Honey tasting panel will help create new flavor wheel

I am one of 20 people on a honey tasting panel at UC Davis whose feedback will help the the school’s Honey and Pollination Center create a flavor and aroma wheel.

Many of you may already be familiar with the Wine Aroma Wheel, another UC Davis creation, that helps wine lovers learn to identify the many aromas in wine in a more precise, systematic and user-friendly way.

The honey wheel will apply all kinds of words we use to describe what we are smelling and tasting. The panel had its first session on Friday, a three-hour event that began with a brief discussion of what to expect, how to go about the process with an open mind and what will come of all this sniffing and tasting.

We sat at tables in a large square along the periphery of the room. The tasting of 12 honeys was led by Sue Langstaff, an applied sensory professor who spends much of her time teaching beer-brewing students how to taste beer. She said she was relatively new to honey but that the approach is very similar. Also sitting in on the session was Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

I learned plenty during the afternoon. I’m a big fan of honey both for the taste and for its many applications. I often put a serving or two in a small plastic flask and take it on long bike rides. A mouthful or two of honey gives me plenty of energy and is much tastier than those chemically laden, pricey and wasteful energy gels.

One thing I learned was that honey does not go bad. That’s right, you might find honey your grandparents stashed in the back of their pantry during the Johnson administration. It’s still eminently edible (for adults, at least), though it may have crystallized a tad.

I also learned that honey has dozens of potential aromas. Before we began our tasting, we lined up at the front of the room and went through a lengthy sniffing session of cups containing all kinds of things – strawberries, lilac, orange blossom, pine straw, clover, wet dirt, beeswax, on and on and on. One aroma not found on the table? Honey. That would be too easy, for honey, like wine, is complex. Like wine, the qualities of the honey are dictated by terroir, or territory – where the bees roam and what flowers they encounter.

After that, we sat at our stations and tasted one honey in a small container. But first we lifted the lid and took a whiff. What aroma notes were we getting? Our minds jumped back to all those aromas we had just encountered, and it was challenging to keep them straight. After each honey, Langstaff led a discussion of what we smelled and tasted. Often, we saw the honey the same way. Sometimes, the tasting notes were dramatically different.

As I worked through the honeys, I noted how different they were. I often found it challenging to identify precisely what I was smelling and tasting. Was it clover? Was I picking up hints of jasmine? Did I detect molasses? Or was it more like maple syrup? I probably could have sat there for another couple of hours thinking it through, but apparently most of the people had lives and places to go, so I hastily jotted down what I felt was the most accurate representation of the flavors and aromas.

Is this kind of thing repeatable? In other words, would I jot down the same things with the same honeys a month from now? That’s often my question with tastings for wine and beer. People come up with these tasting notes. But will they come up with the same thing next week, especially if it’s a blind tasting? There was talk of putting a duplicate honey somewhere among the 12 we tasted, but that didn’t happen. In a future session, it might.

There will be several more of these tasting sessions as we work to help create this flavor and aroma wheel. I’m already looking forward to doing it again. So the next time you have some honey at home, it might be fun to slow down and take note of the many things you might be smelling and tasting.