A taste of honey – and the words to describe it

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

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.”


The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel is available to the public for $10 at the UC Davis bookstore. Proceeds help the center continue its work and help fund the campus’s Harry H. Laidlaw Bee Biology Laboratory. To order online,


American honey comes in more than 300 varietals, based on the nectar source. That nectar gives each honey its distinctive taste. Here’s a snapshot of some popular varietal honeys and uses, with suggestions from the National Honey Board:

Alfalfa: A legume grown as livestock feed, this crop ranks as the most important honey plant in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and most of the western states. Alfalfa honey is an extra light amber in color with a delicate flavor, perfect for everyday use as a general sweetener.

Avocado: A California specialty, this honey has a dark color and rich, buttery taste. Try it in salad dressings.

Blackberry: With a strong floral scent, this fruity honey tastes like fresh berries – especially if from the Pacific Northwest. It has a light amber color and slightly sour taste with hints of citrus and vanilla; delicious with cheese.

Blueberry: Made with nectar collected from blueberry bushes and primarily produced in Michigan and New England, this amber honey has a distinctly blueberry flavor. It’s great in baked goods or sauces.

Buckwheat: A native plant, buckwheat is not actually a wheat (it’s related to rhubarb), but it’s a favorite food for bees. Buckwheat honey is pungent, dark molasses brown with a distinctive malty flavor and lingering aftertaste. Try it in baked goods and barbecue sauce.

Clover: Sweet and delicate, this is what most people think of as “typical” honey. Clover is considered the most common nectar plant for honeybees, but various species of clover (white Dutch, red, white sweet, etc.) add their own distinct flavor notes, often slightly spicy.

Eucalyptus: This California specialty varies by the species of eucalyptus tree (more than 500 varieties grow here), but the honeys are typically bold in flavor with a slightly medicinal aftertaste and scent. Use it sauces, dressings or to treat a sore throat.

Orange blossom: Another California favorite, this honey smells like an orange grove with fragrant floral notes. It’s also popular in Florida, Texas and Arizona. The flavor can be fruity and floral, too, with a buttery vanilla finish. It’s a great table honey, but also try it in cookies, cakes and other baked goods.

Sage: Popular in Western states, sage honey has a light color and delicate flavor. Like clover, there are many species of sage and those add their own flavor notes. Its overt sweetness pairs well with strong cheeses.

Tupelo: A Southeastern specialty, this honey originates in Florida and Georgia where tupelo trees grow wild. With a tropical scent, the flavorful light-amber honey has a complex berrylike taste with slightly bitter and sour notes complementing its basic sweetness. It rarely crystallizes.

Wildflower: About a quarter million species of plants come under the category “wildflower,” so honeys in this category will vary wildly depending on their source.


The National Honey Board offers an online honey locator. You can search by state or source (such as orange blossom). Find it at .

For more recipes and tips, click on


Crustless lemon-honey cheesecake

Serves 8

Try this recipe with an orange blossom honey and the whole house will smell like citrus.

Recipe courtesy National Honey Board.


1½ cups plain 2 percent Greek-style yogurt

1 cup non-fat cream cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon honey

3 egg whites (9 tablespoons if using pasteurized egg whites)

¼ cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon lemon zest

¼ cup lemon juice


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together yogurt and cream cheese in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mix until all ingredients are incorporated. (It will look thin and watery, but that’s OK.)

Pour mixture into a greased 8-by-8-inch circle pan (springform is best). Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven. Chill in fridge overnight, or for at least 8 hours. After chilled, cut into 8 slices and serve. Store leftovers in the fridge.


Rosemary honey lemonade

Serves 6 to 8

This recipe comes from chef and beekeeper Laurey Masterton of Laurey’s Catering and Gourmet to Go. Vary the taste (and the scent) with different combinations of herbs and varietal honeys.

Recipe courtesy National Honey Board.


12 lemons, to make about 2 cups of juice

1/2 cup sage honey or other local variety

Fresh rosemary

1/2 cup plus 8 cups water


Make a simple syrup: Combine the honey with 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Turn off heat. While the syrup is still hot, add whole rosemary sprigs and leave in the syrup until ready to use.

Squeeze 12 lemons. Strain the syrup. Combine the lemon juice with the strained rosemary syrup. Add water to syrup/juice mixture. Add more water if needed, remembering that once you add the juice to ice in a glass, the ice will melt and dilute the mixture to some degree. Serve with a sprig of fresh rosemary in each glass.


Honey butter

Experiment with different varietal honeys for this versatile spread. The amount of honey will vary as you sweeten to taste.

Adapted from recipe courtesy National Honey Board


1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened

2 to 4 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon or orange peel


In a bowl, combine butter or margarine, honey and freshly grated lemon or orange peel. Stir until well blended. Store in the refrigerator.