We chat with Sheryl Steens, boss lady at Steens Honey, possibly the largest and most well known provider of Manuka Honey.
Manuka honey is a rarer variety of honey produced from the nectar of the manuka tree, and is said to have health benefits and medicinal properties that far exceed that of regular ‘boring’ honey.
We ask Sheryl about keeping bees, keeping T-Rexes and keeping busy.
Full Name: Sheryl Steens
Birthplace: New Zealand
Fun Fact: I don’t try to find a song to sing to fit the conversation… it just happens.
Why Manuka Honey and how do you end up building a successful business in such a niche food? Could you give us an idea of how you got to today and where the idea started.
In the early days, our little seaside community aptly dubbed Paul and I the ‘Goodlifers’ after your British sitcom [Ed: Tasting Britain claims no ownership of this sitcom]. Our dream was to live sustainably and we were absolutely passionate about everything we did. Our ¼ acre section lived and breathed production – chooks, ducks, an enormous vege patch, little orchard and my beloved milking goat. It became pretty obvious we needed bees; Paul read a book about them and one exciting Saturday 32 years ago we brought home 3 beehives and our love affair with them began right there and then.
I love the pictures those memories make for me. Innovations in the NZ kiwifruit industry opened up an opportunity for us to get into beekeeping on a commercial scale through the need for pollination. Bees fitted right in with our philosophy of life and living. As the industry developed, other innovations happened such as the discovery of the active properties in manuka honey. I remember we were offered 80c a kilo for our Manuka and other darker honeys and we made the decision not to sell but wait until the prices improved. Paul and I would climb up and sit atop the stack of drums with a cup of tea convincing each other we had made the right call……the rest is history.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the honey industry? Is it a sweet deal? (sorry had to say that)
Dipping your fingers straight into fresh honeycomb is a pretty sweet deal! I consider myself so lucky to be part of such an ancient industry and yet one that is still being discovered with continual breakthroughs in research, science and technology.
The amount of people that say, and I quote, ’Beekeeping must be so romantic!’ Well I certainly don’t want to quash those lovely images of Paul and I dilly-dallying home after a day in the field with pails of honey in hand, but life is crazy, busy running 10,000 beehives. I try to put it in perspective for people, when I tell them we farm insects. We have a fantastic team of people working alongside us, being in the beekeeping industry for 32 years is a lifestyle and I am always the happiest living in the right side of my brain.
Things that buzz and sting worry me (I hate wasps). I can’t see how you can work so closely with bees without antagonising them (though clearly you do) – do the bees ever get angry or happy? Does the swarm have emotions? Does anything affect them?
I too hate wasps with a passion. They will do their best to sneak into the beehive and steal honey, they look for protein too, they’ll kill and cut the bees into bits to take back to their nest for food. Always amuses me how often people get bees and wasps confused, they are nothing like each other. Bees are generally pretty contented but will get aggressive if they feel threatened in any way.
Being gentle around a hive is the key. However I walked past my little garden hive the other day and thought I’d have quick check inside, they weren’t at all fussed on me sticking my nose in. I hadn’t bothered getting a veil on or smoking them …not wise on this occasion.
Leading onto the next point, do you have to manage them?
Yes you sure do….whether you’re managing a beehive in your backyard or on a commercial scale each hive has to be carefully managed throughout the season. Just like any living creature they need to be cared for and kept in optimal health.
Beekeeping is a craft as well as a science.
Could you give us an outline of the process of creating a jar of your delicious honey, from start to finish?
The great thing about being vertically integrated is we are every step of the production chain. We don’t buy honey in from other beekeepers or traders, it’s all produced by us so we know absolutely everything about the honey. We go to some pretty extreme areas in NZ to gather it. We designed a Track & Trace system where consumers can type in a code and go back to where their honey was produced. We extract really differently too using a cold process system and we don’t fine filter meaning oodles of bee pollen is retained and it’s so nutritious. I love talking about this, I get really excited about beautiful nutritious food.
I’ve been reading about various types of bees. What kind to you work with. Do you ever have any dealings with Africanised/killer bees?
No African killer bees in NZ…Happy Days! Our honey bees were mostly from Italian stock but in the past few years we have changed over to Carneolins which are from Austria. We get semen imported and artificially inseminate our breeder queens and from these girls we produce all the stock we require.
Your personal serving suggestion – best and favourite way to serve honey? I’ve recently had Steens with quark cheese and walnuts in a pancake and it was amazing…
The children’s friends would come to stay and tell their parents that there is no sugar in their house you have to have honey!
Paul and I get our manuka fix everyday at breakfast time, cereal slathered in honey and either organic blueberries or black currants! The very humble rolled oats and manuka honey are a marriage made in heaven. Not quite as exciting as your quark cheese and walnut pancakes I’m afraid!
As no doubt you know, honey’s been used for food and healing as long as humans worked out how to steal honey from the bees! Can you use Steens for everything you can do with a ‘regular’ honey? How does it compare to conventional honey?
There are 3 cupboards that Steens can be popped in…the pantry, the medicine and the bathroom one. You can use it for everything from the simplest to more complex recipes, cuts, abrasions, burns, infections, gut health, sore throats, immunity etc.,. and because honey is a natural humectant (absorbs water) it makes for a fabulous refreshing face mask.
The higher the NPA activity the more potent the antibacterial activity in the honey. Our manuka isn’t at all conventional, it’s raw and not secondary processed.
We cold process our honey and all the goodness is retained hence the unique aromas and flavours. The natural crystals are still present so it has a slightly grainier texture than other honeys and because we don’t fine filter, huge amounts of bee pollen (bee bread) is maintained, this bee bread is one of the oldest prized dietary substances known to man.
It really is like dipping your finger straight into the honeycomb.
What’s the deal about this ‘raw’ honey I keep hearing about?
Every time honey is heated and goes through any processing the active volatiles within the honey are leached into the atmosphere and lost. Such a shame when these aromas, yeasts, enzymes and peroxide activity which are responsible for activating vitamins and minerals in our bodies are destroyed. The best way to ensure you are eating raw honey is to eat ours!
In a nutshell, could you explain what the numbering system means/how it affects the final product?
Easy peasy…the higher the number the higher the measure of NPA-non peroxide activity in the honey. The high active honeys are much harder to harvest and are a scarce resource.
If you could go back to the beginning and start over, what would you change or do differently?
It’s been a huge journey and if only we knew then what we know now and I’d use a little more sunblock while spending so much time outside.
Did you ever have a point where you knew it was working or that you’d made it? Do you remember that point?
No, I never think that, when you start thinking like that one could easily have a tendency to stop innovating and become complacent. That’s just not in our thinking. The world is a changing place and we must always have our windscreen wipers on, clearing the way and looking forward.
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for Steens? If you could achieve anything with it what would you pick? Money’s no obstacle so shoot for the moon…
To champion the cause of Manuka Honey for natural health and wellbeing and Steens to be the obvious choice!
I am often heard quoting ‘What’s it all about Alfie?’ This little phrase helps bring me back to basics and ‘What it is all about’….. is making a difference to people’s lives, sounds a bit naff but that’s the absolute fact of it. There’s the old fella who’s being suffering with a leg ulcer and hasn’t been able to walk properly for months. We don’t want him to just be able to walk but grab his wife and dance again!
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I am surrounded on a daily basis with talented, generous, dedicated, fun and diverse people….how lucky am I? I’m not that fussed on financial spreadsheets….thank goodness Paul is the master of these!
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Creating edible environments! I remember my first visit to London, standing on the penthouse deck of NZ House in Piccadilly surrounded by the views of the cities rooftops, I imagined them all planted…the sight I saw was absolutely breathtaking!
What’s your personal philosophy, summed up in sentence?
To be totally worn out in the end from doing everything I possibly can.
What advice would you give to aspiring food entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
If you think of the real estate quote…Location, Location, Location. I would quote….Quality, Quality, Quality and never compromise that. Be quality obsessed, be real, a little gutsy and daring and live outside the box, it’s actually easier to think out there.
Where next for you and Steens?
Well it’s pretty late in NZ so I’m off to bed with Mr Steens!
…..you have acquired a pet T-Rex and are morally obliged to look after it. It is 13ft tall at the hips. Eats half a ton of raw meat a day and likes taking long walks. What would you call it and what would you do to keep it entertained and housed?
Trevor’s rather lovely for him. Poor fellow is claustrophobic and can’t stand living inside but luckily our clement NZ weather is perfect for him. We were so lucky to get one that’s easily trained and although our Australian neighbours revere the ‘possum’ we kiwis do not. He’s trained in all aspects of humane possum trapping which keeps him well and truly fed and takes him on journeys that keep him stimulated.
In fact he’s about to be awarded an OBE for his contribution to society for his part in restoring our forests! So Proud!
….if Steens was forced to change from producer of fine honeys into a martial arts dojo, what style would you guys teach and what music would you play in your gym to get people fired up?
Funny you should ask this….we have just started a neighbourhood yoga group in our old honey house so we’d definitely incorporate a yoga style into it! As for music there would be a huge selection of genres, we’d be collaborative in letting people choose what works for them!
If you had to found a new country based around Steens’ principles, what would you call it, where would it be, what would its capital be called and what would it’s chief export be?
Our chief export would be real food made with real ingredients. All food would be organic with minimal processing based on values that empower health and wellbeing. Christina is rather a lovely name for a capital city, there’s something nurturing about a city being a woman! We’d pop ourselves somewhere in the Pacific Ocean where food would flourish 24 months of the year and we’d be called ‘Lusty Island’ and those who lived there would of course be called ‘Lusticians!’