Rupert Phillips from The House of Honey. Picture: Robert Duncan/The West Australian

Nature's oldest sweetener is right on trend, with varietal honeys riding the single-origin craze. We're talking about chia, banksia, jarrah and chardonnay blossom from bees foraging on nectar from one type of flower rather than assorted plants.

Each has its own characteristics influenced by geography, rainfall, humidity and soil type, just like coffee, chocolate and wine. Call it the terroir of honey.

Cullen's biodynamic chardonnay blossom is sweetly aromatic, lingeringly floral and gooey thick, with crystallised sugars on the bottom. The hives were put in to pollinate the 40-year-old vines at its Wilyabrup winery and the honey released just before Christmas. It's the real deal, just spun out gently and filtered through a screen to take out bee bits.

Swan Valley apiarist Rupert Phillips, from The House of Honey in Herne Hill, has 14 varietals on the list; some of them seasonal, such as flooded gum, collected along local river courses in spring, and dragon flower, sourced from the tropical north-western plains of Kununurra when monsoons inundate the ground. Aboriginals make a medicinal infusion from the inner bark of the tree and the honey is pale gold, mild and delicious in tea.

"We usually have 10 on the shelf and we're lucky enough to have access to honeys we wouldn't usually have," he says. "There's yate and tree lucerne (tagasaste) from Esperance and chia from the Ord River basin, because it's all about showcasing the wide variety of honey WA has to offer," Mr Phillips says. "There's no guarantee the bees will stick to the crop you want, but we've been fortunate with the tree lucerne because there was nothing else for them to feed on."

No two honeys are alike: tree lucerne is golden and light on the palate; yate, amber and aromatic; chia, nutty with a lingering maple flavour; white gum, silky smooth with toffee apple and fairy floss undertones; blackbutt strong and dark, with lots of antioxidants; jarrah, full-bodied, malty and slow to crystallise because of its sucrose to fructose ratio; karri, silky smooth. It flowers once every 10 years. Precious stuff.

Producing it is hard work: a worker bee gathers a twelfth of a teaspoon in its lifetime - a fleeting six weeks in summer - and apiarists have to monitor what's in bloom so they can transport hives.

"We have 180 hives and get 100-140kg of honey a year from each one," Mr Phillips says. "Redgum has probably been the best producing this year, but jarrah is always the best seller because of its amazing healing properties."

All honey is healing to some extent, but jarrah's the buzz in WA. Put a spoonful in a lukewarm drink to soothe a sore throat, smear it on sunburn, apply it to wounds and swish it around the mouth to help heal mouth ulcers.

Jarrah's potential to inhibit the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as golden staph, is well documented, with some batches having up to 30 per cent higher activity than New Zealand's prized manuka honey.

Like karri, it's rare (jarrah flowers biennially) and is known for its hydrogen peroxide activity - measured as Total Activity (TA) - when it comes into contact with skin or open wounds. The TA rating was developed by Wescobee and is used by beekeepers in WA. It's different to activity ratings for manuka honey, which has additional non-peroxide activity.

"No two years are ever the same for jarrah," Mr Phillips says. "But this last season was fantastic because we had sufficient rain in winter. TA results have been mixed, ranging from 18-28 - it all depends on the soil type, amount of rainfall in a particular area, growth period, time of flowering and temperature, so it's quite complex."

Denmark-based artisan producer Elixir chanced on a TA 36+ jarrah honey in December-January. "To maximise the antimicrobial properties, don't heat it," says beekeeper Romy Surtees. "Eat it off the spoon, in yoghurt or on cereal. We have our honey tested at New Zealand labs and we had a TA 30 two years ago, but only TA 10 the harvest before, so it's just luck, really . . . it depends on the site and sites year on year don't always give the same result."

Wescobee chief executive Eduard Planken says the higher the TA, the more active the honey. "Activity can go above 20+, even close to 30; however, very little jarrah honey is produced at that level," he says. "Overall, most runs at 15+ or less."

Wescobee, WA's biggest honey packer, in the middle of a takeover bid by Queensland-based Capilano, exports its jarrah honey to Japan, China, Kuwait and Malaysia, but Mr Planken says its bespoke Wescobee blend is by far the best seller in WA.

The annual Honey Festival will be held at The House of Honey on May 5. There will be talks by Scitech, bee experts, scientists and hobby beekeepers.

The West Australian

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