Honey is like a drop of sunshine. The golden gel-like drops with their sticky gooey consistency and heart-warming aroma that can get you a sugar rush, can be drizzled on top of salads or ice creams, and make anyone drool effortlessly.
Isn’t that the only picture of honey you have in mind?
What if, honey can be almost as clear as water or as dark as molasses?
And what if, honey can be acidic or spicy, or even bitter?
No. The above statements have nothing to do with a Hollywood science fiction film that is set in an alien planet.
The fact is, our wide and diverse planet earth houses over 300 types of honey, and depending on the nectar source, it can vary in taste, texture, and aroma. Some honey varietals can smell like fresh dewy grass or a three-year-old cheese wheel. And your taste buds may say fruity, nutty, smoky, or earthy after tasting some of these.
Describing the taste of honey is no joke. In order to develop a universal vocabulary that describes all the diverse varietals of honey, the Honey and Pollination Center at Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science, University of California, Davis developed a tool called Honey Wheel. A sensory panel including food enthusiasts, food chemists, beekeepers and tasters who have been trained to detect intricacies of coffees, cheeses, wines, and olives spent an entire year tasting hundreds of varietals of honey to develop Honey Wheel.
The Honey Wheel has over 100 descriptive words for taste alone, and ‘sweet’ is just one of them. But, sweet has ten different notes here ranging from brown sugar to marshmallow. You could taste some honey varietals and say that they are fruity. But that would be terribly vague when there are 27 types of fruity notes ranging from strawberry to pineapple. While some terms describing the scent of honey varietals are as happy as floral and fruity, some can make your stomach churn such as cat pee and barnyard.
While all 300 varietals of honey are unique in their own way, some really know how to stand out in the crowd with their distinct taste, scent, and texture.
Let’s get this one right off the bat. Buckwheat honey smells bad. The pungent scent profile ranges from locker room to barnyard to cat pee. Some people even say that buckwheat honey tastes horrible. Here is the deal, it is one of those honey that tastes like their nectar source. It has a distinct malty flavour with bitter aftertaste.
But the good news comes with its dark brown colour and thick molasses-like texture. Buckwheat honey has the highest anti-oxidant content among all honey varietals. This dark, full-bodied honey is rich in iron too. Not only it is a healthy substitute for maple syrup to be used in crepes, pancakes, and waffles but an excellent addition in baked goods, barbecue sauce, and beer brewing. Despite its taste, it is one of the best types of honey to have in the kitchen.
Some beekeepers grow buckwheat because bees are fond of it. It is commonly found in the Northern United States due to cool and moist weather. While, in California, buckwheat honey tends to become lighter and lose the bitterness. It can improve cardiovascular health, boost immunity, and treat anaemia. It is known to be way better than over-the-counter cough syrup for a quick heal.
This stubborn weed has all the reasons to stick around because dandelion honey is rare. Even though the plant is seen all year round, they bloom extensively only during spring and a substantial amount of honey can be harvested at the peak of spring. It is a mono-floral varietal that vouches for its purity with its garden yellow hue.
As hard it is to come by a jar of pure dandelion honey, not everyone can enjoy it. It has a sharp taste that begins with a medium sweetness and leaves a strong tangy aftertaste that lingers for a long time. Honey enthusiasts find its flavour to be very refreshing. The scent also can be a bit pungent as it has a wood-like profile that fascinates many while repelling some.
Dandelion honey contains a high amount of glucose which contributes to the rapid crystallising. It has been appreciated for its medicinal properties since ancient times. The health benefits of this rare honey include increased appetite, improving digestion, and curing liver diseases.
Buckwheat and dandelion aren’t the only varietals with odd flavours. Several types of honey make describing the taste a challenge. Like Tupelo honey cannot be put in one or two words. It has a tropical scent and complex berry-like taste that leaves a sour and bitter aftertaste. Eucalyptus honey and Manuka honey have a medicinal taste and scent.
Basswood honey is known for its biting taste on the palette. Sourwood honey has a sweet and spicy flavour. Neem honey is unsurprisingly bitter. Rata honey cannot be ignored for its salty flavour, just like Safflower cannot be missed for its milky flavour. While Macadamia honey has a nutty flavour, Rewarewa honey has a caramel-like burnt taste.
Even though the universal poster image of the honey is golden drops, in reality, most honey varietals do not possess that colour. Major honey varietals that are golden in colour are Tawari from New Zealand and Lehua from Hawaii. But, the world of bees is ruled by shades of amber.
The dark amber honey varietals are all over the world ranging from Heather from Scotland to Leatherwood from Tasmania and Pine Honey from Turkey. Other popular ones on the list of honey possessing dark amber shade are Avocado, Basswood, Beechwood, Gallberry, Huckleberry, Macadamia, and Silkweed. While some like orange blossom and black locust varies from pale to dark amber as per the nectar source, others like Neem and Pumpkin varies from medium to dark amber.
Varietals like Blueberry, Cranberry, Black button sage, Lavender, Manuka, Poplar, Sage, and Saw Palmetto often has a medium amber shade. Looking at Kamahi and Nodding Thistle, one might assume that light amber shades are home to New Zealand. But, Blackberry, Goldenrod, and Rosemary honey are always pale in colour. Varietals like Apple Blossom, Fireweed, Sourwood, Sunflower also ranges from light to medium amber shades.
Before you think that amber shades are typical, know that they can surprise you often. Rewarewa honey has a burnished amber shade unique to the varietal and Safflower honey has a medium to dark amber shade with a greenish cast.
Now, there is a whole world of honey varietals that are neither golden nor amber. They are white – as clear as water. As hard as it can be to imagine, varietals like Alfalfa, Purple Sage and Rata are water white. Some others like Canola, Acacia, Aster, and Clover varies from white to light amber in colour as per the nectar source and geography.
The yellowish ones that follow white shades include few interesting shades as well. While White sage and Linden possess translucent yellow and light yellow shades, Ulmo honey from Chile has a creamy yellow colour. But, Tupelo honey outshines them all with its clear yellow appearance from a greenish glow.
Here is a fun fact - the darker the colour of the honey is, the higher its mineral value. The darker mineral rich ones are popular in the market for the health benefits they offer. The most-wanted full bodied dark brown varieties are buckwheat and chestnut. Then there is an odd one that doesn’t get lost in the colour palette. Thyme honey has the oddest appearance with its burnt grass shade.