Honey by the Spoonful
Photography by Brent Harrewyn
One of my most vivid memories of a spoonful of anything is sitting in a cabin in Colorado, Flatirons a short horseback ride away, eating honey on the comb from a large copper pot next to the fire. My sister-in-law’s family stored the combs there after they harvested them from hives on their ranch, and the lightly warmed comb and golden syrup was a hearty, happy mouthful after a large Thanksgiving meal.
Now, having given up refined sugar over a year ago, honey has become my sweetener of choice and often a dessert spoonful on its own. The more honeys I try, the more flavor variations I find among the different single-varietal bottlings.
Single varietal honeys exist because of a concept called flower fidelity. Bees go to the best nectar source and, if it’s strong enough, only that source until it’s depleted. This means that while you can find honeys as specific as “coffee blossom,” the impact of season, location, plant varietal and beekeeping methods can have significant impact on flavors.
Beekeepers who want to extend the profit on their rarest honeys, like Tupelo, can leave the bees on after the primary nectar is depleted to allow them to continue producing using lesser blooms and thereby diluting the original varietal.
With all this in mind we thought it would be fun to round up some honeys and do a wine-style semi-blind tasting to see what our favorites were and score them. Here are our top picks and scores from two dozen honeys from around the neighborhood and the world.
Puremiel Organic Honey from Spain:
Eucalyptus—Light caramel color. First flavor is lightly minty. Forward floral notes touching on the tropics. Notes of lychee in syrup. The emphasis on fruit, floral and sweetness is a pleasant, fresh combination. Makes me want a hot beignet. 89 points
Orange Blossom—Golden, like commercial honey, or bright sap. Light flavor reminiscent of spun sugar with a touch of cigar leaf minimally present in the finish. 87 points
Macadamia Nut Blossom—Dark brown like molasses. Light molasses notes in flavor as well. Rich, pronounced, assertive with a rich butter flavor and a soft grainy texture. 88 points
Organic Christmas Berry—Dark amber/pine sap color. Gritty. Hearty. Warming in flavor and mouthfeel. Touch of dark caramel and rich cream in the mouth. 89 points
Navarino Icons Greek Honey
Organic Thyme Honey—Golden orange, classic dark honey color. Thick mouth with bright herbal notes of winter pine in the air. Tastes like a Christmas wreath smells; pine needles and red berries. 87–88 points
Blackberry Honey—Lighter golden honey color. A bit of bright pine. Small note of lychee syrup. Like a lighter version of the thyme without the intensity. Notes of sweet tangerine. 86 points
Lagremar Organic from Spain
Honey with Propolis—Mid-orange color of apricot jam. Peach and apricot notes in the mouth with a touch of smoke. 87 points
Menlo Park Farmers Market—Jim Talboy
Spring Floral Honey—Pale yellow gold (darkens into season, he says). Lightly gelatinous. Light color, texture and flavor. Lightly buttery, creamy, very soft with a note of comb. Tiny hint of orange peel and spun sugar. 86+ points
And Our Favorites:
Borrones Market Bar
No Name. (Weck jar of honey with comb)—Color of butter. Densely creamy. Thick and rich like a custard. Rich, lush, buttery and smooth. A fine freestanding snack. 92 points
Winter White Honey—Color of heavy cream atop unpasteurized milk. Dense and intensely sweet, like nature’s frosting. Spread it on a cupcake and ride the sugar high. 89 points
Tupelo, Gold Reserve—Ships with its own ultra-long wooden dipping spoon and wood and leather case. As carefully packaged as the finest extreme wine right down to the waxed top. Glorious golden amber color which ascends and shines like a beam of light in the bottle tipped with a tiny green tint, a defining characteristic of pure Tupelo. Flavors are delicate and lightly floral with a hint of sweet herbs and a touch of butter. An exceptional honey. 94 points
Overall we found some interesting surprises. While the Borrones Market Bar honey, which they sell primarily as an accoutrement for their various deli-style products, was one of our favorites. Hawaiian honey was also a surprise favorite with unique, complex flavors and pleasant texture, and has only recently been imported by a Bay Area company.
Consistency across the honeys ranged dramatically from runny to gritty. One vendor explained that when honey is produced near water it will absorb more moisture and be runnier than honeys from dry climates. Honeys naturally crystallize over time as well. Never add water to honey, though, as a direct addition will produce a terrible result, unless you intend to make mead, and know how. As one provider explained, the only thing that can spoil honey is water.
Lastly, while flavors across varietal types were less consistent than we expected, we did note that wildflower honeys tend to be the simplest and sweetest while “forest” honeys were the darkest, savoriest and most complex. Since savory notes are not what we tend to look for in honey, forest honeys didn’t make the list, other than the distinct Greek Thyme honey, which was by far the most reminiscent of the plant it originates from. Blackberry honey consistently showed the sweet but nuanced flavors we are looking for.
The range of honey flavors is as varied as wines or any other gastronomic treat, so the next time your simple squeezy bear runs dry, consider one of these, or another, single-varietal honey as a substitute.
Ben Narasin is an early-stage venture (seed) investor by day and a freelance wine, food and luxury lifestyle writer by night and weekend. He lives in the Bay Area when not traveling the world in search of the next exciting startup or food/wine trend. His published works can be seen online at FoodWineLife.com.