On the way up to Okanogan during my recent “honey foraging trip”, I stopped at quite a few fruit stands, since many stands in those parts seemed to carry local honey and I didn’t want to miss anything. One such stand had a few jars left from Otto’s Honey. The fruit stand owner was nice enough to dig up a business card and give me a number, and soon I was on the phone with beekeeper Eldon Otto, who fielded my questions about the honey and invited me to stop by on my way back down.
Arriving at the Otto’s the next day, I fully expected to walk into a little storefront, or at least find a wooden honey stand outside a house, like I had so often seen. Instead I walked smack into their indoor workplace. In a tidy and very warm room, two men were moving frames of recently-collected honey through an extraction process, so I got to watch how it’s all done. I was impressed by the cleanliness of their operation and by how nicely laid out it was in a small space, with shiny extraction equipment filling most of it. My favorite part was when Eldon showed me a stainless steel vat of leftover comb, some of which had crystallized honey still in it. We could grab a chunk of that and chew on it, and boy was it good!
Otto’s produces two honey blends: “Wildflower” and “Basin” honey. Both are labeled “Wildflower” so you have to go by the color. They also produce straight Buckwheat honey.
- Wildflower Honey: the bees are taken to a higher elevation in the countryside nearby. I have two examples of this honey. Both are viscous and have the kind of less-overt sweetness I call “soft” (interestingly, Eldon used the same word). One is light colored and reminds me of Knapweed honey. The other is slightly yellower, and while similar it has a savoriness that must come from a different mix of wildflower nectars, perhaps collected at a different time or place.
- “Basin Honey”: this is deeper-colored than the actual Wildflower honey and has a thick, non-uniform texture. The flavor is round and fruity and comes from a blend of many local honeys collected in the “basin”, that is, the local agricultural area: Carrot, Alfalfa, Coriander, Onion, Buckwheat and more. I was able to sample some of these honeys separately; each seemed a bit one-dimensional on its own except for the Buckwheat. The Carrot’s flavor starts out nice but fades. The Coriander has no flavor at all. Altogether however a richer flavor emerges. There is some Buckwheat content, enough to add some richness but not enough for any Buckwheat strangeness to be detectable.
- Buckwheat Honey: I love Buckwheat honey, but forgot to buy some!
Where To Find:
The Otto’s extraction season is short (August through mid-October) and they stockpile most of their honey over the winter for sale the following summer. You can find their honey at thirteen local fruit stands and some local health food stores in the Wenatchee area. Once a year they also bring a number of barrels to Seattle to be sold under someone else’s name. This year they took over eight barrels to Seattle.
Otto’s Honey has been around for fifteen years. They have somewhere near 500 hives, down from 800 due to Colony Collapse Disorder. When I asked how the business started, a familiar story came out: Eldon began to say that he started with two backyard hives, then his son-in-law interjected to say it was “a hobby gone horribly wrong”. This was made more funny by the extractor spinning at full tilt behind them like some sort of manic mutant washing machine. I’m starting to think I’m going to hear every professional beekeeper say something like this.
Eldon himself still cannot believe his bee hobby has grown to its present scale. He describes his business as being mostly about pollination. They service the local farms, and also take their bees down to California each year. Honey is an added bonus. As Eldon explained it, honey used to sell for around 87 cents per per pound until a few years ago, but the price has gone up to almost $2 per pound, making the honey itself a more worthwhile enterprise. While all of this pays off for the Ottos, it’s not their only business. Eldon pointed to the “Otto’s Construction” logo on his work shirt, saying “this is what pays the bills, but I got into beekeeping to do something more intellectually challenging than drywall.”