Manna from Heaven: Honey Wine, Culture & Conservation

This week on All the Swirl Hillary Lyons interviews Ayele Solomon, honey winemaker at the San Francisco based Honey Wine Company and conservationist with Wildlife Works Carbon on how he has tied t’ej, Ethiopia’s honey wine to cultural preservation, economic empowerment, environmental sustainability.


A myriad of cultures the world over have revered honey as “a nectar of the gods,” and the honeybee as an emissary from the heavens, for millennia. The ancient Romans called bees the “winged attendants of the Muses,” while many Eastern cultures believed that bees brought their ambrosia directly from heaven. With such reverence, it is no surprise that these cultures combined two of humanity’s favorite vices, sweetness and alcohol, to produce honey wine.

 Photo courtesy of thehypocriticalgreenie.com.

Photo courtesy of thehypocriticalgreenie.com.

Known as ‘mead’ in the English tradition, or ‘hydromel’ in French, no tipple has captured the imagination quite like honey wine. Though mead has gained wild popularity in the past decade with the rise of ‘hipster gastronomy’ and a growing demand for sustainable, ‘natural’ products, the suspected ancestor of all honey wine has gone unnoticed.

 T'ej in the traditional berillé glass. Photo courtesy of shaybuna.com.

T'ej in the traditional berillé glass. Photo courtesy of shaybuna.com.

T’ej is the honey wine unique to Ethiopia, a country of approximately 100 million and the only country where honey wine is the quotidien beverage (not to mention the world’s oldest honey ferment with the first written record of its consumption dating back 2,000 years). T’ej is unique for a number of reasons, but three stand out. First of all, it is made via traditional comb pressing versus modern centrifugal extraction. This process preserves more pollen in the honey, giving it a beautiful yellow color but also retains more proteins and nutrients. Second, traditional honey wine is made with gesho, a shrub native to Africa that has bittering and antiseptic properties similar to hops. Last but not least, it is almost exclusively a homemade product in Ethiopia, creating a profusion of diverse (and preciously guarded) recipes.

Until recently, t’ej was rarely found outside of Ethiopia. Ayele Solomon set out to change that. Solomon is the Director of project sourcing in Africa for Wildlife Works Carbon, the world’s leading REDD+ company (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation: a framework for arresting deforestation through carbon payments and alternative livelihoods). He is also the founder and winemaker at The Honey Wine Company based in San Francisco, and a Director of Wildlife Works Carbon, the world’s leading REDD company. Recognizing the rising popularity of mead, Solomon set out to create a product that would undo the misconceptions that honey wine must be sickly sweet, and that it is a special occasion beverage reserved for Renaissance fairs or Game of Thrones premieres. “I wanted to show people that honey wine could be a light, refreshing, everyday beverage,” says Solomon. “Ethiopia is one of the largest producers of honey in the world, and the majority of that honey goes toward making t’ej,” Solomon says.

 Kafa Rainforest . Photo courtesy of The Honey Wine Company.

Kafa Rainforest . Photo courtesy of The Honey Wine Company.

While Solomon’s family is of Ethiopian descent, Solomon himself grew up in Kenya and Northern California, where he developed a deep passion for conservation. As such Solomon’s motivation for establishing The Honey Wine Company goes far beyond gastronomic or even economic reasons. Ethiopia’s Kafa rainforest is a globally recognized Bioshpere reserve. Renowned for its biodiversity, it was named after the coffee plants that originated and grow wild there. Driving through the rainforest in 2009, Solomon witnessed the devastating effects of deforestation. As he explains, “In the past century, native forests in Ethiopia have been reduced from 40% to to 3% of the land because the growing population is driven to cut the native trees for crop agriculture and charcoal."

Before the pressures of a globalized food system constrained this small region into conventional and environmentally destructive agriculture, the people of the Kafa Kingdom traded in wild coffee and honey. Traditionally men climbed the forest’s trees and hung empty hives, cultivated the wild bees’ honey, and pressed the hives whole to collect the extract the liquid gold - a practice that continues to this day - and either refine it for sale to global markets, or ferment their harvest into t’ej. However, as Ayele witnessed during his visit, this method posed two major problems: first, the hives only produced a few pounds of poor quality honey per year, and second, the practice excluded women.

 Ayele Solomon inspecting a hive. Photo courtesy of University of California at Berkeley.

Ayele Solomon inspecting a hive. Photo courtesy of University of California at Berkeley.

Solomon connected the historic culture of t’ej and his conservationist philosophy to envision an opportunity for economic empowerment and cultural preservation. Though the honey used in his wines currently comes from California, Solomon is working with Kafa beekeepers to implement transitional, frame hive technology in order to promote this apiarian tradition. “By simply introducing these modern hives,” Solomon says, “we create a strong biofeedback loop that promotes forest conservation. Because the honey comes from the flowers in the trees, and different honey varietals are named after the trees themselves, honey production increases environmental consciousness.

What’s more, this program increases the annual honey yield (and therefore income) per household five-fold and creates jobs for women, who are traditionally prohibited from climbing trees to collect honey. Eventually Solomon hopes to source honey from this Kafa project for an ultra premium line of honey wines.

 Ayele Solomon with his current Bee D'Vine wines. Photo courtesy of Molly Oleson.

Ayele Solomon with his current Bee D'Vine wines. Photo courtesy of Molly Oleson.

For now, the Honey Wine Company produces a dry 'brut' and a semi-sweet 'demi sec' in Sonoma County, both of which are aged at least 10 months and made purely with California sourced orange blossom honey and spring water at the winery in Kenwood. Solomon’s delicate approach to winemaking makes versatile honey wines that pair well with anything from ripe cheeses to egg dishes, Korean barbeque to sushi. His ‘Bee D’Vine’ wines can be found at retail locations throughout California, or online.


All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California.  We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.