If you’re fixing a piece of toast at chef David Guas’s house and reaching for some honey to slather on it, you’ll find a bit more than just a teddy-bear-shaped squeeze bottle. “I’ve got at least 10 jars of honey on the counter,” says Guas, “and probably another 30 in the pantry.”
That might sound a bit extreme, but Guas has plenty of company. Honey is a growing obsession in the United States, fueled in part by increasing numbers of so-called backyard beekeepers who have been galvanized by stories of dwindling bee populations. These days, that next-door neighbor with a beehive is just as likely to be a corporate lawyer as an eccentric hippie. And the rising interest in bees has spawned a revelation among such enthusiasts: All honey does not taste alike.
Indeed, with more than 300 varietals of honey in the United States alone, ranging from Montana alfalfa to Hawaiian wilelaiki blossom, there is no shortage of different types to spread on your toast, with flavor differences that can be subtle or startling. At the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at the University of California at Davis, director Amina Harris has been on a mission to get people to start really tasting honey, which led to assembling a team of 26 trained tasters from a variety of industries — including wine, olive oil, chocolate and coffee — to develop the Honey Flavor Wheel, a tool for identifying more than 100 honey flavor profiles, from peppermint to cat pee.
Yes, cat pee.
“Most honeys will fall into just a few categories,” says Harris: “fruity, floral, herbaceous and spicy. Obviously, there are many more. Some get a hint of straw or tea. And, of course, what has become popular since the wheel has come out is that some really do smell like animals: goats, wet dog, horses or leather.” She’s right. Try a spoonful of buckwheat honey, and you’ll get an instant sensation of having just licked a barn floor, a flavor represented on the honey wheel in the “animal” category.
Marina Marchese, owner of Red Bee Honey and co-author of “The Honey Connoisseur,” a detailed exploration of more than 30 varietals, says most people think all honey tastes the same. “When you have somebody taste two or three different varietals side by side, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know honey had different flavors,’ ” she says. “It’s the ultimate in terroir.”
To be clear, Marchese and Harris are talking not about honey that has been directly infused with spices or fruit, but about honey that’s simply the byproduct of whatever plant the bees happen to be pollinating. That means orange blossom honey can have a distinctly citrusy flavor (and can vary depending on whether the orange trees are in Florida or California), while clover honey is often characterized as having a fresh spice quality, directly related to when clover first appears in early spring. Even wildflower honey, the most common variety found in grocery stores, is different from one region to the next: The flowers growing wild in New Hampshire are not the same ones found in Texas. That’s why honey does truly reflect the terroir of a region in its minutest form, down to the plants found in just a single square mile.
Tim Tucker, a commercial beekeeper in Kansas and board president of the American Beekeeping Federation, says there might be 100 floral sources in any single crop of wildflower honey, and with his hives spread over a large area, the flavor can change from the easternmost hives to those on the west end. “From one season to the next,” he says, “even the common wildflower honey on the supermarket shelves won’t be exactly the same.”
While the inconsistency in flavor can present a conundrum for restaurants and food manufacturers, which are usually trying to replicate flavors over and over for cereal, barbecue sauce and the like, that same inconsistency can be exciting for novices, most of whom previously thought of honey as just “sweet.” Certainly that was Marchese’s experience in 2000 when a Connecticut neighbor, Howland Blackiston — the author of the bestselling how-to manual “Beekeeping for Dummies” — introduced her to his backyard hives. The flavor of the honey straight out of the hive was a revelation, prompting her to say to Blackiston: “This is what real honey tastes like? I’m in.”
Mass-market honey is usually highly filtered; can be a melding of honeys gathered from all over the country; or might not even be from the United States at all, because Americans consume far more honey than we produce. This is where small-scale beekeepers are probably making the most important contribution to increased awareness of varietals: by concentrating their efforts on single-source honey, such as lavender, blackberry and avocado, or fostering a following for highly regional, and rare, varieties such as the prized tupelo honey of north Florida or meadowfoam honey found only in Oregon.
“I challenge anybody,” says Marchese, to put mass-market honey “side by side with a good-quality honey. You’ll taste the difference, and then you know the difference in your head, and it’s up to you to make the choice.”
Marie Simmons, author of “Taste of Honey,” suggests starting a honey pantry by choosing three types of honey in a different colors and flavors: as a golden-hued orange blossom or clover, an amber-colored wildflower and a dark buckwheat, for example. “Begin by drizzling one of them at a time on buttered toast, a dish of plain or vanilla yogurt or over a fresh mild-tasting ricotta or goat cheese to introduce your palate to the range of flavors,” she advises. “Buckwheat with chocolate was a happy discovery for me. It contributes a distinctive taste to baked goods. Mildly flavored honey contributes a subtle honey taste — the buttery taste of blackberry honey matched with toast or biscuits, or the gentle floral taste of tupelo honey on hot corn muffins, French toast or on hot breakfast cereal.”
No matter what, don’t take a very specific floral honey and whisk it into a vinaigrette, warns chef Guas, who has regularly been cooking with honey for several years at his two Bayou Bakery locations in the Washington area and develops recipes for the National Honey Board. “If chefs want to showcase an Appalachian honey from Georgia, it’s going to get lost in a vinaigrette,” he says. “That’s where you want a good-quality but mild honey, like alfalfa or clover. If it’s a regional honey that you’re proud of, then use it as a finishing honey, on its own on a cheese plate or mixed with butter and brushed on toast.” Shop with your eyes, advises Guas, and look for colors from lemony yellow to rich molasses.
For Marchese, it’s all about the honeycomb, because each one of those wax-sealed cells contains the purest, most unadulterated form of honey — honey that has never been exposed to the air or outside moisture. “It’s like uncorking a fresh bottle of wine, and that’s a ritual worth being on your knees for,” says Marchese. “It took the bees two years to make that honey for you.” She spreads the honeycomb, wax and all, straight onto hot toast, luxuriating in its velvet texture as it melts.
Marchese’s reverence would come as no surprise to the Honey and Pollination Center’s Harris, who says, “I find that, in general, people love the honey they grew up with or the honey they can attach a great story to.” Often a hot ticket at farmers markets, local honey represents a truly singular taste of place, the kind of thing that tourists can take home as a taste memory of a visit to far-flung regions or that locals can give pride of place to on their breakfast tables.
Even within the microhabitat of Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, two varieties of local honey — one from hives in Kingman Park and another from Congressional Cemetery — have completely different flavor profiles and colors, showcasing terroir from either side of East Capitol Street.
You might detect notes of violet, pine tree and fennel — or cat pee. At least it’s local.
Hartke is a Washington-based food writer and editor.