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How much water is there in honey?

Before I started beekeeping, I didn’t know about the water content of honey. I remember as a child that sometimes honey had a funny fermented scent, and I didn’t know why. Well, now I know, and I can share that with you.

It turns out that the acceptable percentage of naturally occurring water in honey is between 15.5% and 18.6%. The best quality honey as judged in competitions is between 15.5% and 17%, but up to 18.6% it is still excellent quality.

The problem beyond 18.6% is that all those microorganisms that surround us, such a yeast, can colonize the honey and ferment it. The smell of fermented honey is off-putting, and I dare you to taste it! Those of you who make sourdough bread and harvest your own wild yeast, know that those invisible guys are everywhere.

You might wonder, what’s wrong in honey with water content below 15.5%? I had the same question. Luckily, I have fellow beekeepers that can answer what I couldn't find in Kim Flottum's Honey Handbook. A lovely book with a wealth of information from floral sources to harvesting equipment. 

Back to less than15.5% water in honey. The problem with such honey is that it is so thick that is doesn't flow. We could still spoon it out of the jar, and the taste will be perfect. It will just be too hard to handle.

Next question is how do you measure water content in honey. The instrument most commonly used by beekeepers to check the water content of honey is a refractometer.

How does a refractometer work? When light enters a liquid it changes direction; this is called refraction. A refractometer measures the degree to which the light changes direction, called the angle of refraction. That angle is associated with the water content in the liquid and it is visible in the scale of the refractometer. Here’s a picture of the water content of the liquid honey I submitted to the New Jersey Beekeepers Association Honey Show. Pretty nice reading!

And those are the handsome jars being judged as I write.
Honey Show Submission