There are some interesting, if little known, facts about beekeeping, honey production and the Maryborough plant of Capilano, Australia’s largest honey producer.
One is that despite sounding Italian or Spanish, Capilano is actually a Squamish word, from the Vancouver region of Canada.
It means 'rushing water' in the language of the indigenous Squamish Nation whose territory is the land near Vancouver.
According to the company, it was here that Queensland apiarist Tim Smith met his wife Jill, while stationed in Canada as a RAAF flying instructor in WWII. He proposed marriage to her on the Capilano Bridge.
Another fact is there are honey tasters who have the same skills as wine tasters and sommeliers. They can detect within a honey the differing flavours of particular flowers and pollens – the rich depth and tang of orange blossom, the earthy subtlety of manuka, the pale sweetness of yellow gum, the bitterness of carrot flowers.
They can identify regions and even districts in a given sample, says Capilano Honey’s Maryborough operations manager Michael Notley.
Talented honey tasters are also as sought after as any wine expert, and are a vital part of the honey-making process. Maryborough is lucky to have a couple; one is 84-year-old Ron Rich, who began his beekeeping career in his early teens and is now respected Australia-wide for his knowledge.
But more on Ron Rich later.
Capilano has been processing honey in Maryborough since 1974. It’s on the edge of town, at the end of Capilano Drive. Towards the end of the Millenium drought, in 2010, the factory closed as supplies dried up along with the water, but in recent years it’s reopened, remachined and now employs 28 staff, with more jobs in the offing.
Capilano Maryborough specialises in what are called ‘glass’ products – the high-end and specialty honeys which are sold in smaller amounts. These include premium and organic brands, manuka and medicinal honeys, and honey-apple cider vinegar, a traditional blend of the two products which is reputed to have beneficial health outcomes.
“We pack anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 litres of apple cider vinegar a week,” says Michael Notley.
“We’re definitely the biggest apple cider vinegar packer in Australia. We’ve got our own brand, Barnes, which we make different versions of. We mix some with manuka honey, some with organic.
“We sell some to Canada, we did a couple of pallets for the US the other day, we’re knocking on the door of the US; we send some to New Zealand, the Middle East...”
Walking into the factory with Notley, the first and overwhelming physical reaction is to the amazing pervasiveness of honey in the air. It’s very pleasant, but incredibly strong, almost physically present upon the tongue.
Processing the honey is a deceptively simple process, but there are crucial finesses that need to be attended to. The honey is delivered by beekeepers, straight from the hive after extraction and some cleaning, to the Maryborough plant.
Some of the local and even further afield Victorian apiarists insist on delivering their own honey; one producer from South Australia still drives over, although bulk deliveries are now the norm.
Originally honey was delivered in galvanised 44-gallon drums. These have almost been replaced entirely by plastic containers, green drum and the larger metal-framed intermediate bulk containers (IBCs).
Notley says the beekeepers are a little reluctant to let go of the old drums. It represents a world they are comfortable in, and they have worked in that world for generations sometimes.
But change is inevitable. The old drums were difficult, messy and sometimes dangerous to handle, whereas forklifts deal with the bigger containers easily.
Other changes are coming, too. Capilano has been a relatively small, almost co-operative, ASX-listed company for most of its existence, but now big money is knocking at the door.
HoldCo, a private-equity company owned by Wattle Hill and ROC Partners and representing large amounts of Chinese investment, is offering to buy out the Capilano shareholders – many of whom have been investors since the company was floated in 2012. And a lot of those investors are beekeepers.
Capilano see the offer – $20.06 a share, a.0.5 HoldCo share for each Capilano share held and shareholder ownership maintained – as a sweet opportunity to drive growth into Asia. There is some apiarist disquiet; they have seen the disaster wrought upon the dairy industry by buy-outs and too-rapid overseas expansion; the cut-throat practices of the supermarket duopoly in driving prices down. They have a way of life they feel is in tune with the flow of nature, and change is not something they seek readily.
Inside the factory, the investment turmoil seems a long way away. Michael Notley explains what happens to the honey after it’s delivered, how the beekeeper and type of honey is carefully recorded.
“Honey is put through the filtration system to take out wax, dead bees, anything that might be in the IBCs,” says Notley.
“It’s a closed system. After it’s filtered, it’s packed. That’s it.”
We going into a packing room. Three hi-vis staff, all young, are filling and putting the lids on one-litre drums of honey, moving like clockwork, chatting easily as the containers roll through. It’s surprising how much physical work is involved, even though it’s a production line. The packing of the containers into boxes is done by hand. Honey is extremely dense; it’s heavy and has a tendency to attach itself to everything.
It’s the same for the honey-apple cider vinegar, except the smell of the filling and packing room is the polar opposite of the honey operation. It’s pungent, and it sticks.
It’s in this room that it becomes clear just how much the people working in this plant, this tiny, largely young workforce, are enjoying themselves. There’s a kind of natural ease that seems to be created by the confluence of the sweet omniscience of the smell of honey, marked by the tart waft of vinegar.
Earlier in the week, the lifetime beekeeper and honey expert Ron Rich had said he remembers only six or seven seasons in his long life where he had seen “a good flow”, a season where honey flowed freely and easily.
“Mother Nature keeps you in this business,” he said.
Mother Nature keeps you in this business. You learn more; every day is different. To see a good honey flow is to take a good tonic. It’s those things that make honeybees just so pleasant.Veteran beekeeper Ron Rich
“You learn more; every day is different. To see a good honey flow is to take a good tonic. It’s those things that make honeybees just so pleasant. My uncle George only ever had 400-500 hives, but he made a good living from it. It’s a methodical life.”
We ask if we can have a photograph with Notley holding a Capilano product. He suggests if ‘one or two’ staff might like to be in the picture. We agree readily, and head outside to set up.
We turn to see the entire shift has decided to arrive behind us, all carrying products, laughing and keen to be in the photograph. It’s clear they are genuinely proud of what they do; all of them are locals. In a town that has taken more than its share of knocks in recent years, Maryborough has a sweet deal in having Capilano Honey on its doorstep.
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