by Marina Marchese
Beekeepers have a cause to celebrate as American honey is experiencing a renaissance, seducing chefs, food lovers and even other artisanal food producers – cheese mongers are fans – to appreciate this ancient sweetener for all its culinary glory. Once reserved exclusively for royals, honey was so highly coveted and respected during Julius Caesar’s reign that it was an acceptable form of payment for taxes. After World War II, sugar cane became our sweetener of choice and bee honey fell out of fashion. Fast-forward to 2014 where our beloved honey has returned to the limelight and was recently honored as a newly added food category at the fifth annual Good Food Awards competition. If you’re not familiar with the GFA, it is a celebration of the people who make tasty, authentic and responsibly produced food with respect to the environment while connecting communities and their cultural traditions. An independent team of people working in various aspects of the food industry, organized by Seedling Projects nominates judges to grant awards to outstanding American producers and farmers in eleven artisan food categories. With hundreds of nectar-friendly floral sources, covering 3.794 million sq miles, honey certainly deserves a place alongside beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, confections (thank goodness honey was not pigeonholed here) oils, pickles, preserves and spirits.
Honey produced in the United States is being recognized for its diverse flavor profiles, perhaps more varietals than any other single country. The good people at the Good Food Awards along with some serious gourmands have officially given home grown honey the stamp of approval.
So on the spur of the moment this past September, which just happens to be National Honey Month, I spent a weekend immersed in tasting the American honey terroir with an intimate group of passionate food professionals, producers, writers and beekeepers at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco.
I first learned about the GFA in March of 2014 when Christine Schantz, a former Slow Food governor and committee chair for the new honey category attended one of my own honey tasting workshops here on the east coast. With notebook in hand and her copy of my and Kim’s book The Honey Connoisseur: Tasting, and Pairing Honey, With a Guide to More Than 30 Varietals, Christine was on assignment to learn as much as possible about all things honey.
Specifically, there were honey submission criteria to write, subcategories of honey to define as well as preparations for staging the highly anticipated GFA honey-judging day. My honey tasting workshop lingered beyond the dedicated two hours into an afternoon of lively discussions and more honey tasting with Christine and my staff. Our conversations about honey continued well past that day and over the next few weeks I was able to connect Christine to many other honey enthusiasts who would also contribute their expertise to the newly established honey category.
As GFA judging day approached, Christine graciously invited me out to SF to help stage the honey tasting and to present an overview on how to taste honey for the judges. Anyone who knows me, knows that the only thing I love more than tasting and talking about honey is designing a honey tasting table. This was an offer I could not refuse and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to San Francisco for a short and sweet weekend.
I joined other committee members from all sectors of the food and beekeeping industry, Christine’s co-chair, beekeeper Mark Carlson, beekeeper Kristy Allen of The Beez Kneez in Minnesota, Azumi Okado a local culinary student, and Peggy and Gary Diedrichs who publish Green Traveler Guides. Saturday was dedicated to unpacking and taking inventory of the 94 jars of honey submissions from 21 states. Next, each honey sample was assigned a number on a blank sticker and grouped into five pre-designated U.S. regions then sub-divided by floral source, as stated by the beekeepers into what we call tasting flights. There were categories for Liquid, Comb, Crystallized and Flavored Honeys with a few creative submissions like honey bourbon, honey infused with boysenberries and one curiosity, it appeared that the beekeeper fed their bees chocolate laced sugar syrup to create chocolate honey. Unfortunately, this submission did not comply with the criteria for good animal husbandry and was disqualified by the judges.
Staging a tasting of 94 honey samples for 15 judges means spooning honey by hand into 1410 numbered mini tasting cups. This was done since all the honeys arrived in a wide variety of jars with each individual beekeeper’s label and we did not want the judges choices to be influenced by the various honey jars.
Presenting the samples in similar tasting cups kept the entries on equal ground while each judge can taste from their own sample and double-dip as often as needed. As you could imagine this was a sticky job requiring patience, lots of spoons, hands and wet rags. Volunteers willingly licked sticky spoons clean at the end of the day in an effort to make clean up go quicker.
Before we left for the day, the judges places were staged with all the tools they would need to taste, a GFA tasting score sheet, one pencil and the honey aroma and tasting wheel from The Honey Connoisseur which includes a honey color chart. Glasses of flat and fizzy water – no ice, green apples, bread and water crackers were available as palette cleansers. There were also rice cakes available for those tasters who were gluten-free.
On Sunday morning, an army of volunteers and judges for all eleven food categories arrived from around the U.S. to assemble for a pre-event breakfast mingle. Introductions and announcements were given by the director, Sarah Weiner of Seedling Projects who has worked closely with GFA’s founder Alice Waters of the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse, yes, that Alice and the assistant in Italy to Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement. At 10:00 sharp, judges made a beeline to their designated areas and took their seats. The 15 judges were divided into tasting groups called pods. Tasting cups full of honey samples were pre-arranged clock-wise on circular white plates in tasting flights ready to be placed in front of each judge. Christine made a few brief welcome comments and introduced each of the volunteers and called on me to offer instructions on how to taste honey.
Here are some guidelines I offered the judges for tasting and evaluating honey . . .
The color of honey varies from transparent to yellow, golden ambers, to red, green, dark amber and black dependent upon its floral source and the mineral content of the soil. Consider its visual properties that can range from transparent, cloudy to opaque. Color does not necessarily reflect the flavors or intensity. Look for any foreign debris floating in the honey, foam or grit.
The aromas and flavors of honey are based upon its floral sources and are most distinctive when honey is at room temperature. Take your cup of honey and rub it in a circular motion on your palm to gently warm it up to release its aromas. Using your tasting spoon, smear the honey around the edges of the cup and use both hands to cup the cup and stick your nose inside to inhale the aromas. Our noses can detect thousands of aromas while our tongue can only experience five tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – savory). Try to taste anything with your nose plugged, you get the picture now. This is why it is important to smell before you taste any food. Use the honey wheel to identify as many aromas as you are able.
Take a spoonful of honey into your mouth, let the honey melt on your tongue, mix with your saliva and inhale before swallowing. Using the honey wheel, try to identify the flavors. Often what you smell does not match what you taste. Look for a wide range of flavors and when they appear or disappear during the time they are in your mouth. Honey varies from fruity, floral, woody, warm, fresh, even chemical, animal or vegetal. In my opinion honeys with complex aromas and flavor profiles, meaning you can taste three or more different flavors that linger on your tongue, rather than go flat and turn plain sweet are winners. In the end everyone experiences aromas and flavors differently so there is no right or wrong when it comes to what is considered a good or delicious honey, it is the opinion of the taster.
Crystallization is probably the most misunderstood concept regarding honey. This semi-solid state happens when glucose spontaneously precipitates out of the honey solution and forms a crystal around pollen grains, or dust floating in the jar. Take note of the size of the crystals, are they fine and pleasant or coarse. Honey becomes lighter in color when in a crystallized state.
Lastly, look for defects and off flavors like burnt or metallic, signs of fermentations or honey that begins to separate or is extremely runny. Over smoking the bees during a honey harvest can leave smoky residue in the beeswax or honey. Honey left in an extractor or tin lids could pick up metallic flavors. Thin, runny honey may have a moisture content of more than 18% which can cause early fermentation, and smell or taste like mead or dough.
I could see the judges were anxious to dive into the samples of colorful honeys. As they tasted there were plenty of questions and discussions. Interesting enough, judges were curious about floral sources and regions and how it related to the flavors they tasted. Since many of them came from other sectors of the food world, they were familiar with the concept of terroir, in that the sensory qualities of an artisan food reflects its source, the place it was produced and the style of the producer. There’s still so much we need to learn about honey and the breathe of its flavors. As the day progressed I was delighted to watch as the judges settled into their individual tasting techniques using all their senses and trying to identify the aromas and flavors using the honey wheel during their discussions. At the end of the day, judges handed in their score sheets and left with a new appreciation for honey, not to mention a sugar buzz. All winners will be announced in mid-November through a national press release and the Good Food Awards newsletter, and website. In January 2015 a GFA gold seal of approval medal will be given out to winners at an Oscar-style Gala ceremony and reception with Alice Waters and other food luminaries at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco’s iconic food destination the Ferry Market Place.
For more information about the Good Food Awards or if you are thinking about entering your own honey to the judging competition, visit the GFA on line at http://www.goodfoodawards.org and fill out the time sensitive entry form. You need only to enter your best tasting honeys; thanks to the Good Food Awards the judges are now, all honey tasting experts.
Marina Marchese is a designer turned beekeeper, founder of Red Bee Honey and co-author of The Honey Connoisseur with Kim Flottum. She is launching The American Honey Tasting Society, whose mission is to raise the awareness of honey as an artisan food and the diversity of its flavors and floral sources. www.americanhoneytastingsociety.com.