“When we think about honey, it’s extremely visceral,” says Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California at 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 this other huge amount out there.”
That is starting to change, as consumers become more interested in such honeys as star thistle and avocado blossom. According to the National Honey Board, more than 300 varietals are in North America alone. “There’s definitely an awakening around different honey varietals,” says Sarah Red-Laird, the executive program director of the Bee Girl Organization, a nonprofit group focusing on bee habitat conservation.
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Harris, who’s from Buffalo, grew up with intense honeys, such as goldenrod. In California, she learned that “honey isn’t always dark and strong. Each one has its own family of characteristics. A good taster learns those. Just like with wine, they learn those characteristics and can identify them.”
She worked with a food scientist and 25 tasters to develop a honey wheel, a circular chart to help people describe honey flavors. According to the wheel, an herbaceous honey could be classified as woody or resinous, and a resinous flavor, in turn, could be reminiscent of cedar or oak. (The animal section radiates out to terms such as “locker room,” “barnyard,” and “dog.”)
Since flavors depend on the different groups of flora bees pollinate, varietal production is localized. Maine, Harris says, produces a “very fruity” blueberry honey, while Michigan offers knapweed honey. You can find basswood honey from the Midwest, and in the South there’s kudzu and tupelo honey. In California, Harris sees honeys including eucalyptus and avocado.
Because of its name, wildflower honey — a common label — may seem like a particular varietal. Instead, wildflower is a catchall term meaning “a blend of whatever is in your local environment instead of having your bees next to one monocrop,” Red-Laird says. Appalachian wildflower, for example, won’t probably look or taste like California wildflower honey. These differences are part of the wine connoisseur-like enjoyment of honey, and tasters savor strains that differ even from one harvest to the next.
Color fluctuates, too. “Honey,” when used to describe a paint hue, often means a warm gold. But as Red-Laird points out, honey can range in shade from black to light. “There’s even a honey color called water white, which is pretty much see-through,” she says. Vetch honey, she says, is almost transparent, but not weakly flavored. “You wouldn’t think that something that’s almost see-through would be so strong, but it’s super floral and really delicious.”
These distinctions offer interest to customers of places such as the Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg, Va., which offers honey and mead tastings. The staff stocks honeys from all over the country, including star thistle from Michigan and palmetto from Florida. To complement grilled food, Silver Hand’s experts suggest alfalfa, mesquite and buckwheat. For tea drinkers, there’s raspberry blossom, Virginia wildflower and star thistle. Sarah Potts, who manages the tasting room and store, pairs tupelo honey with Pepper Jack cheese, blueberry blossom honey with extra sharp cheddar, and serves brie and blackberry honey on a dried apricot.
Kim Allen owns the Asheville Bee Charmer, an Asheville, N.C., honey shop and tasting room, along with her wife, Jillian Kelly. Allen, who claims she can’t cook, does use honey in her cocktails, including an “acaciarita.” Lighter honeys, such as acacia or sourwood, go with lighter tequilas, she says. “If you want to make an Old Fashioned, you might go with something like tulip poplar. Acacia or straight-up clover might get lost in those.”
Wine people are often lampooned for their cryptic or obscure descriptions, but honey people seem more earnest in their categorizations. Professionals do admit to favorites. Red-Laird uses buckwheat honey (which Allen calls the “cabernet” of honeys) as a cooking ingredient but doesn’t stir it into her Earl Grey. For that, she uses heather honey, “because it just reminds me so much of Scotland.” She likes manuka on yogurt, more buckwheat on a honey-and-peanut butter sandwich and finds tupelo honey “really earthy and delicious.”
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Kristin Craft, director of operations at Silver Hand, uses dark avocado blossom honey in her brownies, and Potts includes a bourbon-barrel aged Appalachian wildflower honey in her bacon jam. “Sourwood has such a buttery note to it,” Kelly says. Allen likes blackberry and fireweed honeys, and Harris makes shortbread with clover honey, which has a “cinnamon” taste. She also appreciates coriander honey these days. It smells, she says, as if “you’re standing in the middle of a spice bazaar, with cumin and coriander and ginger and licorice or anise.”
I found that orange blossom was flowery, delicate and perfect rendered into a syrup and stirred into oolong tea. I love hearty clover spread over sourdough toast. Envy apple slices, I learned, go very well with alfalfa honey. The thinnest ribbon of blackberry honey perked up a slightly sad plate of melon. Talking with Harris fired me up to try coriander honey, which turned out to be as spicy and delicious as promised, just off the spoon. I baked a lot of sandwich loaves with buckwheat honey, washing them with a little extra, mixed with melted butter.
These are simple pleasures. But enjoying honey today brings with it an understanding that honey production and consumption sit at the center of many complex issues and challenges. For one, bee species are declining. An Agriculture Department report states that between 2020 and 2021, the amount of honey produced dipped by 126 million pounds, possibly because of an intertwined set of factors including herbicides, poor nutrition and stress. Meanwhile, honeybees, as Alison McAfee writes, are a “massively distributed livestock animal,” and some experts caution that focusing on “saving” them comes at the expense of native bees.
These matters naturally affect the people behind varietals. The experts say that to continue to offer these sundry honeys, producers need support. “A lot of beekeepers who have been honey producers primarily for generations now can’t make a living,” Red-Laird says. “Many people expect honey to be very cheap like processed sugar. But it’s not. It’s something that’s so different and so special. Honey prices on the whole should be much higher, so our beekeepers and their workers can make a living wage.”
Harris agrees: “If you want really pure varietal honey, you need to work with your beekeeper to make sure you’re getting pure stuff. It costs more money, takes more time, takes more work on the effort of the beekeeper, so should cost a little bit more. My hope is, the beekeepers will make more money and therefore potentially want to stay keeping bees.”