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 home made 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 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. The video below shows how a frame of honey is uncapped, prior to extracting.
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. Below, are the seven geographical regions in the U.S. that determine the taste of honey.
My state of Maryland falls into the Southeast region. And according to William P. Nye of Utah State University, he describe my region as:
” In the mountainous area, sourwood is the prevailing
source of quality honey, along with tulip poplar
and clovers. Sourwood honey is almost
water white, does not granulate readily, and is so
esteemed that it usually passes directly from producer
to consumer at far above the price of other
honeys. Various other honeys, from light to dark
and from mild to strong, are produced in the
There are some sourwoods around here, but the predominant source for me is clover, tulip poplar, and black locust. Go to my post on Black Locust.
Black Locust, not to be confused with Honey 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.
When black locust blooms here in Maryland, I know the nectar season for honeybees is ramping up in full gear.
Many beekeepers use the blanket term “wildflower” for a honey gathered from different kinds of flowers, but what “wildflower” means, varies by region. I label my honey ‘Wildflower’, because it is a variety of flowers that my bees visit for nectar. 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.
Honey overall is enjoying a renaissance. Among the world’s oldest foods, “nature’s sweetener” has been rediscovered by consumers interested in natural foods or locally produced ingredients.
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. 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.
Crystallization occurs in three to eight months after harvesting honey and is not a sign of spoilage nor does it change the taste or healthful properties of honey. It simply changes the texture and color. I notice that honey suppliers are selling crystallized honey as ‘raw honey’. After going to Stockin’s website, they explain that all honey crystallizes eventually and that it is just as good as syrup honey. I don’t agree. When my honey crystallizes, I heat it a very low heat to make it syrup again.
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.
Here are some common honey notes:
- Floral: Flowers like violet, rose, peony, honeysuckle and jasmine.
- Fruity: Tropical fruits like pineapples and mango; berries; citrus (is that a lemon, lime or grapefruit?); and dried fruits like raisins, prunes and apricots. Beyond that, are those fruits ripe and sweet or unripe, like green figs or bananas?
- Warm: Burnt sugars like caramel, marshmallow, and butterscotch; creamy notes of yogurt or butter; deep flavors of vanilla and chocolate.
- Fresh: Crisp flavors like citrus and 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, mold (think ciders, bread, mushrooms, and truffles).
Storage of your honey is important to keep it in good flavor. Do not store in a refrigerator! Set your honey bottle in a sunny window. For more on storing of honey, go to my post on Honey-Eternal Shelf Life and Other Amazing Facts.
Honey being judged at a state fair
When I extract my honey, like the above video, it is not heated, just removed from the frame by centrifugal force and strained though a paint strainer to remove bee parts and debris. Pure heaven! For a post on extraction, go to Spinning Honey.