Laurilee McMichael is editor of the Taupo & Turangi Weekender
A high-grade honey. A bespoke handcrafted glass container. A handturned lid and totara plinth. And, a custom-made stainless steel sleeve. It would be fair to say Taupō-based business Zealandia Honey's premium honey is an artwork in its own right.
The price reflects it, with each 200g of honey in its handblown glass jar costing $3100. All have already been sold to an offshore private buyer, with several going to a royal family in the United Arab Emirates.
The 120 glass jars are a myriad of colours and swirls that represent Zealandia Honey, the volcanoes, lakes and rivers of the Central Plateau. Each jar was individually created by Taupō glass artist Lynden Over. The jars' wooden lids and plinths were each produced exactly to fit by Waitahanui woodturner Robbie Graham. And the stainless steel sleeve by Omori-based steel artist Raynor Dunn not only looks stylish but also provides a surface to print the important regulatory information that must accompany honey.
What's inside is a special product that justifies the special treatment. It is a manuka honey with what Zealandia staff think is the highest concentration of the antibacterial component methylglyoxal ever recorded.
Zealandia Honey owner and chief strategy officer Robin de Geus explains that of all the honeys in the world, manuka is the only one that contains methylglyoxal.
In the right conditions the honey can be matured like a whiskey or a fine wine and the amount of methylglyoxal (MGO) in the honey will increase. Because the MGO balance requires a combination of 50 different variables, all of which must be exactly right, honey with a high MGO count is rarely harvested.
So when Zealandia Honey was offered a high MGO honey for sale, it jumped at the chance.
Company co-owners Sri Govindaraju (head of communications), her husband Sunil Pinnamaneni (also chief executive) and Robin de Geus (also chief strategy officer) formed Taupō-based Zealandia Honey 15 months ago after Robin and Sunil met working in a laboratory and found they had matching visions.
Robin had the entrepreneurial expertise and Sunil the understanding of honey. Sri has a food science background and Sunil pursued a masters degree in London and Sweden in food science and biotechnology. Robin is a former lead auditor for integrated management systems and is passionate about design and concept creation.
Zealandia Honey does not produce the honey itself but works with selected beekeepers, outsourcing many of its processes. Beekeepers send samples of their honey to the company, which tests them in its laboratory and from there decides whether to buy the honey.
De Geus says within the honey industry there is a lot of trading and drums of honey can change hands several times. When Zealandia bought this particular batch, the MGO count was 1100mg/kg and rising. It was stored to allow it to mature, and lab testing before bottling confirmed the MGO level was at 1717mg although Pinnamaneni expects it could eventually rise as high as 2000mg.
De Geus says while there is a lot of honey produced in New Zealand, it is putting it into the jars that is the part with the most business risk and that is where Zealandia is involved. It contracts out its manufacturing and packing but in Taupō it has an office, a storage facility and a research and development wing which employs a scientist and a project manager. Some 99 per cent of Zealandia's product is exported.
"It's an investment. We have the honey but we have to wait a long time."
Having secured the honey, the challenge for Zealandia was how to market and present such a premium product in an innovative, artistic and beautiful way, a project which was right up de Geus' street.
They briefed glass artist Over on what they wanted for their honey jars - a glass receptacle with a volcanic background that would encompass the message of the Central Plateau as well as being unique. Once the jars were in train, they also had to find artists to create the lids and sleeves.
The resulting products, de Geus says, are pieces of art.
"This is such a unique piece, it's like a painting. For us, it's more about creating a statement than the monetary value that's in it. The statement is about the artists, about the brand, working with people from the land that are creative. It's very important for us to tell that story and we wanted to show off our scientific knowledge by creating the most potent honey in the world."
With its hefty price tag, this honey was only going to ever appeal to a small group of very wealthy people. De Geus says Pinnamaneni has formed connections because of his vast experience in the honey industry, which led to a buyer.
Govindaraju says the bulk of the money from the premium honey project is staying within the Central Plateau, not only with Zealandia but also with the artists and extra involvement from people like filmmaker Joel Corbett who shot a series of videos to accompany the honey's release.
What made the premium honey release really complicated was that the finishing touches had to be done during the alert level 4 lockdown. Over was able to finish glass blowing the last of the 130 jars required just before the lockdown took effect.
As an essential business, Zealandia was able to move the glass from point to point and Govindaraju and de Geus were part of each other's bubbles which allowed them to work together. When they were unable to source some things - such as the laser cutting for the steel sleeves - they improvised. De Geus bought a laser cutter and did the work himself, saying he loves that sort of task anyway.
It was a stressful time all round with a short eight-week timeline to come up with a concept, create the components and put the finished product together, made more complicated by the level 4 and level 3 lockdown. But, they did it and the product left New Zealand in early May.
"It's a good feeling," de Geus says. "Zealandia is about collaboration.
"Everything is handcrafted. Nothing can be bought off the shelf, not even the rubber seals for the lids which all had to be done individually to fit."
© Laurilee McMichael - Taupo & Turangi Weekender 2020