The Artisanal Honey of Wisconsin Natural Acres
In beekeeping — as in real estate — location is everything. Beekeeper Doug Schulz (above), of Wisconsin Natural Acres, agonizes over where to place his beeyards, collections of hundreds of thousands of bees. The right location means the difference between honey that is good, and honey that is world-class. The goal is to feed bees on a balanced diet of alfalfa, basswood, and clover nectar. “ABC — that’s what we look for,” says Schulz. “That’s the stuff.”
“I was told by a master beekeeper that Wisconsin produces on average the best honey in the world,” he says. “And it’s because of the farmland. So much of the alfalfa, basswood, and clover comes from this area. And there’s not other nectar sources that can taint the flavor.”
Schulz works with farmers adjacent to his beeyards to minimize the impact of chemical spraying, timing any applications to avoid the working hours of the bees. The degree of micromanagment and labor intensity that goes into something as seemingly simple as hive location is typical of WNA. “It’s a chess match, in terms of location and weather,” says Lee Bjork, Schulz’s brother-in-law and business partner.
Today Bjork (left) helps to explain the company’s overall vision. “[Schulz] works pretty hard making sure our beeyards are in the proper spots, so the bees get their pick of the best,” says Bjork. “We’re really persnickety about what we do harvest — Doug goes frame by frame. A lot of the big packers take everything. It’s dollars and cents for them. Maybe you’re even mixing imported stuff, half and half.”
The WNA approach is a direct and deliberate contrast. “We’re really trying to give it the double whammy,” says Bjork. “We’re letting the bees get the best, most choice nectar, and we’re even picking that over. That gives us the best stuff to work with — and we handle it with kid gloves.”
WNA isn’t a big producer of honey, turning out 15,000 pounds (or somewhat more) in a typical season. But Schulz and Bjork aim to be standard-setting artisans, which means taking great care and often working by hand where an industrial producer might use a forklift or a pasteurizer.
“It’s like a fine wine — we could save ourselves a heck of a lot of work, but we don’t,” says Schulz. “Our goal is never to have the most — it’s to have the best.”
Although the Chilton-based WNA got its start in 2007, Schulz has been working with bees for more than 30 years, getting his start at the age of 17. He learned much of his craft from Warren Otto, a Wisconsin beekeeper now in his 80s, who in turn picked up the trade from his father and grandfather.
“He taught me the artisan way of beekeeping, to handle the bees cautiously,” says Schulz. “The goal is not to kill a bee. They’re more docile if you handle them gently.”
Docile, of course, is a relative term. “I myself have been stung… through the years… between two and three thousand times,” he says, matter of factly. As he talks, he tends to a stack of white wooden boxes, each containing thousands of active bees. Schulz works without a suit or net, content to take the occasional sting in return for freedom of movement.
Schulz approaches his hives with a hand-built smoker filled with smoldering organic applewood. “It’s calming,” he notes, and that could apply equally to both humans and bees — standing in a forest in Southeastern Wisconsin amid a faint cloud of applewood smoke and peacefully busy bees is powerfully relaxing. Only the threat of rain — and the occasional deer fly — upsets the reverie.
“You can tell they’re getting a little agitated, with the weather change,” says Schulz. “They come back [from gathering nectar], and they get very aggressive when the weather shifts. We don’t want that to happen.”
Schulz works quickly but carefully to find a full frame of honey in one of the hives, so that he can demonstrate the extraction process. He’s picky, looking for one that the bees have given their stamp of approval to by sealing off the hexagonal chambers. When he finally finds a mostly full frame — a cold spring and summer have slowed the production a bit — he uses a hand-held comb-like scraper to uncap the cells before putting the frame of honey in a hand-cranked extractor that operates using centrifugal force.
“We do all the beekeeping by hand, we bottle by hand, we select the frames of honey by hand — we do as much as we can without equipment,” says Schulz. “It’s the selecting of the honey that we choose to use, that’s a huge key.”
The gentle handling of the bees, and their relatively short migrations from a wintering building to their beeyards, may have contributed to their overall healthiness. In contrast to an industry that has been ravaged by colony collapse disorder, WNA’s bees are healthy and happy, Schulz’s hives intact. His bees are well-fed during winter by their late fall honey, and nourished in early spring by the first, often buckwheat-flavored honey to be created from the initial round of flowers.
The final product of Schulz’s efforts is a glass vial filled with what could be liquid sunshine, warmed (not pasteurized) and strained (not filtered) such that a bit of beeswax and pollen tend to sit atop the honey in each jar. If most grocery store honey is a Miller Lite, macrobrewed for consistency and efficiency of production, what WNA does is akin to a craft beer, lovingly fussed over and notably more soulful to people who understand honey’s potential. Consumers who knew honey before mass industrial processes took over recognize WNA’s work.
“Older folks — and I’m going back to people who are 70, 75 years old or older — recognize it,” Schulz says. “The fact that we hand-select the honey puts us more into that bracket.”
Even the selection of the glass jar (made by a Wisconsin company) was the result of an attempt to find the highest quality solution to a workaday problem, and took hours of discussion.
“Our goal was to stay in glass — something recyclable, something clean, staying in a very high-quality unit,” says Schulz.
The end result of everything — the placement of the beeyards, the gentle treatment of the bees, the hand-production, the minimal processing, the careful packaging — is one of the most pure and powerful expressions of honey a person is ever likely to taste. As for what to do with it, Schulz offers a few thoughts: “I would suggest they taste the honey plain to start with. From there, they can take blue cheese and sprinkle some honey on it… and honey on toast with a little cinnamon is awesome.” (WNA honey is available in specialty stores across Wisconsin; in the Twin Cities, it’s available at Kowalski’s.)
What Schulz and Bjork has set in motion may have a ripple effect in terms of raising the bar for local honey. Bjork puts WNA’s efforts in a greater context, that of a region rediscovering and celebrating its artisanal food traditions.
“In the Midwest, we have really high standards,” says Bjork. “When you have cheese, you have really good cheese; when you have sausage, you have really good sausage — and we hope people will start saying that about honey, too.”
Honey Lavender Shrimp
Courtesy of WNA
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. rock shrimp
1 tbsp. garlic, minced, fresh
1 tbsp. salt
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup Wisconsin Natural Acres honey
1-½ tbsp. lavender flowers, dried
- Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat.
- Add garlic and shrimp and cook halfway through (about 2 to 3 minutes).
- Add salt, pepper, white wine and lavender and turn heat to high.
- When mixture boils, remove shrimp with a slotted spoon, leaving pan juices.
- Add honey to pan juices and reduce mixture by three-fourths over medium heat until it will coat the back of a metal spoon.
- Toss shrimp and serve as an appetizer or entrée.
Serving size: 1/3 cup.