Supported by FAPESP, the project also aims to encourage conservation of Brazilian wildlife and valorize the culture and craftsmanship of local communities (image: Mirá Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento)
Published on 10/31/2022
By Fábio de Castro | Agência FAPESP – A startup in São Paulo state, Brazil, is developing a premium sparkling beverage from honey produced by native stingless bees. The project aims to market a unique product with high-added value while also encouraging conservation of wildlife and valorizing the culture and craftsmanship of local producers.
The startup is called Mirá and is located in the city of São Carlos. It has completed the first stage of development with support from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE) and is now embarking on the second phase, which will culminate with the end-product.
According to biologist Juliana Massimino Feres, principal investigator for the project, Brazil has more than 350 stingless bee species, all of which produce honey with very special aromas and flavors. After working on several scientific projects relating to meliponiculture, as the raising of stingless bees (meliponines) is known, Feres realized that their honey had the potential for development of value-added products.
“My experience with meliponiculture evidenced the popularity of the honey made by our native bees and its byproducts, but it was also clear that the market didn’t recognize their value and that the resource could be used to make value-added products for the benefit of beekeepers and other producers in the supply chain. We, therefore, began to think about developing a premium sparkling drink,” she recalled.
With her business partner in Mirá, Tulio Marcos Nunes, also a biologist, Feres began studying ways of fermenting honey from native bees in a process that was to lead to development of the beverage.
Beverages made from the honey of Apis mellifera, the Western honeybee, are available on the market, she explained, but the characteristics of honey from stingless bees are so special that the beverage was highly successful in initial testing.
“We began developing the fermentation process and performed preliminary tests with friends. The drink showed potential, but the tests pointed to scientifically fragile aspects of the process,” she said. “We decided to apply for funding from PIPE-FAPESP to help us surmount the problems with fermentation and start doing market research.”
According to Nunes, in Phase 1 of the PIPE process, between July 2020 and March 2021, the goal was to minimize uncertainty about the product. They first confirmed the feasibility of fermenting native stingless bee honey and evaluated the result in terms of agreeability and palatability.
“We then characterized the product chemically in order to find out how the compounds present in the honey would behave in the beverage,” Nunes explained. “We developed a large number of recipes and selected two that had surprisingly good results in terms of aroma and flavor. We also confirmed that the substances present in the honey would be conserved in the end-product so as to maintain the characteristics of the raw material.”
Both researchers have worked with native bees since the start of their careers. For the last four years, they have collaborated on the development of the honey fermentation process. “I’ve also had a family brewery. That’s where my experience with fermentation comes from,” Nunes said.
“Several previous studies had shown the chemical and biological richness of native bee honey, but the research was incipient, and we had to identify and categorize the compounds we were going to work with,” Feres said.
Nunes had the scientific know-how to perform chemical and microbiological characterization of the compounds present in the honey before and after fermentation, she explained. The basic research on this rich raw material was conducted in partnership with Professor Norberto Peporine Lopes, a researcher with the Research Support Center in Natural and Synthetic Products and the Organic Micromolecule Mass Spectrometry Center at the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto School of Pharmaceutical Sciences (FCFRP-USP).
“Most of the flavonoids and antioxidants present in the honey remained present after fermentation. They are much more abundant in native bee honey than in honey from A. mellifera,” Nunes said.
The volatile substances present in the honey were also analyzed to find out which ones were needed to arrive at the desired aroma and flavor. “Most of these molecules were common to white wine, giving the drink an aroma of pineapple and flowers, for example,” he said.
Field testing and tasting
Taking into account the reality of the supply chain, the researchers selected the most available bees and, within this group, those that produced the most palatable honey. The species chosen were Scaptotrigona postica (common name mandaguari) Tetragonisca angustula (jataí) and Melipona quadrifasciata (mandaçaia). They then proceeded to the tasting phase.
“To find out how the public reacted, we needed to invite both typical consumers and specialists to taste the product. We were assisted by Paola Carosella [ex-presenter of the Brazilian version of MasterChef, a popular reality show]. She has a food business and placed her team at our disposal for testing,” Feres said.
“Our methodology included development of the product with the participation of consumers,” Nunes said. “All the tests had a feedback component. The consumers provided information that we used to improve the product in successive learning cycles. We wanted to test the beverage in association with what’s known as ‘experience tourism’.”
To develop a product that offered the public a new experience, the researchers needed a test space that involved personal contact with the production location and a connection with the soil and biodiversity. The chosen location was a rural property in São Carlos situated in a preserved Cerrado (Brazilian savanna) area and equipped with a facility that processes and ferments honey.
“Consumers were able to taste the product in context at this location,” Feres said. “We worked with people from the local community who developed the raw material with us, as well as other communities, such as quilombolas [descendants of runaway slaves].”
According to Nunes, the product will not be mass-produced but will have significant potential to assist social projects. “From a conservation standpoint, beekeeping is regenerative, and the standing forest is a necessity for value-added products,” he said.
According to Feres, they decided to develop a sparkling beverage (similar to sparkling wine, which contains carbon dioxide obtained by a second fermentation) because native bee honey has a complex bouquet. “In association with bubbles, the richness of sensations changes considerably, and it’s possible to explore all the subtlety of this type of product. Native bee honey imparts a strong floral undertone,” she said.
Because of their scientific background, the co-owners of Mirá were interested in developing a product that could contribute to the conservation of Brazilian biodiversity. Feres has a master’s degree and a PhD in genetics, and specializes in environmental management, working with conservation of forest genetic resources, population genetics, ecology, reproductive biology and meliponiculture. Besides Mirá, she is also a founding partner in Heborá, a firm that also makes and markets native bee honey and products based on it.
Nunes has a master’s degree and a PhD in entomology and specializes in animal behavior, biochemistry, and development of biological control products. Besides Mirá, he is a founding partner in Decoy Smart Control, a biotech startup that develops animal health products.
“We’re particularly interested in developing economically important products from Brazilian biodiversity,” Feres said. “Meliponiculture is just that kind of activity. Bees can only pollinate and produce honey in a healthy environment with forest conservation.”
Native bee honey drives social development, in her view. “Many people who keep bees in their backyards are women. That’s important from the standpoint of inclusion and our contribution to communities. If there are byproducts they can make, we involve all focal points in the meliponiculture chain,” she said.
According to Feres, next steps in the subsequent phase of PIPE-FAPESP will involve refining the fermentation process and ramping up production. “We aim to produce units with 200 to 400 liters, in line with the reality of the project, which requires an analysis of the product’s behavior in storage, including maturation and other processes,” she said.
One of the challenges faced by the researchers consists of establishing rigorous scientific criteria for production in order to avoid problems such as contaminants and off-flavors (undesirable odors or tastes).
“Fermentation of honey does create off-flavors. Unpalatable substances have to be carefully corrected for or removed,” Feres said. “We’re developing natural alternatives. It wouldn’t make sense to go through the entire production process for an entirely natural beverage and arrive at a product with chemical corrections.”
Another challenge is standardization. Honey is not a uniform raw material. On the contrary, it varies according to the area from which it is collected, the biome inhabited by the bees and the season of the year in which it is produced. The researchers believe they can take advantage of this trait.
“Our proposal is to incorporate this variation in terms of vintage, which would make the product even more exclusive. The idea is to produce small batches, each with a variety of highly specific characteristics,” Nunes said.
In marketing terms, Mirá plans to dissociate the concept of its sparkling beverage from hydromel, a mead-like fermented beverage also made from honey. According to the researchers, almost all Brazilian hydromel uses honey produced by A. mellifera. “The few people who know hydromel are unlikely to have had good experiences, so we needed to dissociate our product, which is totally different,” Feres said.
“We can make various different beverages from the same raw material. We’ve done some tests that resulted in a dry white wine. It’s also possible to produce a very dry sparkling wine with high alcohol content that’s quite similar to Brut or Demi-Sec, and we can produce sweet wine with low alcohol content. We’re going for sparkling right now because it’s a differentiator, but at the same time we have a wide array of possibilities before us in terms of new products,” Nunes said.