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Those with cash to splash have their sights set on New Zealand mānuka honey, with the unlikely consumer investment pieces selling for up to $9000 a jar.
A range of economic factors, such as inability to spend money on services during the Covid-19 pandemic and interest rates, have led high-net-worth individuals to look for creative ways to spend their money.
In New Zealand, and around the world, there have been unexpected booms in boat and car purchases. Kiwis are also paying record prices for artworks – in November, a Goldie fetched $1.7 million (almost $1m over the expected price).
The past couple of years have also seen a move away from conventional consumer investing, towards items with a high level of fascination and intrigue. Take the hype around cryptocurrencies, trading cards, or NFTs (non-fungible tokens), for example.
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What might be less expected than digital collectibles that tie ownership to pieces of art, videos, music, memes and real estate, is the rise of mānuka honey as a consumer collectible investment.
Aotearoa’s much-hyped, and sometimes controversial, mānuka honey is now edging its way into the space previously occupied by fine wine and whisky.
In 2020, Taupō-based Zealandia Honey released its first limited-edition run of mānuka honey.
With a methylglyoxal (MGO) content of 1717 milligrams per kilogram (at the time, probably the world’s most potent honey), the 200g jars sold for $3100 apiece.
But it’s about more than the honey. As Zealandia’s chief strategy officer Robin de Geus puts it: “Within the current global market, story is everything. And story sells.”
The company produced a run of 120 jars, which were made of hand-blown glass created by local artist Lynden Over at Lava Glass in Taupō, with a honey spoon, and mounted on a plinth.
All 120 jars were bought by the United Arab Emirates royal family to give as gifts at the end of Ramadan.
In 2022, Zealandia Honey is going one better. Its new limited-edition run – due to be released early this year – includes just 50 jars of mānuka, priced at $8888 each. This time, there’s a limit of five a buyer.
The “8s” represent infinity, and are in keeping with the space theme of the latest collectible. Notably, the number has significance in both Chinese and Islamic cultures.
The honey is contained in hand-blown glass jars that represent Mars, with a spoon fashioned to look like one of the planet’s moons, and set in a piece of 20,000-year-old swamp kauri.
De Geus talks about the extraordinary achievements mankind has made in space exploration in the past year, and how this collectible item is a sort of marker in time.
The approach is clearly targeted at specific consumers. Emerging markets like China, the UAE and India have bolstered their space programmes in recent years. These countries also have a growing middle and upper class with disposable income.
Despite the elaborate story, artistic focus and high-grade mānuka honey, it’s hard to understand the desire to pay this much for a small jar of the stuff many Kiwis spread on toast.
As with a piece of art, the value is in the eye of the beholder, De Geus says.
Each component took time and effort: “The glass doesn’t come easy, kauri doesn’t come easy, and a honey harvest like this only comes along every five years or so, with the right weather and hive placement.”
It’s about the whole experience, whether the honey is consumed, or kept as a family heirloom – as one buyer has planned for his Mars ZH21 limited-edition mānuka.
The company has gone out of its way to capitalise on the growing appetite for high-value collectibles, and it needs to prove the authenticity and value-add.
The honey has a high MGO content – the ingredient that is believed to give mānuka honey antibacterial properties, when it exists in the right ratio with other ingredients. It’s getting this ratio right, and the high potency of MGO, which contributes to the pitching of honey as food with perceived health benefits.
As with a fine wine or whisky, a lot is dependent on the year’s harvest. And those selling the mānuka honey often won’t know the potency for a number of years.
With the right conditions the activity of the honey or MGO content will grow, increasing the value over the first couple of years. However, research from Waikato University shows that once a 2:1 ratio between MGO and DHA (dihydroxyacetone) is met the activity will stabilise, and eventually begin to decrease.
This means to be true to label mānuka honey usually has a two- to four-year shelf life.
To maximise the shelf life, those selling high-quality, high-potency, and highly priced honey recommend storing it at a certain temperature – in the case of the Mars ZH21 it’s 20 degrees Celsius.
De Geus says there is no way to ensure the honey will mature as expected, but they can make an educated prediction, using newly developed testing methods. So far, Zealandia Honey has been pretty spot on.
The testing continues after the jar is sold. Every six months, the lab will test the batch, and update the results, which owners can access.
Meanwhile, each jar is fixed with a QR code that gives access ownership information, which is securely stored using blockchain technology – similar to the concept of an NFT.
Six-monthly updates and secure ownership information might seem like a lot of effort to go to for a jar of honey, but when consumers are paying a premium they expect to be getting the real deal.
De Geus recognises the risk associated with buying a product like honey. But through testing and tracing, the company hopes it can mitigate risk.
This level of traceability also has to be seen in the context of the broader issues facing the cut-throat honey world. Those on the inside often describe the growing industry the wild west.
Those looking to make a buck off the popularity of mānuka honey aren’t above adding synthetic chemicals to honey, in an attempt to pass it off as mānuka. There have also been cases of stolen and destroyed hives, and false claims relating to so-called health benefits.
At the same time, New Zealand has been trying to trademark the word mānuka in international markets, so that only honey from New Zealand can be called mānuka. So far, there has been little success in the six-year fight, with the UK Intellectual Property Office rejecting New Zealand’s latest application.
This level of competition is understandable when looking at the significant growth in the sector. In 2020, New Zealand’s honey exports exceeded $500m for the first time. This marked a 46 per cent annual increase.
The leading export item by value was monofloral mānuka honey in retail packs. This contributed export earnings of $300m from 5.1m kilograms. The bulk of it went to China, the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia.
Infometrics principal economist Brad Olsen says for many, this type of purchase will be less about the investment potential and more about consumer trends that have emerged during the pandemic.
Consumer spending has been incredibly strong over the past 18 months, he says. Money has gone into places where that level of spending hasn’t been present before.
People across New Zealand, and the developed world, have been spending more on cars, boats, home renovations, and other luxury goods.
This is because many households have saved money during the pandemic, and have spent a lot of time in their homes, so they want to have a more comfortable existence.
That means adding things like nice furniture, art or a collectable item – like a $9000 jar of honey.
Daniel and Matthew Mason, who are beekeepers and honey producers in the lower North Island, say this form of consumer investment is a fairly recent development, driven by the high quality of New Zealand products coupled with the growing range of limited edition, high activity mānuka honeys available.
Like Olsen, the Mason brothers suspect investing in limited release honey is probably less investment and more out of an interest and passion for the product.
The purchase makes sense for someone who’s looking for a unique product with a lot of research behind it.
And luxury food items have become popular with more affluent people in countries that have a culture of gifting.
But the brothers, who have been working in this space for more than a decade, say mānuka honey has been a great thus for beekeeping, and New Zealand. It’s increased the value of marginal land, and led to increased investment in beekeeping practices and equipment.
“Honey is a great natural health product that has proven itself as a healthy and delicious food product around the world,” they say.
And as people become increasingly aware of fraudulent foods, New Zealand’s food standards and international reputation give buyers assurance that what they’re buying is real.
This credibility, especially that enjoyed by long-running Kiwi businesses, has created consumer demand domestically and around the world, especially in developing markets.
Like others, the Mason brothers warn that what makes mānuka valuable – its chemical activity – also makes it a potentially risky investment. The honey is constantly changing, and the production is weather-reliant. Then there are the rigorous food standards that provide challenges in terms of processing, storage, infrastructure, product knowledge and extensive product testing.
But if someone’s willing to pay close to $10,000 to have a small jar of this product, then surely it’s worth the risk and the effort.
© 2022 Stuff Limited

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