by Mary Stanley
I was recently asked to be one of the judges at a blind honey tasting hosted by the Texas Beekeepers Association. We were to determine which honey was the “best” and were presented with drops of each contender on black straws (so we couldn’t see the color of the honey, although we could detect variations in density). After the third taste, it became clear that this was going to be more of a subjective game—based on individual preferences—as opposed to any honey winning because of its adherence to official standards. And with each taste, my curiosity and interest were piqued by the striking and vast differences in flavors.
I was unprepared for such a wide range. One honey sample was extremely delicious on first taste. I said, “Ummm, yummy,” but then during the very long finish—POW—something hit me hard. It wasn’t sweet but it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant. It was strong…sour…minty…what was it? Upon tasting it, my co-judge screwed up her face and said, “This is terrible!” Later, we discovered there was horsemint nectar in that honey sample, which came from an East Texas beekeeper who produces honey where horsemint commonly grows. If we lived in East Texas and ate our local honey, we would have expected it to taste like this. The sour, molasses-mint smack at the finish was the signature of horsemint, saying, “Hey buddy! I’m from East Texas!”
The secret to the individual flavor profiles we detected in each honey is found in the particular biome (areas of the world divided by similar climate, soil, plants and animals), or terroir, where the honey was produced. Plants of a biome provide the pollen and nectar that entice the bees living in that biome to visit their blossoms. Pollen is the honeybee’s main source of protein, and it also provides fats/lipids, minerals and vitamins. The protein that pollen provides is vital to brood production and the development of young bees. Some plants may produce an abundance of pollen, but the pollen may be of poor nutritional quality, whereas others may produce very little, but high-quality, pollen. The nectar that many plants offer to further attract insects (and other animals) for the purpose of cross-pollination is the carbohydrate (energy) source, which is key to honeybee survival and from which they make honey. It provides energy for flight, colony hygiene, brood care and daily activities. Nectar is also a source of various minerals, such as calcium, copper, potassium, magnesium and sodium, but the presence and concentration of minerals in nectar vary by floral source and biome terrain. Nectar is what gives honey its taste.
Interestingly, some plants provide pollen but not nectar; bluebonnets are one example, which is why there is no bluebonnet honey. When we see bluebonnet fields covered with bees, they are gathering the bluebonnet pollen (protein) but their proboscis, or tubular mouthpart, is unable to reach the nectar in the flower. There’s also an unusual source for nectar but not pollen—the honeydew nectar exuded by aphids. If you’ve ever parked under a pecan tree and returned to find your car covered in sticky stuff, that’s aphid honeydew. Honeybees collect it and turn it into honey. It isn’t a complete source of food, because there’s no accompanying pollen, which is why honeydew honey is rare. It’s dark and thick, and not as sweet as floral-nectar honey, but very rich. It tastes like a creamy-textured syrup surrounding the pecan in a pecan pie. The pecan taste is distinctive: It smells like pecan leaf sap in the heat of the summer combined with the dank wet of the shell on the understory floor in the fall. Naturally, the terroir responsible for this honey has to support pecan trees, and ideally, the trees should be abandoned or from a wild grove, because commercial groves may use pesticides and fungicides that could harm aphids, bees and consumers. The pecan honeydew honey I’ve tasted was an accidental collection by Walker Honey Farm in Rogers, Texas. The hives were placed under pecan trees near a floral area. But fickle weather prevented the expected nectar flow of the flowering plants, so the hungry bees gathered “nectar” from the less-preferred source. The beehives were filled with pecan honeydew honey—a once-in-85-seasons experience for the farm.
Of course, like most living things, honeybees need a balanced diet. Because plants have varied blooming periods and nectar flow-time, plant variety is key to keeping honeybees fed year-round. Conversely, monoculture (the practice of growing one type of plant in large agricultural areas) is the nutritional death of the honeybee and leads to colony collapse. Access to continuous, sequential plant bloom and nectar flow-time is ideal. Some beekeepers even prefer to place hives where two biomes meet, so that bees have access to more plant diversity.
There are characteristics of honey that are influenced by terrain, as well. Minerals in the soil help give honey its distinctive color: light-colored honeys contain high amounts of calcium, while darker colors contain higher amounts of potassium, chlorine, sulfur, sodium and iron. Oxidized copper in water-rich soils lends a greenish hue to tupelo honey, for example. And honey made from cotton crops grown in the fertile Blackland Prairie soil can be prize-winning, but cotton grown in mineral-poor, sandy soils produces no nectar—and therefore no honey.
The honey that ended up winning our taste-test contest was sourced by Moore Honey Farm from Terry, Yoakum and Gaines Counties in Northwest Texas, where cotton is grown. I believe it may have been chosen as the best-tasting because it had the sweetest, cleanest taste and finish. But it may have been chosen over honeys with more character for the same reasons one might choose a muscat over a sauvignon blanc. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being sweet, and cotton honey is one of the sweetest of Texas varietals (unusual because the nectar is secreted both by the large flowers and by nectaries on the bracts beneath the flowers). The second-place winner was from an area where sesame is grown—near Knox City and Munday in the Cross Timbers and southern High Plains biomes. Sesame honey has a cereal-like flavor (if you’ve ever eaten a sesame-honey energy bar, you know exactly how natural sesame honey tastes). It wasn’t as sweet and light on the tongue as the honey produced from cotton flowers, but it was still pleasant, nutty and interesting.
The contest was fun, but what I took away from the experience was that there’s a lot more going on with our humble table guest than merely being a desirable slather for a hot biscuit. With practically endless variables at play, each batch of honey is indeed its own liquid gold.
AMERICAN HONEY TASTING SOCIETY
Founded by Marina Marchese—author of “The Honey Connoisseur”—the American Honey Tasting Society is currently building a database of American honeys for its Flavor and Floral Mapping Project. One goal of the project is to connect each honey’s flavor profile to its respective terroir, but the information will also be used to help better understand honeybees’ behavior, their floral preferences and the resulting flavor profiles of the honeys produced within each specific location in the U.S. The project was inspired by the work of the Italian National Registry of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey. All American beekeepers are invited to submit 4-ounce tasting samples to help build the database and expand the understanding of honey taste and terroir.
For more information, visit americanhoneytastingsociety.com
A Texas Honey-Flight Brunch
Just like wine and beer, honey has layers of flavors, textures and lengths of finish, and can express myriad notes on the palate such as floral, grassy, fruity, mineral or woody. Why not gather some friends and host a honey-flight followed by brunch with plenty of fresh-baked goods and cheeses to take advantage of what you learned!
First, gather a selection of honeys that are produced in different bioregions of Texas. Assemble the flight by placing a small amount of each honey into small, clean, clear glass containers (shot glasses work well) and lining them up on a table. Offer glasses of water and sliced apples for cleansing the palate between tastings. Also, provide guests with flavorless tasting sticks for each honey (plastic sip-straws or small metal spoons work well, but avoid wooden sticks as they can have a woody flavor). Use a clean tasting stick for each honey and each taste.
Before tasting, talk about the area where the honey was produced and the specific terroir. Notice the honey’s color—which can range from almost clear to deep amber. One at a time, let each guest hold up a shot glass to the light in front of a piece of white paper and note the differences in each (unfiltered honey, for example, is slightly cloudy due to the pollen content). Take in the aroma of each honey and discuss if there’s a particular fruit fragrance, floral bouquet or spice scent (blueberry honey, for example, has a lemony aroma; tupelo honey smells of summer flowers; and clover honey has hints of spicy cinnamon). Next, invite guests to take a tiny taste. Ask them to roll the honey in their mouths—letting it softly melt first on the front of the tongue (where the taste buds that detect sweetness are located) then toward the sides and back to reach the sour, salty and bitter taste receptors. Between tastes, ask guests to cleanse their palate with water or have a bite of apple. Of course, different people will perceive things differently, but what they detect in each honey is a direct result of its individual biome, the soil, the weather and the plants from which the bees gathered the nectar. After guests have had a chance to taste and discuss each honey, finish with plenty of warm baked goods, cheeses and fruit to complement the honeys.
Mapping Local Honeys
Texas is divided into 10 principal plant-life biomes: Piney Woods; Gulf Prairies and Marshes; Post Oak Savannah; Blackland Prairies; Cross Timbers and Prairies; South Texas Plains; Edwards Plateau; Rolling Plains; High Plains; and Trans-Pecos Mountains and Basins. Each biome has its own unique plant life, terrain and weather. There are at least 300 varietals of honey in the United States, and many are produced here because of Texas’ size and varied biomes. To produce one type of honey, a beekeeper has to work within a narrow window of time and isolate the honey gathered in that time period, or else the honey will be mixed with whatever plant blooms next. And considering that a bee forages for three miles (up to six under harsh conditions) and the size of our state, there could be vastly different flavors of honey within an hour’s drive of each other in any direction. Also, because rainfall across the state varies (which varies the bloom) a beekeeper in, say, north San Saba County may experience rainfall, but it might pass over the southern part of the county. Both locations contain native beebrush, but a northern county beekeeper may get beebrush honey and a southern county beekeeper might get persimmon honey. Those are two completely different honey flavor profiles just 40 minutes apart, yet within the same biome.
Predominant Texas Monofloral Honeys
Central Texas clover honey is light and sweet with an inherent softness and warm spice to its notes. It’s a good representation of a monofloral honey, but different varieties of clover (white Dutch, red, white sweet, etc.) impart their own unique flavor notes. Clover contributes more to honey production in the U.S. than any other group of plants.
White brush or “beebrush” honey has a nuanced vanilla scent and a flavor note that most characterize as smokiness.
Yaupon Holly honey is full-bodied with a balanced sweetness and an earthy, somewhat bitter note.
Alfalfa honey is white or extra-light amber, with a mild flavor and an aroma similar to beeswax.
Blueberry honey is light amber and has an aroma reminiscent of green leaves with a touch of lemon. Its flavor notes are moderately floral and it has a delicate aftertaste.
West Texas cotton honey is the sweetest of the Texas honeys, with a clean taste and pleasant finish.
Huajilla honey is white or very light amber and is probably the lightest-colored honey produced in Texas. It has a very mild, rich, loquat-like flavor, and is famous for its excellent quality and pleasing aroma.
Mesquite honey is dark amber, thick and smells of mesquite wood (but not smoky), musty grape and brown sugar.
Orange blossom honey is white to extra-light amber with a distinctive flavor and aroma of orange blossoms.
Sunflower honey is yellow-amber in color, not overly sweet and has a nutty taste.
Vetch honey is water-white, pleasant and has a unique flavor and aroma of the vetch flower.
Tallow honey is dark amber, rich with warm spices and has a sharp smell.
TRUE-SOURCE CERTIFIED LABELING
Honey purchased in the grocery store tastes similar from brand to brand and has the same golden color. It’s sweeter than table sugar, and has no distinctive character to offer clues as to its origin. Large commercial honey packers buy honey in barrels from honey brokers. They sort it by color and then blend it to get the desired color. Packers then pass the blended honey under high pressure through diatomaceous earth filters to remove the pollen in order to produce a uniform product. Unfortunately, some of the beneficial enzymes found in honey are also lost during processing.
Most imported and domestic honeys are from high-quality, legal sources. But some honey brokers and importers illegally circumvent tariffs and quality controls—selling Chinese honey of questionable quality to U.S. companies. This threatens the U.S. honey industry by undercutting fair market prices and damaging honey’s reputation for quality and safety. Large commercial packers are fighting back through True Source Certified labeling.
Find out more at truesourcehoney.com/true-source-certified