Judging the Best Honey in the World
While Benefits of Honey May be Proven, Flavor is Subjective
Marissa Ames – Where does the best honey in the world come from? And how is it determined “best?”
That question has no definitive answer, since every honey-producing region may stake claim that its product is the “best honey in the world.” Whether it’s New Zealand’s therapeutic manuka honey, or raw orange blossom honey from Florida, the answer lies within whoever is tasting it.
Though supermarket honey is generally amber-colored and crystal clear, different styles include crystallized honey, raw, strained with some pollen remaining, filtered, dried granules, sold within the comb, or sold as chunk honey with pieces of comb immersed inside. It may be pale and transparent or nearly as dark as molasses. And then there’s the floral source, indicating specific types of pollen within the honey. It can be nutty, citrusy, or have an “animal” undernote such as leather or caprylic.
Honey competitions rate hundreds of samples each year but “personal opinion” is not a qualifier.
A, B, C, or S?
The USDA isn’t particular regarding style or flavor, either. Its grading system recognizes that honey may be “water white” to dark amber in color…and that’s just fine.
To determine honey’s grade, the USDA assigns points for three factors. Flavor/aroma can earn up to 50 points, absence of defects earns up to 40, and up to 10 are assigned for clarity. If total points equal 90 or more, honey is grade A. 80 or more is grade B, 70 or more is grade C, and anything less is considered substandard.
Earning highest points for absence of defects, honey must be practically free of comb, propolis, and other deposited sediment which affect appearance or edibility. Clarity, which only applies to filtered honey, means apparent transparency and freedom of air bubbles, pollen grains, and other fine particles.
Flavor is more complex. The USDA’s .pdf on “United States Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey” says, Flavor and aroma means the degree of taste excellence and aroma for the predominant floral source. The standards specify that each must have a good flavor for the nectar source and be free of caramelized flavor or objectional flavor caused by fermentation, smoke, chemicals, or other causes with the exception of the predominant floral source.
If honey is clean, unadulterated, and relatively clear, the rest is personal preference.
Judgment Under the Refractometer
When learning how to start a honey bee farm, you may find yourself looking into local competitions. North Carolina State University’s Apiculture program has an online .pdf indicating how to prepare honey for the state fair.
At the North Carolina State Fair, density receives up to 20 points. Judges measure moisture content with refractometers, and anything above 18.6% is disqualified immediately. This is because too much water allows for fermentation and microbial growth. Water content below 15.5% may result in docked points.
Crystallization doesn’t mean honey is bad or inedible, but it will get beekeepers docked up to 10 points if bright flashlights detect particulates.
Filtering beeswax is important if you want to win, because up to 30 points are assigned to cleanliness: absence of lint, dirt, wax, and foam.
Container appearance is worth 10 points, with another 10 for accuracy of filling and uniformity. And though flavor is worth a whopping 20, rules specify that point reduction is for bad flavor from processing, storage, or heating and doesn’t include subjective differences in taste or floral source.
The state fair also has categories for creamed honey, chunk honey, and cut comb honey, with points applied to characteristics of each. Cut comb rewards highest points for neatness: straight, sharp edges. Equal points are applied for neatness, cleanliness, uniformity of appearance, density and flavor, and absence of watery cappings or uncapped cells in chunk honey. And creamed honey’s highest points are for fineness or crystals and cleanliness, including freedom from foam.
These criteria are similar throughout worldwide honey competitions. Others may specify that comb must be in one piece. Some do not judge comb entries for flavor. But a 2016 contest that did judge on taste, run by the Center for Honeybee Research, awarded the “Best Tasting Honey in the World” award to a fruit farm with apple blossoms as the primary nectar source.
Varietal Honey and the Lexicon Showdown
This is where arguments come in. Does the best honey in the world come from Lehua blossoms in Hawaii, resulting in a soft yellowy color, earthy aroma, and a complex butter-brown sugar flavor? Or is it the mild, floral star thistle honey, a highly-sought product from a noxious weed? And do all bees make honey from flowers?
Monofloral honeys come primarily from one type of flower, such as fireweed, lavender, or clover; these have distinctive flavors and colors. Wildflower honey is polyfloral, derived from many types of flowers, and the taste may vary year to year, depending on which blooms are present; polyfloral containers may also be labeled spring or fall honey. Lower-cost, commercially available honey is often blended, meaning it came from two or more sources. Honeydew honey doesn’t come from flowers but from aphid secretions; it’s not as sweet as nectar honeys and has stronger flavor.
Untrained critics may simply describe the product as “sweet” or “complex.” But honey can also be smoky, spicy, woody, nutty, fresh or pungent, depending on the floral source. Underlying notes define each sample. If it’s spicy, does it taste like saffron, black pepper, clove, or fennel? And is it fruity like a blackberry or a melon?
The Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis, in California, sought to depict the vast lexicon of honey flavors. Amina Harris, who had been evaluating honeys for 35 years prior, undertook the project. Six months of research and development, and a panel of 20 beekeepers and food enthusiasts, resulted in a colorful wheel which categorizes and subcategorizes flavors.
Floral subcategorizes into 8 blooms, including jasmine and honeysuckle. Herbaceous branches into fresh and dried, which each branch into 5 other options such as menthol, tea, or malt. Chemical denotes sulfur and pungent, and sulfur branches into artichoke and cabbage. The wheel has almost 100 descriptors altogether.
The wheel’s back explains how to taste honey. It even gives examples of four honey profiles so consumers can best use the product.
Because the wheel is copyrighted, it’s difficult to find a full picture with an Internet search. But an 8.25-inch-diameter circle can be ordered online and through UC Davis’ campus bookstore. $1 from each purchase goes to graduate student research.
Since its completion in 2014, the wheel has been incorporated into honey tastings and competitions, including the California Honey Festival and the National Heirloom Expo.
Whether the best honey in the world comes from Oregon blackberry thickets or the neighbor’s single hive sitting below blooming peach trees, quality product can be found around the world. And now it can be visualized and described with more adjectives than just “sweet” or “amazing.”
How to Taste Honey
In a YouTube video produced by the Sacramento Bee, Amina Harris opens a jar and sniffs. She specifies that honey should be room temperature, set on a counter or warmed in a hand. Open it, she says, and take a sniff. Is it buttery? Caramelly? Now put a little honey on your tongue and let it sit there. “Let the smell go up inside your nose. Let the flavors move around your tongue.”
Amina describes the lexicon of the wildflower honey packaged by the university. The fragrance is complex and dark, like butterscotch candy. She gets a flowery, sweet taste up front, then a little sour. “And it keeps changing. The taste goes on and on.” She says there is a nice, buttery flavor at the end.
Honey competitions use the same method: warmed honey, wooden tasting sticks, and a slow, patient process of discerning different notes before recording their scores. It requires a lot of smelling and savoring, but it’s how the best honey in the world is separated from blended, low-end concoctions in bear-shaped bottles.