Forest Honey - supporting beekeepers & the environment in Ethiopia
Ariana Yuen can often be found with glass jars filled with honey clinking around in her bag. She’s on a mission to get people tasting this liquid gold harvested from the Gera forest in Ethiopia. This honey is the foundation of her new business Maryiza which means “she comes with honey” in Amharic. These single origin raw honeys take the same approach to supporting farmers, the environment, and food that long ago hit the worlds of coffee, chocolate, and wine.
Originally from Hong Kong, Ariana landed in the US for college, and later in Ethiopia working for a global company. She fell in love with the world of agriculture there, and stayed on for nearly 3 years, living and learning with forest farmers.
Honey she soon discovered is a massive global commodity, and Ethiopia is the 5th largest producer in the world. The range of flavors harvested from the forest hives, were unlike anything she’d ever tasted. She realized there was an untapped market for specialty honeys that could also support farmers and a forest based economy in Ethiopia.
Starting an international honey exporting business with a social mission means that you’re bound to hit more than a few bumps in the road. In this episode, Ariana shares some of the challenges and successes of starting Maryiza, and we get to taste some amazing honey in the process.
Above: Photos of the Gera Forest in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, and a traditional log hive hung high in the tree tops to keep people safe from the aggressive bees. A honeycomb with bees busy at work, and the first cohort of local beekeepers during a training for the Maryiza single origin honey company.
Above: Most honey harvesting in Ethiopia happens at night. Local bee keepers gather to share knowledge and practices as they build up this new specialized honey for the international market. One of the main goals of Maryiza is to pay farmers a high wage for their products, and to support more women in entering the beekeeping business. Ariana is sensitive to the impacts of higher wages on local cooperatives and respecting traditional beekeeping methods while also improving consistency and quality. These are some of the challenges she is facing in starting this new mission driven business.
Above: Maryiza founder Arian Yuen smells one of the single origin honeys as she develops language to describe the profile of each, much like you would a fine wine or coffee. Ethiopian farmers use a variety of products such as grasses, leaves, or dried dung to smoke bees from the hives during the harvest which can influence the honey’s flavor and smell. She’s working with farmers to make intentional choices on smoking techniques to enhance the natural flavor of each honey. They are also identifying precise harvest dates so the honey collected is made from pollen of specific masses of flowers in bloom such as coffee blossoms which are indigenous to Ethiopia.
Above: Without a market for these specialized honeys, there is no business. Ariana has spent the past year conducting tastings in top rated restaurants in New York, Boston, and Washington D.C.. Honey desserts that inspire from chefs around the world include the gorgeously plated ones above from chef Sergey Rulev in Russia, and Chef Andrew McCrea of Australia.
Arian developed the honey tasting wheel (pictured above with chefs from The Modern in NYC) with the assistance of wine experts to begin to create profiles for the extensive variety of flavors in each of the Ethiopian single origin forest honeys. The four varieties of honey shown above and sampled during our interview, from lightest to darkest include:
Geteme: Light yellow with a creamed honey texture and a bright and floral flavor.
Bissana: Golden honey with hints of rose and citrus. This tree blooms only once every three years.
Coffee Honey: Light caramel color infused with a smoky and woody flavor from the smoking process used during harvest.
Grawa - The darkest amber of the four honeys with a strong flavor similar to buckwheat honey, with tastes reminiscent of burnt molasses. The grawa tree is known to have a lot of medicinal properties, and is often used to cure stomach aches.