The best way to start learning distinctions between different kinds of honey is, of course, to eat a lot of it, and to do so with side-by-side comparisons. When setting up a honey tasting party, there are a few things you need to know.
If you’re relatively new to the honey-tasting game, pick a few varieties from different flower sources, seasons, or regions so you can best compare and contrast most dramatically. Later on you can try different honeys from the same flower source (wildflower, orange, and thyme are common) and compare their similarities and differences.
Put each sample into labeled transparent plastic or glass containers so you can notice the differences in color and viscosity. At a graduate student level? Try a blind taste test and see how the honey tastes without labels or color clues.
Set out a spoon for each sample available, so you can stir and notice textures and viscosity.
Make sure each guest has room temperature water for palate-cleansing, something to take notes with.
Serve apple slices, bread, and a variety of cheeses and nuts so you can see how the honeys pair best with food.
STEP BY STEP
First, look at the color. Is it white, a light or pale amber, or a shade of brown? What preconceptions does that give you about the flavor? While we assume that lighter honeys are going to be simpler and lighter in taste and darker honeys will be round and rich, this is not always the case. Want to test your preconceptions? Try tasting blindfolded and see if your guesses on flavor intensity match up with color.
A honey’s appearance is about more than color. Is it opaque or dense? Is there one hue throughout it or variations within? Good honey is rarely 100% transparent -the remnants of pollen and wax or inevitable airborne dust from hand-bottled jars that can make their way into honey.
Now stir the honey with a spoon and notice how thick or thin it is. Most honey isn’t taken from the hive until bees have sealed it with a wax cap, knowing they’ve fanned it down to 16 to 18% moisture. But the time of year it was bottled or concentration of sugars (again, from which season the honey came from) can subtly yet noticeably affect the texture. Is it easy to drizzle, or has it started to thicken or crystalize? If so, are the granules small or large?
Next, smell it. Honey’s perfume can be intoxicating, with layers of fruit, flower, air, and earth. Take a huge whiff close to the spoon and note what you smell. Move the spoon away and sniff again; how potent is the aroma now? Some honeys are extremely mild in aroma, whereas others are excitingly potent.
Finally, taste it. Go beyond sweet. Really good honeys have flavors that unfold once our palates adjust to the sugar. Look at the tasting wheel: If it’s acid you’re getting, is that from a citrus note of orange, grapefruit, or lemon, or the almost fermented tang of vinegar? Does that tropical flavor make you think of ripe or green bananas? Does the flavor sit on your tongue and quickly pass, or do you notice more and more as it hits different parts of your mouth and your throat? Jot down the general thoughts that come and then anything specific—is that burnt sugar taste a caramel or a butterscotch?
Pay attention to the texture, how the honey loosens up in your mouth. And if you’re tasting comb or chunk honey—honey left in its waxy honeycomb—how does it feel when the honey spurts out of its cells?
Now try matching those flavors with one of the foodstuffs around you. How does a light, floral honey go with a funky cheese or a bit of dark chocolate? Does a deep, rich honey work well with just a chunk of baguette? Do you want to pair light with light and dark with dark, or contrast flavors?
Enjoy and let us know how it went!