Breaking News
More () »

Changemakers: Portland beekeeper has a sweet gig creating deliciously weird honey concoctions

Lee Hedgmon is also a brewer and distiller dedicated to helping more women and people of color break into the business.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Changemakers series spotlights local people who are breaking barriers and making connections that help bring our community together.

Lee Hedgmon certainly knows how Portlanders like to bond. It's over suds, spirits and sweets. She's a brewer, a distiller and a beekeeper. Hedgmon broke into the male-dominated craft beer industry and became the first African American woman to brew commercially in Portland. Now she's out front, helping other women and people of color follow in her footsteps.

Hedgmon is a pioneer and an adventurer when it comes to The Barreled Bee, the business she started in 2017. She ages locally sourced honey in alcohol-soaked barrels from local wineries and distilleries.

"The weirder the honey, the better," she said. "I ran across some Poison Oak honey. I didn't even know that existed!" She swears it won't make you itch and is safe to eat. She described the flavor as both sweet and tart.

Credit: Lee Hedgmon

Hedgmon said she likes to think of herself as a "matchmaker." The match comes from that special marriage of flavors. She doesn't open the barrels for at least four months, after which she does a monthly test. She said she likes to call that test the "toddy test."

"I'll pull a sample out and put it in hot water and the moment it tastes like a hot toddy, I'm like 'Oh! Is there alcohol in this?' And then I'm like, 'I think it's ready,'" she said, laughing.

Hedgmon is excited about what she's working on right now.

"I put Buckwheat honey in a rum barrel," she said. "It's very pungent, very barn-yardy, very earthy, all those things I'm reminded of when I drink rum."

Credit: Lee Hedgmon

Other favorite concoctions include honey from vetch — a cover crop that enriches the soil with nitrogen. She said that particular honey tastes like you're biting into a blade of grass.

"It's got that bright, vegetal, almost spicy citrus note to it," she said. "I put that in a pinot noir port barrel. You could taste the wine character: citrus, orange, lime-like characteristics. Completely unexpected but really amazing."

She adds that her honey blends aren't overly sweet. "I think that's what always surprises people," she said. "When I age the honey in barrels it almost tastes less sweet after it comes out of the barrel than it does than when it goes in."

RELATED: Changemakers: Portland Navy veteran puts heart and soul into nonprofit Soul River

Hedgmon gets 300 to 400 bottles of honey from each 350-pound barrel. "The ratio of alcohol that's left in the barrel is usually less than 1%. So, you will not get a buzz. No pun intended," she said with a laugh.

All joking aside, this "Changemaker" is serious about conservation and buying local.

"I really want to get people to understand where food is coming from," she said. "That has always been really, really important to me because honey is a snapshot of a place in time: where the bees are, what they were harvesting, what was growing there."

Hedgmon is a connoisseur and not just of honey. She's also a distiller at Freeland Spirits in Portland. She's also a craft brewer — the first African American woman in the Rose City to do that commercially.

Credit: Lee Hedgmon

She admits she's experienced some subtle sexism but not from the brewers. It's typically customers doing the mansplaining.

"There's always that caveat: 'You're really good but maybe you could do this — or this,'" Hedgmon said. "It can be frustrating, but I also think there's a really clear way to address it and not alienate somebody because I don't think all the time that people are aware of what they do or say and how that comes off."

RELATED: Changemakers: Meet the Portland recyclers tackling so much more than trash

So how does her industry expand access to underrepresented communities? Hedgmon points to educational and professional opportunities through the Pink Boots Society, an organization for female brewers, distillers and cider makers.

Her employer, Freeland Spirits, also started a paid internship program to help women and people of color break into distilling.

"The interns leave and are able to hit the ground running," she said. "They know how to attach equipment, know about chemicals, know how to clean. People don't realize that 90% of the work we do is cleaning, not glamorous. Oh, my goodness, I clean more at work than I do at home!"

Credit: Lee Hedgmon

Hedgmon said Freeland will be looking for another intern this summer.

"One of the things I love and appreciate is it's a paid internship," she said. "It's really difficult to ask people to take four months out of their life, 40 hours a week, and do labor for free. I personally find it to be wrong. The system is just not set up for helping working-class and poor people and first-generation people going to school to get the access to the kinds of education that they need to do the job. So, when you find programs that are really, really dedicated to making that happen, that's an amazing thing."

Hedgmon said she's ready for the day when she's not the "first" or the "only." And she's working to pave the way for other women and people of color to break into these industries.

"When I can go, 'Oh, I don't have time to do this, but I can think of 10 other people who fit this bill that you should contact, and they would be amazing,' I want that to happen," she said. "And I think it's happening a little bit more and a little bit more. Social media has really been a blessing in that sense. You can get those views, those pictures and those experiences out to a much wider audience.

"If you don't see it, you don't know. If all we see are people who don't look like us, we don't think there's a place for us at the table. Representation is super important. That's why I continue to do all the things I do."

WATCH: More videos in the Changemakers series

Before You Leave, Check This Out