Honey: Different Flowers, Different Flavors
Reprinted from American Mead Magazine issue 16.2 Summer 2016
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 loosely translates to “Taste of Place” and this age-old concept can be justifiably applied to honey for exactly the same reasons. Terroir dictates where a particular flower will grow, when it will bloom, how much nectar it will produce even the bees’ ability to forage. So nature decides quality and quantity of every honey harvest. Most varietal honeys are produced in limited quantities, some are quite rare like sourwood or apple blossom then there is a hand full from major floral sources that are available nationally like clover, blueberry blossom or alfalfa. Wildflower honey sometimes referred to as million-flower honey is produced from many unspecified floral sources in a particular region and the sensory qualities will change depending upon the season and region. Honey connoisseurs welcome nature’s uncertainty as it what makes honey an unpredictable taste experience.
Now let’s consider when a colony of honeybees is surrounded by 10 acres or more of one floral source, they will gather nectar primarily from that source producing a varietal honey with a distinct color, aroma and flavor. Timing is crucial and beekeepers must be knowledgeable of the bloom period – some may last for only two to three weeks, and colonies must be at their peak strength when that nectar begins to flows. Mother Nature must also cooperate by bestowing temperatures above 50 F (bees physically cannot fly at temperatures much lower than this). Rain and wind can whisk nectar and pollen from a flower literally robbing bees of an entire nectar flow until the following year. This is the terroir of honey at work. Despite the fact, there are hundreds of nectar-baring plants in the United States beekeepers only produce about a 1/3 of all the honey consumed. Given nature’s unpredictability, and the fact that a honeybee makes a mere 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her entire life, pure honey remarkably is rare. Then add into the mix, the disappearing bee phenomenon, loss of natural habitats and big agricultural chemicals you might wonder how much honest honey really gets made. In order to meet the American sweet tooth, a considerable amount of honey is imported, blended or pasteurized for commercial distribution in order to maintain a consistent product. Yet it is still possible to obtain good quality honeys from around the world, at a premium price. Noteworthy single-origin honeys like lavender from France, chestnut from Italy or thyme from Greece behold high marks on the adventurous eaters spoon.
Why is varietal honey becoming so wildly desirable? With the farm to table movement and the popularity of beekeeping, Americans are rediscovering the authentic flavors of our land and honey is the only raw, sweetener produced by nature that offers a multi-layered tasting experience. Some swear by local but all good quality honey has the same inherent properties – low pH and its hygroscopic qualities that makes it difficult for bacterial to thrive, plus bee pollen a super food rich in protein, vitamins and enzymes, so why not explore the infinite varieties? Let’s take the terroir of honey one step further, it is possible to taste the difference between an orange blossom honey from the groves in Florida and orange blossom honey from the deserts of Arizona or the intense malty New York Buckwheat from a dark smoky California avocado honey? With sensory training, you can learn to identify the unique qualities of a honey by evaluating the color, aroma, texture and flavors using a method developed in Italy. The method has been used for thirty years and involves writing tasting notes using honey-centric descriptors to create your individual flavor memories. Sensory analysis is a valuable tool that can be useful in identifying the floral source of a honey and the region it was produced. It works alongside of chemical and pollen analysis used to determine the composition and regions a honey was produced. Tasting honey using sensory methods can be as complex as the work of an oleologist or wine sommelier.
A Honey Connoisseurs Guide for Tasting Honey
Applying the method of sensory analysis to honey is similar to how we evaluate wine, olive oil or coffee. Here’s a brief overview of what you are looking for, as you begin your honey tasting journey.
The color of honey is related to the floral source and mineral content of the soil. There are seven designated colors: water white, extra white, extra light amber, light amber, amber and dark amber, with tones ranging from yellows, greens, reds, deep purples and even black.
The five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami are experienced on the tongue. On a global scale you will find that all honeys that are not just sweet, some are sour, salty and quite bitter. Yes, there are honeys with that
have a savory, umami quality.
AROMA and FLAVOR:
Roll the honey around the glass or better, smear it with a spoon, stick your nose inside, inhale. The aroma of honey does not always match the flavors. Scoop up a generous sample of the honey with your spoon, coat your tongue, let it melt to body temperature allowing the flavors to slowly unfold. Inhale through your mouth. As you taste, concentrate on the flavor notes and when they show up in process, the flavor is in the details. Are they weak, mild, bland or assertive? Are they long lasting or have an abrupt ending? Feel the weight of the honey in your mouth; does it feel smooth, gritty, velvety, creamy or runny? Here are the nine general flavor families for honey. You are not limited to only these descriptors when discussing the aromas and flavors of honey. We experience flavor as a combination of taste, texture and aromas. (see honey aroma and flavor chart)
The best way to learn about honey is by tasting it side by side to compare and contrast each of the sensory qualities. In your travels, whether it is to your local farmer market or an exotic trip to a remote location, never miss the chance to pick up a few jars of the honeys produced in the region. If you have the chance to visit a beekeeper they will be thrilled to share their passion and latest harvest with you. If you are looking for serious sensory training in honey checkout The American Honey Tasting Society where you will find in depth training in the sensory analysis of honey.
For more info: americanhoneytastingsociety.com
Carla Marina Marchese is the founder of Red Bee Honey and the author of HONEYBEE and co-author, with Kim Flottum (editor of Bee Culture Magazine) of The Honey Connoisseur Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey. She is a member of the Italian National Registry of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey, which led her to establish The American Honey Tasting Society (AHTS). Marina is a regular guest speaker for the National Honey Board. This year she will be a honey judge for the annual Italian honey competition – Tre Gocce d’Oro and served on the inaugural honey committee for The Good Food Awards.