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What’s that flavor? Honey tasters get help from UCD’s new wheel

By From page A2 | August 05, 2014

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Amina Harris is director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollinator Center, which is affiliated with the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science and the UCD department of entomology and nematology. Courtesy photo

When you taste honey, do you know how to describe the flavor?

You probably will when you use the UC Davis Honey and Pollinator Center’s newly published Honey Flavor Wheel.

“This gives a huge lexicon to the tastes and aromas we find when tasting honey,” said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollinator Center, which is affiliated with the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science and the UCD department of entomology and nematology.

The Honey Flavor Wheel production involved six months of research and development.

“We brought together a group of 20 people — trained tasters, beekeepers and food enthusiasts — who worked together with a sensory scientist to come up with almost 100 descriptors,” Harris said. “This wheel will prove invaluable to those who love honey and want to celebrate its nuances.

“I have always been astonished by the range of flavors in honey,” Harris continued. “And its aromas, too. Developing the wheel has been a learning experience at all levels. I now truly pay attention as I taste many different kinds of foods. I notice flavors from beginning to end.”

Harris’ favorite honey? Sweet clover. And that’s not to be confused with clover.

“Sweet clover is a tall wildflower that grows in profusion in Montana, the Dakotas and elsewhere in the high plains of the United States,” Harris said. “It is light in color, spicy with a wonderful cinnamon hit! When we tasted it, one of our analytical panel members said: ‘There is really only one word for this. Yum!’ ”

The front of the colorful wheel shows the descriptors, including fruity, floral, herbaceous, woody, spicy, nutty, confectionary, caramel and earthy. No longer can you just say “sweet” when you taste honey or “sour, salty and bitter.”

If it’s fruity, can you determine if it’s berry, citrus, dried fruit, tree fruit or tropical fruit? If it falls into the confectionary category, can you pinpoint marshmallow, vanilla, maple, butterscotch, toffee, molasses, cotton candy, crème brûlée, burnt sugar or brown sugar?

There’s even an “animal” category” where you can opine that your sample of honey reminds you of a barnyard.

Retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, who has coordinated and conducted the annual honey tasting at UCD’s Picnic Day for 38 years, remembers tasting buckwheat honey in Oregon that reminded him of “goat.”

“The environmental conditions where the plants are growing can have quite an effect on the odors and flavors of some honeys, while others just seem to be the same everywhere,” he says. “The ‘goat’ honey that I tasted was buckwheat. In many cases, buckwheat honey seems more similar to blackstrap molasses than anything else. It is normally quite robust, but can be mild.

“In some cases it has been described as having a ‘barnyard’ odor and flavor. A search of websites suggests that the mild-tasting samples can become more pungent, with off-flavors developing if it’s left sitting around for some time or if it’s been heated.”

The back of the Honey Flavor Wheel relates how to taste honey and shares four honey profiles (Florida tupelo, California orange blossom, Northwest blackberry and Midwestern clover) “so the consumer can get an idea of how to use this innovative product,” Harris said.

The Honey Flavor Wheel, measuring 8.25 inches, sells for $10 each, with all proceeds supporting bee health research at UCD. It is available at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and soon will be available online, at the UCD Bookstore and at the UC Davis Store downtown.

Kathy Keatley Garvey

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