The Tasmanian Honey Company began in 1978 as the concept of Julian Wolfhagen, a beekeeper with a profound passion for Tasmania, its wild forests and the honey that they produce. Baking Business chats to Julian to get the buzz on this fascinating area of primary production and the unique flavour of leatherwood honey.
Tell us a bit about The Tasmanian Honey Company:
I’m Tasmanian born and raised and was involved in the hospitality industry. I came from a background of farming and I guess I was drawn back to the more production angle in the hospitality context. At the time, we hadn’t heard of the clean, green Tasmania—it was a sort of hydro-industrialised, blue collar state really, and it didn’t have anything much of a food culture at all.
I was impassioned by my Tasmanian heritage I suppose, and interested in looking for a way to make a future. I’d played around with bees as a child and when I came back to the country, I saw Tasmanian leatherwood honey as a sort of a flagship really of what is a truly Tasmanian production.
What makes leatherwood different to other types of honey?
Leatherwood just has a flavour that is quite unique; there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. It’s very out there, and has a really high piquancy and spiciness. It has not just an apparent sweetness; it has this much more floral bouquet. It’s a bit like oysters and operas and becomes a bit of an acquired taste—it doesn’t fit every palate.
To me, what really makes it special is that it’s a sort of rainforest honey. It comes from completely wild, untamed landscape and doesn’t have any of the compromise of industrialisation and chemicals and so forth. The west coast of Tasmania is arguably one of the cleanest environments in the world. It makes it a pretty awesome product, just by the nature of its production.
It also has wonderful health qualities about it, we’re finding out more and more—similar to Manuka.
How is it harvested?
It’s harvested in January and February, predominantly from the early autumn flower. Harvesting is done all by hand by teams of people; honey production is very much hands-on. There’s a certain amount of automation to try to minimise lifting, because honey is very heavy—about one and a half times heavier than water.
We run around 1500-1800 hives depending on the year, and they all have to be moved to this remote location. We migrate them from mid-summer to the west coast—it’s a really busy time of year, and if the weather’s right, honey production from the leatherwood can be copious. By the time we get our last hives moved, our first hive’s already full, so we need to go and remove the stored honey from those and give them new empty boxes to continue on to harvest. Then they’re returned to a central plant—our main honey house is in Perth, Tasmania (the original Perth!).
How much honey would you produce in a season?
We’d produce around 150-200 tonnes.
Where does it go? Is it predominantly local or international?
It’s 50/50—we have a reasonably national distribution. Most of the country is covered, but we’re on the specialty end so it’s a pretty small, niche market. The Asian market is very strong for us—Korean people have been great supporters of us and really love the leatherwood. The packaging was set up on the back of the Korean demand, and we have a lot of Chinese demand, then Japan, Europe and North America. They’re sort of our key markets.
Are there any unique challenges to producing honey in Tasmania?
Very much. Climate is critically important to anything in agriculture and certainly in beekeeping. The biggest limitation for leatherwood production is established beekeeping and accessibility to resources. Leatherwood particularly is part of our wetter forests where a lot of our timber harvesting over the years has taken place, so an awful lot of it has already been eradicated and we’re really only left with the remainder portions that have been in reserves.
We used to use a lot of forestry controlled lands, but progressively as they cut the forests down the roading system that allowed us to get hives within proximity of the boundary so the bees could fly over the plantation forestry and get into the reserved forests gave us access in some cases, but that gets more difficult as the roads to these remote locations are very expensive to maintain.
It’s a very specialised game to be able to be an efficient producer of it. It takes a lot of skill and knowledge from hands on experience. You need to be faithful to a methodology that delivers the right sort of outcome.
How long did it take you to learn?
I’m still learning! When I started out, I thought I was quite bright and smart and had travelled a bit, which was unusual at the time in Tasmania, and the old guys said it will take me 10 years before I knew anything. Oddly enough, it was after about 10 years I realised I was starting to understand what they meant. They say to be a master in anything, you’ve got to do the time. And because every season is different—you only get one bite of the cherry here—the build-up time to get the hives in prime production population takes you all of spring and summer, and if you fail somewhere along the way the production is severely handicapped. They’re the skills that take time to gather.
What’s your favourite way to enjoy the honey?
Leatherwood I still enjoy on sourdough, wholemeal toast, with lots of butter—you need to be able to see your toothmarks in the butter! It also makes an awesome panna cotta and works well with anything with apples—if you’re baking or stewing an apple, a dollop of leatherwood saves the cinnamon. It really harmonises with a good blue cheese as well.