooming flowers.

Who would level this much scrutiny and method on plain old honey?

A former research engineer, of course. Brian Fredericksen gave up his job at 3M (he had his name on five patents) so that he could raise apples, run with his sled dogs, and, generally, soak in as much sky and wind as his time on earth would allow. He bought his 40 acres due west of the Twin Cities, in that fertile, big-sky part of the state where rolling hills of prairie tumble into bottoms of wetland and lake. He started off in apples and added honey to the mix seven years ago.

He now has 16 different sites, spread over a good 100 square miles, and might visit each hive every week, or every other week, to check on the honey and the health and happiness of the bees. "Do you remember last year's bizarre spring?" Fredericksen asked me. "It never got warm, and the bees need temperatures in the 60s for them to get up and out--the bees were starving." That's part of the art of beekeeping--keeping the bees happy, understanding what's stressing them out. "That's why I'd never park them anywhere near a feedlot," explains Fredericksen. "They're creatures of their environment, and they need pristine, beautiful environments to thrive."

Fittingly enough for bees that thrive in beautiful environments, the honeys themselves are thriving in the Twin Cities' most beautiful restaurants: The comb honey has been showing up on cheese plates in restaurants including Vincent, Heartland, La Belle Vie, and the Corner Table. At Levain, Chef Steven Brown uses the buckwheat honey in a vinaigrette for an arugula salad with manchego and prosciutto crisps. "Usually buckwheat honey is kind of strong and stanky," says Brown. "But this is much more refined and subtle." At Cosmos, Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty serves Ames Farm's clover honey with an artisanal Swiss-like white cheese from Pleasant Ridge. "The single clover honeycomb is just fantastic," says Daugherty. "Sometimes when you get honeycomb it tastes earthy or dirty--this stuff is just so clean, it's practically white. We love it."

Of course, with anything that inspires such great passion, there are just-as-passionate detractors. I'm thinking now of the woman I saw at a pick-your-own apple orchard in October waving her arms around wildly and screaming, "The bees! The bees!" The small child in the stroller with her was soon in a screaming frenzy as well. That the insects in question were lady bugs didn't impact them whatever.

If you think that's a poor example of an enemy to single-source honey, keep guessing: Plenty of former farm towns to the west of us are now overrun with suburban types with an overwhelming fear of bees, and Fredericksen says he can't get permission to keep bees now in places he used to, out of other people's overwhelming fear of lawsuits. "They figure any wild yellow-jacket sting would be blamed on my honeybees, and don't want to be in any situation where they're trying to convince a jury otherwise," he says. "You also wouldn't believe the number of times I've been outright insulted by suburban people at the farmers' market--'Who are you trying to rip off?' they say, 'I could get twice as much honey at Cub for that price.'"

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