I’m seated across Harry Grover, in a speakeasy located at Tan Boon Liat Building. The Perth native cut a laid-back figure as he made me a coffee against a backdrop of shelves lined with rows of jars. Getting to the by-appointment-only space was no easy feat, as it involved following a trail of bee signs, which led me down a narrow pathway, until — finally — I turned a corner into a nondescript door.
As the man behind Forty Hands and Common Man Coffee Roasters, Grover is unarguably one of the forerunners of the third wave coffee scene in Singapore, and the booming indie cafe movement. Now, he has something new up his sleeve: He wants to put sustainably sourced, raw Australian honey on the world map with The Rare Honey Company.
Grover’s move from coffee to honey is a surprising one — at least for those unfamiliar with his background. He had spent much of his childhood in the same Western Australian Jarrah and Redgum forests where The Rare Honey Company makes its honey. A meeting with two young beekeepers helming a small family-run business at that time convinced him to come onboard as the founder and director to establish The Rare Honey Company, particularly after learning about honey fraud.
The sticky situation
Like many, I’d grown up assuming that honeys labelled Manuka, organic or stocked at upscale grocers, are inevitably the better choice. This is a common perception across the world. “People don’t know anything beyond the label,” says Grover. “They think: ‘If I buy it from Australia or New Zealand, it must be good’ But not necessarily. Or [they assume] because it’s expensive, it must be good. It’s such a scam.”
“Scam” is a strong word, but that’s exactly what Grover wants the public to know about the “third most adulterated food in the world”. “When you buy honey commercially at a supermarket, 50 to 70 percent of it is sugar and water,” he says. And such methods of adulteration go undetected, as such processes are often sophisticated, Grover continues.
A quick search on honey fraud confirms Grover’s claims. A 2018 study of 95 commercial honeys by Macquarie University in collaboration with the National Measurement Institute revealed that almost one in five of the Australian honeys were adulterated. Other shocking findings? Of the 95 honeys, adulteration statics stood at 18 percent for Australia, 28 percent for European honeys, and 52 percent for Asian honey.
Grover adds that the companies might not even know they’re selling fake honey. Often, “they’re using imported honey [from Russia, China, Argentina] to add to their own production to just have enough.”
Real honey, Rare Honey
With so much fraud going on, how can one ascertain that one is buying the real deal? “The only sure way is if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area where there are apiarists,” says Grover. “Alternatively, buy it from a farmer’s market. Or directly from the source.”
A key example of the right source is, of course, The Rare Honey Company. All of its honey are bottled directly, raw, and straight from the hives. He discloses that the beekeepers look after several hundred apiaries, which can amount to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of bees. He holds up a medium-sized jar of honey, telling me “this would take around 2,000 bees in their entire lifetime to make.” This is unsurprising considering that “each bee produces only about an eighth of a teaspoon of honey in its life”. Despite the painstaking process it takes to produce honey, most people don’t even know how it’s done.
This lack of knowledge is why Grover is bent on the educational aspect of The Rare Honey Company. “It’s not so much a product business, but an advocacy associated with education around bees, beekeeping and the importance of bees,” he says.
Like the single origin beans he uses in his cafes, The Rare Honey Company’s range are mono-floral. “These bees are only feeding off a single type of tree species to create an individual flavour profile.”
As nuanced and complex-flavoured as the honeys are, their origins are just as important. He cites Western Australia as a key destination for beekeeping as it is pest and disease free. In other parts of the world, hive collapses can happen due to human pollution, crop spraying pesticides, and attacks from mites.
Grover’s enthusiasm and knowledge for honey clearly stems from a place of passion — a feeling, he assures us, is still alive and well with his cafes. But he admits that he had to learn to let go. “I was working the bar up until last year,” he says. Describing the coffee scene as having changed “immeasurably and unrecognisably” since he started Forty Hands and CMCR, he has, likewise, altered his mindset. “When you’re a startup, things are very different. Now when you have over 100 staff, you want to focus on their welfare instead”.
“Look after your people even if they don’t always look after you”
When asked about the secrets to running his successful businesses, Grover advises to “look after your core inner team and they’ll look after you”. His final words? “Listen to those people and your staff, and understand you need a republic of intellect. Don’t just listen to partners and managers. Listen to your dishwasher and junior staff because everyone has a life experience to share.”
All photos are courtesy of The Rare Honey Company