Honey: Different Flowers, Different Flavors

Reprinted from American Mead Magazine issue 16.2 Summer 2016

American Mead Maker Magazine

Notes from a Honey Sommelier

Beekeepers know exactly when its time to harvest the honey from their hives. Each of the hexagonal beeswax cells that were once gleaming with nectar have been magically transformed into honey is sealed closed, similar to corking off a bottle of fine wine. Honeybees are ingenious they know that in order to maintain their honey sweet, sticky and viscous the water content must be precisely 18%. Honey is also composed of primarily the sugars glucose meaning sweet wine or must, fructose and other trace amounts of enzymes, amino acids, phenolic acids and proteins. It is nearly an impossible task to transform nectar into a complex supersaturated solution by dissolving 80% sugar into less than 20% water. Somehow by flapping their wings, worker bees skillfully evaporate the excessive moisture. Thus making honey naturally hygroscopic or moisture grabbing, so it perpetually tries to return to its natural balance of 36% water. If beekeepers extract their honey before the bees have blessed it, the high water content can activate the naturally occurring yeast in the honey, causing it to become overly runny and ferment prematurely in the bottle. Those customers expecting a sumptuous honey experience might very well be disappointed but for those looking to make mead, this quality could be divine.

Honeybees have been making honey for thousands of years and man has been hunting it for 8,000 of them as depicted in the renowned Spider caves drawings in Valencia, Spain. Once reserved exclusively for the wealthy and royals, honey was considered an acceptable form of payment for taxes during Julius Caesars reign. Today, beekeeping is sweeping the nation inspiring apiaries in humble back yards to majestic rooftops in major cities, even the White House is producing honey – and it’s undeniably ambrosial! Captivated by its diverse colors, complex aromas and flavors, honey is seducing the culinary world as the next coveted artisanal food. Honey is made from nectar a sweet liquid secreted by flowers often confused with pollen the golden dust bees’ carry flower to flower to pollinates them. Worldwide honeybee pollination of agricultural crops contributes close to 210 billion dollars annually; producing essential commodities like coffee, chocolate, cotton not to mention a laundry list of other fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, grains, herbs and spices we consume everyday. Dairy products and game also benefit from bees, the grasses we feed livestock taste better when properly pollinated. In the United States there are hundreds of plants that provide nectar and pollen for bees and thousands more around the world.

It is the female worker bee that begins foraging for nectar at three weeks old to make honey, by scouting out flowers within a four-mile radius from her hive. Having a keen sense of smell, she will land inside the nectary of a flower then sip the sweet liquid with her straw-like tongue called a probiscus, similar to an elephant’s trunk. Once her honey crop, or stomach is full, she will carry it back to the hive. It is during the flight back, that the remarkable process of turning nectar into honey begins. She will add some of her own enzymes specifically invertase, which breaks down the sucrose rich nectar into the simple sugars, fructose and glucose. When she arrives at the entrance of her hive she will transfer her bounty to a younger female house bee that will place it into one of the vacant beeswax hexagonal cells that make up honeycomb. Why a hexagon shape rather than round or square? The six-sided hexagon is the strongest, most efficient shape in architecture that is able to hold the most amount of honey in the least amount of space. Given that the cell wall thickness is only 0.005 cm. Charles Darwin called the honeycomb a masterpiece of engineering. Next, workers inside the hive create ventilation by flapping their wings in order to reduce the water content of the honey. Once the honey is ripe, a worker will close or cap the cell with more beeswax to keep it safe and sanitary. Since honeybee live year round, spending the coldest days inside their hive, they will make and hoard honey for their colony to consume in times when there is no flower nectar available. Honey is a bees’ source of carbohydrate and pollen is their source of protein.

Varietal honey also known as uni-floral or single-origin is produced from primarily one type of flower – think orange blossom, buckwheat or clover. Each floral source contributes a unique range of sensory characteristics depending upon its terroir. We have come to associate the word terroir with fine wine - the soil, climate and the geographic region responsible for the unique characteristics expressed in each bottle. Goût de Terroir, in French loose