Neroli, clover, buckwheat. Tulip poplar, meadowfoam, star thistle. Basswood, hemp, kudzu.
“When we think about honey, it’s very profound,” says Amina Harris, director of the Center for Honey and Pollination at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences at UC Davis. “Who we are and what we grew up with. And so we end up going to that flavor base, not realizing that there’s a huge amount else out there.”
This is starting to change, as consumers are becoming more interested in honeys such as star thistle and avocado flower. According to the National Honey Board, there are more than 300 species in North America alone. “There’s definitely an awakening around different honey varieties,” says Sarah Reid-Laird, executive program director of the Bee Girl Organization, a nonprofit group focused on preserving bee habitat.
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Harris, who is from Buffalo, grew up with intense honeys, such as goldenrod. In California, she learned that “honey is not always dark and strong. Each one has its own family of characteristics. A good connoisseur learns those things. As with wine, they learn those characteristics and can recognize them.
She worked with a food scientist and 25 tasters to develop the Honey Wheel, a pie chart to help people describe the flavors of honey. According to the wheel, herbal honey can be classified as woody or resinous, and the resinous flavor can in turn be reminiscent of cedar or oak. (The animal section moves on to terms like “locker room,” “barnyard,” and “dog.”)
Because the flavors depend on different combinations of plants that the bees pollinate, the production of varieties is local. Maine produces “very fruity” raspberry honey, while Michigan offers hemp honey, Harris says. You can find basswood honey from the Midwest, and in the south there is kudzu and tupelo honey. In California, Harris sees honeys including eucalyptus and avocado.
Because of its name, wildflower honey – a common nomenclature – may seem like a specific variety. Instead, wildflower is an umbrella term that means “a combination of everything that’s in your local environment rather than having bees next to one monocrop,” Reed-Laird says. For example, Appalachian wildflower will not look or taste like California wildflower honey. These differences are part of wine connoisseurs’ enjoyment of honey, as connoisseurs taste strains that even differ from one crop to another.
The color also fluctuates. “Honey,” when used to describe a paint color, often means warm gold. But as Reed-Laird points out, the color of honey can range from black to light. “There’s also a honey color called white water, which is pretty transparent,” she says. She says the vetch honey is almost transparent, but not weak in flavour. “You wouldn’t think something almost transparent would be so strong, but it’s so floral and really delicious.”
These distinctions provide interest to customers of places like Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg, Virginia, which offers honey and honey tastings. The staff stocks honey from all over the country, including star thistle from Michigan and palmetto from Florida. To complement grilled food, Silver Hand experts suggest alfalfa, mesquite, and buckwheat. For tea lovers, there are raspberry blossom, Virginia wildflower and star thistle. Sarah Potts, who runs the tasting room and shop, combines Tupelo honey with pepper jack cheese, raspberry blossom honey with extra-sharp cheddar, and serves wild honey and blackberry honey over dried apricots.
Kim Allen owns Asheville Bee Charmer, a honey shop and tasting room in Asheville, North Carolina, with her wife, Jillian Kelly. Allen, who claims she can’t cook, uses honey in her cocktails, including the “acaciarita.” Lighter honeys, such as acacia or sourwood, go well with lighter tequila, she says. “If you want to do an old-fashioned, you might choose something like a tulip poplar. Acacia or upright clover might get lost in those.”
Wine lovers are often ridiculed for their vague or ambiguous descriptions, but honey drinkers seem to be more serious about their classifications. Professionals acknowledge favorites. Red-Laird uses buckwheat honey (which Allen calls “Cabernet” honey) as a cooking ingredient but does not stir it into Earl Grey. That’s why she uses heather honey, “because it reminds me a lot of Scotland.” She likes Manuka with yogurt, more buckwheat on a honey and peanut butter sandwich and finds Tupelo honey “really earthy and delicious.”
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Kristen Kraft, Silver Hand’s director of operations, uses dark avocado blossom honey in her cakes, and Boots includes bourbon barrel-aged Appalachian wild flower honey in her bacon jam. “Sourwood has such a buttery note,” Kelly says. Allen likes blackberry and fireweed honey, and Harris makes shortbread with clover honey, which has a “cinnamon” taste. She also appreciates coriander honey these days. She says it smells like you’re “standing in the middle of a spice market, with cumin, coriander, ginger, licorice or anise.”
I found the orange blossom to be flowery, delicate and perfect, made into syrup and stirred into oolong tea. I love the delicious clover spread on sourdough bread. I learned that envy-inducing apple slices go well with clover honey. The thinnest ribbon of blackberry honey highlights a slightly sad plate of watermelon. Talking to Harris prompted me to try the coriander honey, which turned out to be just as spicy and delicious as promised, right from the spoonful. I’ve baked a lot of sandwich loaves with buckwheat honey, washing them down with a little topping mixed with melted butter.
These are simple pleasures. But enjoying honey today brings with it the realization that honey production and consumption lie at the heart of many complex issues and challenges. For one thing, bee species are declining. A Department of Agriculture report indicates that between 2020 and 2021, the amount of honey produced declined by 126 million pounds, possibly due to a tangle of factors including herbicides, poor nutrition and stress. Meanwhile, honeybees, as Alison McAfee writes, are “a widespread livestock animal,” and some experts warn that the focus on “saving” them comes at the expense of native bees.
These things naturally affect the people behind the items. Experts say that to continue offering these diverse types of honey, producers need support. “A lot of beekeepers who have been primarily honey producers for generations are now unable to make a living,” Reed-Laird says. “A lot of people expect honey to be very cheap like processed sugar. But it’s not. It’s something very different and very special. Honey prices in general need to be much higher, so that beekeepers and their workers can earn a living wage.”
Harris agrees: “If you want really pure honey, you need to work with the beekeeper to make sure you’re getting pure honey. It costs more money, it takes more time, and it’s more work on the beekeeper, so It should cost a little more. Hopefully the beekeeper will make more money and therefore they will probably want to keep keeping bees.