Meet the Alabama beekeeper whose honey is all the buzz
EASTABOGA, Ala. — A tall, bushy privet has grown up between the seat and steering wheel of the rusted, old Oliver tractor, which is parked right where Elvin Hill left it nearly 50 years ago.
“Something broke on it and he was fixing it and he stopped for lunch and he had a massive heart attack and passed away,” Hill’s great-grandson, Justin Hill, explains to a visitor to his farm. “And they just never moved it.”
Decades later, the tree has gotten so big that the tractor is solidly anchored to the dirt that four generations of the Hill family have farmed here in Eastaboga, an unincorporated community that straddles the border of Talladega and Calhoun counties in east-central Alabama.
That’s why the younger Hill chose that image of the tractor and the tree as the logo for his Eastaboga Bee Company, the wildflower honey business he started 10 years ago.
It is a reminder of what this farmland means to him and his family.
“Everybody’s got a honeybee for a logo,” Hill says. “I was trying to think of something that would represent the family farm, and I looked up and saw this.”
And much like that tree, Hill’s once-fledging honey business has grown from a little sideline hobby into a large-scale operation, with about 500 hives of honeybees and a list of customers that includes some of the top chefs and restaurateurs in Alabama, who swear by his product.
“Justin’s honey is always really consistent,” Adam Evans, the executive chef and co-owner of Birmingham’s James Beard Award-nominated Automatic Seafood and Oysters, says. “It’s really clean. It’s not different from batch to batch. You can tell he takes really good care of his bees and takes pride in what he does.”
From cows to bees
As an only child growing up on a 250-acre farm, Hill started helping his father, Danny Hill, tend to his cattle at an early age.
“Oh yeah, it was child labor, free labor,” he says, laughing. “It’s funny, I tell people if you grew up on a farm, at 4 o’clock (in the afternoon), you start looking for a feed bucket somewhere.”
After graduating from Ohatchee High School, Hill commuted to Gadsden State Community College and then Jacksonville State University, where he graduated with a major in mathematics.
Hill never left the farm, though. He started raising quarter horses as a teenager, and later, he got into honeybees, initially as just a hobby.
“I met a couple of different beekeepers,” he says. “They helped. I read a lot of books, and then I made a ton of mistakes.”
The more he learned, the more he wanted to know.
What about honeybees fascinated him?
“Oh, gosh, so many things,” he says. “The way the honeybees communicate, how they go about their daily business, what makes them go to this flower as opposed to that flower? Just learning about that is a lot of fun.”
After he experimented for a few years, a lightbulb went off in his head — “It was a dim one, I can assure you,” he deadpans — and he decided he could do this for a living.
“It just seemed like there was an opportunity there,” he says. “I’ve always been very curious about making that a livelihood.”
Hill launched his business in 2011, and he named it Eastaboga Bee Company in honor of the little community that is his home.
And because he liked the way the name rolled off his tongue: EAST-uh-BO-guh.
“It helps me when salespeople call me and they can’t pronounce ‘Eastaboga,’” he says. “I just tell them I’m not interested. If you can’t pronounce the name of my company correctly, I don’t want to do business with you.”
A one-man operation
Although Hill does hire a few part-time employees, finding people who want to work around bees has proven difficult, he says.
“We typically work them hard enough that they don’t stay too long,” he says. “They’ll go find something else to do. It’s not like we don’t pay them well, either.”
Most, he says, never get used to the idea of getting stung — an occupational hazard that Hill has learned to live with over the years. He says he’s been stung “thousands” of times.
“You don’t really plan on it, but it’s the nature of the business,” he says. “Sometimes, you can go all week and not get stung at all. And then sometimes, it seems like every time you turn around, you’re getting stung.”
So, even though it’s a relatively large operation, Eastaboga Bee Company is essentially a one-man enterprise.
Hill manages all the hives, extracts and bottles the honey, makes the deliveries, and then, on Saturday mornings, drives to Birmingham to work his tent at the Market at Pepper Place. (His mother, Tonya Hill, works the Downtown Market in Anniston.)
In addition to his wildflower honey, Hill also uses the beeswax — the wax secreted by the worker bees to build their honeycombs — to make leather creams, wood polishes and lip balms, which he also sells at the markets.
At the market, he enjoys interacting with everyday folks and talking to them about the wonders of honey.
“It (is) a whole different group of people than I (am) used to being around,” he says. “It’s nice to meet people and tell them about farming.”
Meeting Frank Stitt
A little more than six years ago, Hill met and befriended James Beard Award-winning Birmingham chef Frank Stitt at a vendors’ meeting for the Pepper Place farmers market.
“Ignorance really is bliss,” Hill remembers. “I didn’t know who the heck he was, but he’s on the (Market at Pepper Place) board, so he stood up and told us who he was and said that he owned three restaurants.
“I said, ‘Well, if he owns three restaurants, he probably needs some honey.’ So, I asked him, and that’s how it started.”
Stitt also remembers that meeting well.
“So, Justin said, ‘I’m a honey man in Eastaboga,’” he says. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s interesting; how many hives (have) you got?’ And he said ever how many hundreds he has, and I said, ‘Gosh, I would love to buy some from you.’
“He brought it, and I loved his honey,” Stitt adds. “He’s a wonderful character, and we have developed a friendship besides just a professional relationship.”
Stitt uses Eastaboga Bee Company honey at all his restaurants — Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez Fonfon, Bottega and Bottega Café — and uses it in everything from pizza dough and vinaigrettes to lemonade and ice cream.
Hill’s honey is the also star of Bottega’s latest signature dessert, the 10-layer Eastaboga Burnt Honey Cake, which became an immediate hit after it debuted on the menu in late March.
Pastry chef Mark Christie developed the cake using a recipe that Stitt discovered in Michelle Polzine’s “Baking at the 20th Century Café” cookbook.
Other chefs and brewers around the state have come up with all sorts of creative ways to incorporate Hill’s honey in their recipes.
Back Forty Beer Company in Birmingham features Hill’s Eastaboga honey in their Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale; Alabama Peanut Co. makes their Sweet Heat Honey Mustard boiled peanuts with it; Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood uses it in a honey-chipotle sauce; and Pizzeria GM in West Homewood includes it in a honey-balsamic drizzle they serve on their summer Chilton County peach pizza.
Their creativity motivates Hill.
“It’s the thing that gets you through the day sometimes, when you don’t want to work anymore,” he says. “But then you start thinking about all the cool things people do with your honey, and you just push on through.”
Some of the other restaurants around the state that use his honey include SpringHouse in Alexander City; Odette in Florence; Dyron’s Lowcountry in Mountain Brook; SoHo Social in Homewood; Alabama Biscuit Company in Cahaba Heights; Acre and the Amsterdam Café in Auburn; Bettola, Big Spoon Creamery, Café Dupont, Cayo Coco and Hero Doughnuts in Birmingham; and Big Bad Breakfast locations around the state.
Evans, the Automatic Seafood and Oysters chef, features Hill’s honey in the restaurant’s yeast rolls with Eastaboga honey butter.
“Wherever honey is required on the menu,” he says, “we are using it.”
As impressed as he is with the quality and the consistency of the honey Hill produces, Evans is just as inspired by his thirst for knowledge.
“He’s actually a genius if you start talking to him and start thinking about all the stuff he knows and what all he can do,” Evans says. “It’s pretty incredible.
“He’s always trying to learn something more about what he’s doing and apply that to beekeeping,” Evans adds. “So, I’ve got a ton of respect for him, and I’ve got a ton of respect for what he does and for his product.”
And he’s not done learning.
At 35, Hill has gone back to school and is working on a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University. He’s taking most of his courses online but will return to campus in Cambridge in the fall, he says.
“I honestly don’t think you ever stop learning,” he says. “I think you’re a fool if you do.”