Honey Ridge Farms
BY ASHLEY GARTLAND
photos courtesy Honey Ridge Farms
We’ve sipped fermented beverages since Biblical times, when humans first mixed honey, water and yeast with subtle flavorings like herbs or flowers to create mead. Also known as honey wine, this alcoholic beverage remained popular for hundreds of years in England and Northern Europe, though we rarely serve it today due to the advent of alternative pleasures like beer and wine.At a small honey-focused business located 165 miles south of Seattle, the legacy of mead still exists. Centuries after the sweet wine fell from public favor, Honey Ridge Farms founder Leeanne Goetz began turning honey into mead and that mead into her signature product: balsamic honey vinegar.
The vinegar is the prize-winner in a line of honey-based goods that Goetz peddles to Northwest grocers and gourmet shops. And though the line, which includes floral honeys and smooth honey crème spreads, is a new venture for Goetz, she’s always had family ties to the beekeeping industry. “My son is the fifth-generation beekeeper in our family, and my dad, who’s 91 now, did it to make his living full-time. I had uncles who were beekeepers, cousins who were beekeepers and grandfathers on both sides who were beekeepers,” she says. “So, my whole life I’ve been raised around the beekeeping part of the industry.”
Goetz finally joined the family trade at her son and father’s urging, not as a beekeeper but as a packer, selling her son’s blackberry honey at regional farmer’s markets. Local grocers and gourmet food stores soon picked up her artisan honeys; as her client base grew, Goetz saw potential to expand her line and started searching for new ways to use the golden sweetener.
Goetz chanced upon the right venture at a regional beekeeping convention. While attending a trade presentation, Goetz learned that the National Honey Board was researching and developing a balsamic honey vinegar prototype for industry use. Immediately intrigued, she got in touch with the board and set about adding the product to her line.
“I got the formula for the prototype. But it wasn’t complete, like you were just handed something and got to go mass produce it,” says Goetz. “It was a basic concept and it took me at least another year and a half to develop it into my own product.” Over that year and a half, she tinkered with the recipe to perfect its taste and color, and held numerous tasting panels to make sure the best recipe of the numerous options she tested hit retail shelves when the product debuted in 2008.
Despite its name, the balsamic honey vinegar is not traditional vinegar; Goetz makes her distinct product entirely from honey, not grapes. “We follow a similar process as balsamic vinegar is made, except our ingredient is not what balsamic vinegar is made out of. This is truly honey vinegar, so we are using balsamic as a descriptive term of the style of vinegar this is,” she says.
The vinegar’s versatile applications mirror those of balsamic vinegar. This mellow vinegar can stand in as the base for a bright salad dressing or serve as a pantry staple for creating impromptu pan sauces. Goetz drizzles it over strawberries for dessert, uses it as a grilling marinade, and cuts it with olive oil to make a heady, deep amber bread dipping sauce.
“It is a good alternative to vinegar, a new twist on using honey, and also a new twist in the U.S. on vinegars,” she says. “There are very few honey vinegars available in the U.S., at least right now. But I’m hoping this will become a common ingredient in many people’s kitchens as time goes on.”
As products like Goetz’s balsamic honey vinegar become commonplace in home kitchens, they also serve to benefit a beekeeping industry that’s struggling in the face of diseases that have killed large bee populations (see sidebar). At Honey Ridge Farms, Goetz pledges to help the industry survive these tough times by sourcing only local, artisan honey to make her products.
“I don’t want to import cheap honey from other countries,” she says. “The beekeepers here in the U.S. have a hard time staying in business with the challenges faced and I want to support them by paying a fair price for their honey.” Goetz will further support the industry by donating a percentage of the profits from the balsamic honey vinegar sales to research on restoring bee populations.
Farther down the road, Goetz hopes to find a 20-acre parcel, one where her son can raise a healthy population of bees and where she can make her ever-expanding line of products on-site. She dreams of an idyllic setting where she’ll give public tours, and open a little gift shop filled with honey-focused wares. For now, however, she’s content to slowly and steadily expand her line, and keep searching for products like her vinegar that give back to the beekeeping industry on multiple levels. “Whatever I do in the future, it will always be honey based,” she says.
Find Honey Ridge Farms products in Washington at Columbia Crest Winery, Desert Wind Winery, Northwest Trek, Olympia Food Co-op, Red Apple Market (Bridal Trails, Kirkland), Salish Lodge, most Thriftway locations, Town & Country Market (Bainbridge), Uwajimaya (Bellevue), Whole Foods (Vancouver, WA), and numerous gift shops and wineries around the state.
A former Seattleite, Ashley Gartland now lives in Portland where she works as a freelancer writer. She writes about food, drinks and lifestyle of the Pacific Northwest and has previously been published in Northwest Palate, Edible Portland, and Seattle Metropolitan.
For more information about how to help the bees, click here