In 2013, 20 of the world’s most celebrated honey aficionados joined forces with food critics, beekeepers and sensory scientists at the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center to revolutionize the experience of tasting honey. Together, they worked for more than a year to isolate individual flavor components found in varieties from around the world and pair them with standardized taste-descriptors. In turn, the flavors could be used to identify the floral makeup of a given honey.
Put another way, the project sought to reposition honey as an authentic terroir taste product. But to do that required the establishment of a tasting science—that is, paving the way for the equivalency of honey sommeliers.
“The thing about honey is that, when we taste it and try to describe the flavor, most of us just say ‘sweet,’” says the center’s director, Amina Harris. But that’s not quite right. For instance, the taste of single-variety honey gleaned from the nectar of clover blossoms is different from that made from wild tulip poplars, almond trees or black locusts. Meanwhile, all-in-one honeys feature a medley of nectars plucked from seasonal flowers—all of which contribute unique flavor elements.
“When we look closer, a honey’s sweetness is comprised of many different flavors,” Harris explains. “Some honeys are a bit acrid, some more bitter, some more savory. And that’s before we get into color and aroma, which also has tremendous variance.”
After a year of work, the team released the UC Davis Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel. The colorful tool established an official tasting lexicon of more than 100 descriptors. Including categories like fruity or confectionary and corresponding subdivisions like citrus, berry and dried fruit, or caramel, marshmallow and molasses, Harris says that, for honey lovers, carrying the wheel to a local farmers’ market is a recipe for delightful astonishment.
“Of the [thousand-plus] varieties of honey I tasted, my favorite was Sweet Clover,” she confides. Not to be confused with simple clover, the 5-foot-tall wildflower is common to Montana and the Dakotas. Harris uses the wheel to identify the flavor as “light in color, spicy, with a wonderful cinnamon hit.”
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