BEE ON ZINNIA: PHOTO BY TERESA RAFIDI
STORY BY MARY STANLEY
I began to think about the taste of honey when I was asked to be one of the judges at a blind honey tasting hosted by the Texas Beekeepers Association at their 2015 conference. Participants, who ranged from backyard hobbyists to commercial beekeepers, had been invited to submit samples from their hives.
The judges were to determine which honey tasted the “best” by tasting drops of each presented on black straws (so we couldn’t see the color, although we could detect variations in density). After the third taste, it became clear that this was going to be an extremely subjective decision—based on individual preferences—as opposed to adherence to official standards or categories.
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 of tastes. I knew about charts and wheels that helped profile chocolate, wines and bourbon, dividing them by descriptors like fruity, spicy, floral. So where was my honey tasting wheel? One sample was extremely delicious on first taste. I murmured, “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?
My co-judge screwed up her face and said, “This is terrible!” Later, we discovered that this particular honey came from an East Texas beekeeper whose hives were situated near where horsemint commonly grows. If we had grown up on that specific honey, we would have expected it to taste like this. The sour, molasses-mint smack at the finish was the signature of the horsemint nectar announcing “Hey bubba! I’m from East Texas!”
The differences in each honey’s flavor profile can be attributed to the particular terroir or biome (areas divided by similar climate, soil, plants and animals) where it was produced. Plants of a biome provide the pollen and nectar that entice the bees of that region to visit their blossoms.
Pollen is the honeybee’s main source of protein and 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 the quality is high.
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 mouth part, 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 the creamy-textured syrup surrounding the pecan in a pecan pie. The pecan taste is distinctive: It smells like a combination of pecan leaf sap in the heat of the summer and dank wet pecan shells buried under autumn’s forest floor.
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 tasted was an accidental collection by Walker Honey Farm in Rogers, Texas. The hives were placed under pecan trees near a wild 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, or move hives depending on the season, so that their bees have access to more plant diversity.
Terrain influences honey characteristics, 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 that year 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 sadly, in my opinion, 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.
I finally discovered my honey tasting wheel at a two-day workshop held in a Connecticut barn owned by Marina Marchese, founder of the American Honey Tasting Society and the author of The Honey Connoisseur. Marchese and her organization are currently building a database of American honeys for its Flavor and Floral Mapping Project. Inspired by the work of the Italian National Registry of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey, the project will categorize regional samples according to flavor profiles, shedding light, drop by drop, on the intricate relationship between a bee’s terroir and the taste of its honey.
A TEXAS HONEY-FLIGHT BRUNCH
Just like wine, 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!
Buy a selection of Texas honeys (see note below) and assemble fl ights 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 fl avorless tasting sticks for each honey (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.
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 and discuss if there’s a particular fruit fragrance, floral bouquet or spice scent.
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.
NOTE: Monofloral honeys (from the nectar of a single-flower type) aren’t always easy to come by—or verify. One reliable Texas retailer is Walker Honey Farm (walkerhoneyfarm.com), which sells single-flower varieties—like Huajillo, Orange Blossom, Tallow Tree, Sesame— collected from hives both in-state and out. Most North Texas honeys are labeled “Wildflower,” which encompasses the myriad flowers in our area. Though the name sounds generic, there is still much variety, depending on the terroir of the hive and the season when the honey is collected.
Just as with farmers, get to know local beekeepers. A good source of information is realtexashoney.com. Local honey can be purchased at farmers markets, smaller retail shops and through individual websites. You can also meet beekeepers through local organizations, like the Trinity Valley Beekeepers Association (tvbees.org), the Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association (cchba.org) and the Metro Beekeepers Association (metrobeekeepers.net). Most are passionate advocates for their honey and their hives.
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 profi les just 40 minutes apart, yet within the same biome.
Find genuine local honey sources with the Honey Locator at honey.com/honey-locator or realtexashoney.com.
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 monofl oral honey, but different varieties of clover (white Dutch, red, white sweet, etc.) impart their own unique fl avor 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 fl avor 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 fl avor 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.
Huajillo 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.