Describe honey. It’s not as simple as you may think.
“Most people just say ‘sweet,’ ” said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science. “But honey is so much more.”
Depending on its nectar source, honey can be floral, fruity, smoky, woody, spicy, nutty or earthy. It can smell fresh as grass or pungent like aged cheese. It can look nearly clear as water or dark as molasses.
In an effort to help consumers as well as honey professionals find the right words, the center developed a new “Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel,” a tool to build a universal honey vocabulary. After a year of testing and tinkering, the honey wheel is available to the public.
Modeled after familiar wine or cheese flavor wheels, the honey wheel contains more than 100 descriptive words for honey that go way beyond “sweet.” Its 10 “confectionary” terms range from “brown sugar” to “marshmallow,” but 27 kinds of fruit and berries stretch from “strawberry” to “pineapple.” Some aroma terms may not sound particularly appetizing (such as “locker room,” “cat pee” or “barnyard”), but every scent or flavor was detected by at least one of the 20 volunteer tasters.
“Not all honey is sweet; some can have a sour aftertaste, some – such as almond honey – even taste bitter,” Harris noted.
Earlier attempts at honey wheels used such terms as “fresh” or “warm,” Harris noted. In re-inventing the honey wheel, the UCD tasters got much more specific.
“We wanted to make it real with real words that mean something,” Harris said. “We want to give honey tasters a true lexicon.”
The need to better describe honey follows the growing popularity of honey varietals. Also called mono-florals, these varietal honeys come from primarily one source of nectar such as clover or orange blossoms. More than 300 varietal honeys are produced in the United States.
“Definitely, consumers are becoming more aware of varietals,” said Catherine Barry, marketing director for the National Honey Board. “Honey companies are seeing this consumer interest and appeal, and are using varietals in their packaging to differentiate honey from other sweeteners on the market.”
Honey overall is enjoying a renaissance. Among the world’s oldest foods, “nature’s sweetener” has been rediscovered by consumers interested in natural foods or locally produced ingredients. According to the USDA, national production topped 149 million pounds last year – up 5 percent from 2012 – with a value of more than $317 million. California, Texas and Florida top the list of honey states. North and South Dakota also are major honey producers.
“We’re definitely seeing honey as part of a huge trend. Honey popularity is increasing tremendously – and it’s not just honey as a commodity by itself,” Barry said, noting products contain honey often note it on the packaging, “such as honey whole wheat bread or honey-nut cereal.”
Part of that could be attributed to consumer concern over honeybees and colony collapse disorder, the mysterious malady that has killed millions of bees.
“Consumers are always looking out for the bees,” Barry said. “By buying honey and products made with honey, they’re helping beekeepers, so they can spend the money they need to keep their bees healthy.”
Consumers already have some varietal honey awareness, Barry added. In a 2013 survey, the honey board found that 83 percent of those surveyed knew that honey came in different varieties.
But finding those varieties is not always easy. For example, some honeys – such as tupelo – are purely regional. To help connect people and producers, the honey board now has a map with links to producers from descriptions of popular varietals. (Find it at www.honey.com.)
Just as wine from certain grapes has specific characteristics, varietal honeys have their own distinct personalities.
“Honey has such a range of colors and flavors,” Barry said. “It all depends of where those bees collected their nectar. ... As honey gets darker, the flavor tends to be more robust and bold.”
The most popular varietals are old favorites: clover, orange blossom and wildflower. That last category is extremely broad, considering the many thousands of different wildflowers that may have contributed nectar to that honey.
“We’re seeing some phenomenal honeys such as avocado or tupelo,” Barry said. “Blackberry and blueberry honey are so delicious; you can really taste the essence of the fruit.”
Tasting honey itself is an exercise of the senses. To come up with its wheel words, the Honey Center recruited – besides beekeeping and industry professionals – several volunteers who had experience putting what they taste into words. (That included Blair Anthony Robertson of The Bee.)
Besides the right descriptors, the UCD honey wheel project also developed a protocol for honey tasting, so honey lovers can appreciate this food’s many nuances.
Try this at home: Put a half-teaspoon of honey in a cup or small glass. Cover it and let the honey warm in your hand. Then, sniff the honey. Using a tasting stick or plastic spoon, stir the honey and sniff again.
Then, taste. Put just a little dab on your tongue and let it dissolve. Try a little more and work it around your mouth to decipher any complexities. Some flavors will linger, most will not.
Now, write down what you taste and smell. And you can’t just say “sweet.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.