A Taste of Honey

Honey is no Longer just a Sweetener in a Plastic Bear

“It’s gorgeous. Clean and caramelly.”

“This one is heavy, robust, complex.”

You would think these comments are from sommeliers describing their favorite wines. However, the reality is they are describing types of honey. 

That’s right; honey, that sweet, natural substance often used in tea and desserts is not just some anonymous goo squeezed out of a plastic bear anymore. These days, fancy artisanal honey is all the rage, particularly with chefs, mixologists, and true gourmets. And it’s no longer confined to the countryside; it’s being harvested by beekeepers in urban areas on rooftops, backyards, and even cemeteries, as part of this generation’s growing desire to better understand − and enthusiastically explore − the sources of their food.

The Bee Team

“Beekeepers are a funny folk,” says Damian Magista, beekeeper and founder of Portland, Oregon-based honey purveyor Bee Local. “Keepers of bees have been around for centuries, and these days, they are hobbyists from all walks of life.” Andrew Coté of the New York Beekeepers Association agrees that the hobby attracts a wide range of people, including “psychiatrists, police bomb squad technicians, math teachers, firefighters, students, retired people, electricians − there’s no one type.”

Rare and Pure

Many beekeepers maintain the hobby for the relaxation and joy of caring for the black and yellow insects, but some have put forth the extra effort to produce honey and distribute it to the epicurean community. Discerning beekeepers know that their hives are inherently special, producing local raw honey that is not processed, diluted, or otherwise tampered with the way many food products are when factory-produced for mass distribution. 

“A lot of honey is adulterated and blended, a lot like olive oil and other foods,” says Carla Marina Marchese, Connecticut-based beekeeper and founder of her single-origin honey company Red Bee. “Real honey is really rare, actually. A bee makes a twelfth of a teaspoon in her entire life.” Even with the average hive containing tens of thousands of bees, that’s still a limited amount of a precious, natural product.

Honeybee pollinating a plum tree.

A Eureka Moment

It wasn’t always obvious that honey produced from bees foraging in a specific area would translate to a unique honey. “Everybody in the United States has heard about clover honey, and blueberry honey, and tupelo honey. But nobody had ever thought, ‘Oh, it comes from the flower!’ I knew that but I didn’t think of that,” admits Marchese, reminiscing about her early days of honey-making 15 years ago. “When the bees gather nectar from an orange blossom, that nectar becomes an orange honey: orange-blossom honey.”

For other urban beekeepers, the idea of producing varietal honey with particular terroir was a true “Eureka!” moment. In Portland, Magista remembers his discovery: “As my hives expanded, I put another hive in a friend’s backyard a neighborhood away. When I went to harvest, I noticed it was completely different in color, taste, and just everything about it,” he recalls. “A bee’s range is typically within a one- or two-mile radius, and if the forage is different in those areas, the honey’s going to be different.”

Tasting is Believing 

As special as terroir-based honey is, promoting it was initially a bit of a hard sell. “When farmers’ markets first started, people weren’t really interested in honey,” Marchese says. However, as the culinary scene evolved, more and more people embraced the idea. “I brought James Beard Award-winning chef Vitaly Paley four different varieties of my honey to do a tasting,” says Magista. “We went through it, and you could see his eyes just start to light up, because it’s not until you actually do a tasting, and taste the honey side by side, that you really get it.” 

Jars of honey sit next to the harvested honeycomb.

A Sense of Place

“I started talking about honey the way you talk about wine,” Magista continues. “It has a terroir. It’s all dependent on weather, what effect weather plays on the different plants that make up the bee’s forage. Terroir is ... an immediate snapshot of the environment. And that will change from year to year, from season to season, so it’s really unique, and really beautiful stuff.”

“A good example of a real terroir-driven honey is tupelo,” Marchese explains. “Everybody’s heard of it, it’s a sort of romanticized honey, but tupelo honey truly possesses a unique terroir because the tupelo tree grows only in Georgia and northern Florida, and nowhere else on the whole planet. That’s the only place you can get tupelo honey.  It’s a very light, amber-colored honey, and the flavor notes are a little bit spicy, a little cinnamony.”

Even in New York City, the forage from pockets of nature spawns distinct types of honey. Coté produces a honey derived from the flowers of the High Line elevated park in Manhattan, as well as from Central Park. Across the United States, there are 300 different floral sources for honey − flowers, trees, bushes, weeds − so there’s a huge variety out there to taste.

Taste This, Honey

Marchese isn’t only a beekeeper and proprietor of Red Bee, but she’s also author of The Honey Connoisseur and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society, which she created after taking inspiration from honey tastings and festivals abroad.

“In Italy, food is more than food. They really have this deeply ingrained food culture,” she says. “And I started to see how they treated honey. They designated all the floral sources for their honeys, and the colors and the flavors were different. And we really don’t do that in the United States.”

Today, one can sign up for a honey-tasting course with the American Honey Tasting Society based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where honey tastings are akin to wine tastings. Participants take a three-part “honey sommelier” course where they learn about plants and flavor profiles through colors, aromas, textures, and flavors. “If you use your senses correctly and allow yourself to be guided by them, and write the tasting notes for the honey, you will recall what that honey is the next time you taste it. Or the next time you see it,” says Marchese.

Honey

Tea with Honey?

One might think there are countless recipes for the multitude of varietal honeys out there − and there potentially are − but combining honey with other foods is not the ideal way to experience their nuances. “Honey should not be mixed too deeply into anything so as to lose the taste,” says Coté.

Marchese agrees. “My philosophy for honey is, let’s not bake away the delicate beautiful flavors of this rare sweetener. Just pair it with cheeses. Drizzle it on bread and taste the honey, and taste the cheese,” she says. “If I can get my hands on pure tupelo honey, I’m not going to put it in bread and bake it. I’m not going to put it in cookies and lose that amazing flavor. And I’m not going to put it in tea.”

Perhaps if you’re going to mix honey in a recipe to make something sweet, you can always reach for that plastic bear on the shelf.