Good raw unpasteurized honey tastes very different from the plastic clover honey bear that you purchase at the supermarket. I compare it to processed cheese vs. a homemade varietal cheese. Honey bears are simply an accumulation of many types of honey that have been mixed together, heated, and made into a homogeneous mixture which lacks any hint of ‘terroir.’
Raw honey taste has a sense of place of where the honey bees gathered and deposited the nectar. As complex as chocolate, wine, and olive oil, honey deserves a greater appreciation with many layered notes or flavors. Honey tasting is like wine tasting — you wait for the bouquet and flavors to cascade over you. Honey is not just ‘sweet’, there are floral notes that are hard to describe. Butterscotch, caramel, florals, dried fruit, mineral….you name it, honey has it all. The flora, climate, and nature of the terrain determine the flavors of local honey.
In my area of Maryland, in the mid-Atlantic region, Black Locust heralds the honey flow start of the beekeeping year. Go to my post on Early Spring Nectar Sources for more information. Black Locust produces a fruity, fragrant honey that ranges from water white to lemon yellow. The lexicon of honey flavors are as varied as the floral sources that it comes from. It can smell fresh as grass or tarry and dark as molasses. Honey varietals are becoming increasingly popular with honey tasting events of local and not so local honey on the menu. 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. Worldwide, it is in the thousands.
Many beekeepers use the blanket term “wildflower” for a honey gathered from different kinds of flowers, but what “wildflower” means, varies by region. In my Maryland climate, that means- goldenrod, clover, berries, and sumac; the western Rocky Mountains have cactus, yucca, agave, alfalfa, and mesquite. So a Maryland and a Western wildflower honey will be very different.
Changing seasons also affect a honey’s taste, texture, and color. A plant only has so much sugar that goes to its blossoms. In spring, when those blossoms are just budding, the resulting honey tastes less sweet, more diluted. Later on in the season, when plants are competing like mad for pollinating bees to pay them a visit, they disperse more sugar and nutrients into fewer flowers, producing darker, more full-bodied honeys, like the late-season buckwheat and goldenrod. Buckwheat honey is almost black and I can only describe the flavor and aroma as ‘earthy’. It is an acquired taste but it promotes healing in the body, supports immune function, and boosts antioxidants. It’s also great for soothing sore throats and coughs.
Here are some common flavor notes of honey:
- Floral: Flowers like violet, rose, peony, honeysuckle and jasmine
- Fruity: Tropical fruits like pineapples and mango; berries; citrus and dried fruits like raisins, prunes and apricots
- Warm: Burnt sugars like caramel, marshmallow, and butterscotch; creamy notes of yogurt or butter; deep flavors of vanilla and chocolate
- Fresh: Crisp flavors of herbs like thyme and mint.
- Vegetal: Fresh plants, raw vegetables, wet grass, hay and straw.
- Animal: Sweat, manure, leather.
- Woody: Cedar, oak, pine, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg.
- Funk: Yeast, fermentation, must, moss, fungi
My favorite tasting choice is ‘Chunk Honey’, fresh honey with a chunk of honeycomb floating. Just cut off a chunk of the honeycomb and chew it like chewing gum to get all the goodness out.