by Kathy Keatley Garvey
UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
DAVIS–When you taste honey, do you know how to describe the flavor?
You probably will when you use the UC Davis Honey and Pollinator Center’s newly published Honey Flavor Wheel.
The newly published Honey Flavor Wheel from the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center
“This gives a huge lexicon to the tastes and aromas we find when tasting honey,” said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollinator Center, affiliated with the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
The Honey Flavor Wheel production involved six months of research and development. “We brought together a group of 20 people–trained tasters, beekeepers and food enthusiasts–who worked together with a sensory scientist to come up with almost 100 descriptors,” Harris said. “This wheel will prove invaluable to those who love honey and want to celebrate its nuances.”
“I have always been astonished by the range of flavors in honey,” Harris said. “And its aromas, too. Developing the wheel has been an astonishing learning experience at all levels. I now truly pay attention as I taste many different kinds of foods. I notice flavors from beginning to end.
“I had one wonderful surprise during the tasting series. The sensory scientist we worked with, Sue Langstaff, had been to New Zealand and brought back several honeys. One was a wild flower called Viper’s Bugloss. What an amazing aroma! Imagine sitting in a garden. The sun has just set. And the heady aromas of jasmine and orange blossom together crowd the air. This is the scent of Viper’s Bugloss. An astonishing honey. Now I want more!”
Harris’ favorite honey? Sweet clover. And that’s not to be confused with clover. “Sweet clover is a tall, five-foot wildflower that grows in profusion in Montana, the Dakotas and elsewhere in the high plains of the United States,” Harris said. “It is light in color, spicy with a wonderful cinnamon hit!
“When we tasted it, one of our analytical panel members said: ‘There is really only one word for this. Yum!’
“And that is how I feel, too!” Harris said.
The front of the colorful wheel shows the descriptors, including fruity, floral, herbaceous, woody, spicy, nutty, confectionary, caramel and earthy. No longer can you just say “sweet” when you taste honey or “sour, salty and bitter.” If it’s fruity, can you determine if it’s berry, citrus, dried fruit, tree fruit or tropical fruit? If it falls into the confectionary category, can you pinpoint marshmallow, vanilla, maple, butterscotch, toffee, molasses, cotton candy, crème brûlée, burnt sugar or brown sugar?
There’s even an “animal” category” where you can opine that your sample of honey reminds you of a barnyard.
Retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, who has coordinated and conducted the annual honey tasting at the UC Davis Picnic Day for 38 years, remembers tasting buckwheat honey in Oregon that reminded him of “goat.”
“Maybe the honey bees drank goat pee,” he said, smiling. “Actually, the environmental conditions where the plants are growing can have quite an effect on the odors and flavors of some honeys, while others just seem to be the same everywhere. The ‘goat’ honey that I tasted was buckwheat. In many cases, buckwheat honey seems more similar to blackstrap molasses than anything else. It is normally quite robust, but can be mild. In some cases it has been described as having a ‘barnyard’ odor and flavor–goat? A search of websites suggests that the mild-tasting samples can become more pungent, with off-flavors developing if it’s left sitting around for some time or if it’s been heated.”
The back of the Honey Flavor Wheel relates how to taste honey and shares four honey profiles (Florida tupelo, California orange blossom, Northwest blackberry and Midwestern clover) “so the consumer can get an idea of how to use this innovative product,” Harris said.
The Honey Flavor Wheel, measuring 8.25 inches, sells for $10 each, with all proceeds supporting bee health research at UC Davis. The product is available at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and soon will be available online, at the UC Davis Campus bookstore and at the downtown Davis Campus Bookstore.