Last fall, I did a blind tasting of some honey samples from local Edmonton beehives. I was asked to do so by Dustin Bajer, one of Edmonton’s beekeeping experts and fellow Food Council member, on behalf of the YEG Bees Honey Co-Op: a collection of local beekeepers who pool their honey together and sell it at markets.
There’s a surprisingly huge variation in the flavour of honey from different areas of the city, even places that are only a few blocks away from each other. The Co-Op wanted me to provide some tasting notes for each sample to help highlight these differences.
Honey’s flavour depends on a number of different factors. The primary influence is the variety of flowers and plants that the bees are foraging nectar and pollen from. Just as different flowers smell and taste different, the pollen and nectar gathered from different plants varies wildly. The flavour of honey also changes over the course of the season – the first crop of poplar trees, willows and dandelions produce a rich, deep flavour, while later in the summer the profusion of flowers results in honey with endless aromatic combinations.
Each hive makes its own blend of honey, just like how a winemaker will combine different types of grapes together to make wine with a certain flavour profile. (And actually, grape flowers might even be part of the blend!) The bees also build up their stores of honey over the season, so if you wait until the end of the season and then extract honey from all of the honeycombs at once, you end up with a vintage blend of sorts. It’s kind of like how tawny port is a blend of wine from different vintages. The reverse is true, too: if you were to harvest each frame of honey as you took it off the hive, you’d end up with a set of “single varietal” honeys.
Other factors also influence honey’s flavour. One of the biggest examples I’ve noticed so far is the age of the honeycomb. The most striking honey sample I tried was from a wild hive that had been living in the wall of a 100-year-old house. This honey was markedly different from the rest, both in colour and flavour. All of the others were various hues of yellow and orange, while this one was rich toffee brown with a wholly unique flavour. When I first tasted it, I could have sworn it had chocolate or something similar mixed in. (Read below for that tasting note.)
New honeycomb is very pale creamy white, but as the bees use it, the wax absorbs residue from the pollen, honey and larvae that are stored in it. Over time, the wax begins to turn brown. Because most beekeepers regularly harvest frames of comb, for both the honey and the wax itself, the bees of a tended hive are usually drawing out new comb all the time. But wild hives, or those where the beekeeper reuses old frames, recycles the same wax over and over. The honey extracted from these older frames is imbued with a complex brew of characteristics derived from the bees’ forage and the residue that built up over time.
I find the concept of honey tasting fascinating, and I love the idea of being a honey sommelier. There’s so much to learn and it’s pretty uncharted territory, so Edmonton beekeepers: if you’d like some notes to accompany your honey, please get in touch!
I also can’t wait to try the honey from my own hive – so far I’ve left them alone as the girls had a bit of a rough start to the year, but I’ll be able to pull some off soon, I think.
Metro ran an article today about Edmonton’s beekeeping scene. It features an interview with Dustin and my honey tasting notes. They published an edited version of the notes though, which I understand – they took out my more fanciful descriptions and stuck to the parts that sounded like classic wine tasting notes. I think we can agree that while this has its utility, that style of tasting note is also kind of boring. So here’s my original version, flair included:
McCauley East: Sunflower Musk
Rich golden colour with a musky aroma of sunflower pollen and animal fur. It’s like relaxing on a bear skin rug in a room filled with bouquets of freshly cut sunflowers.
Ermineskin: Tree Trimmer
A pale lemonade colour and a whiff of fresh flowers give way to a veritable mountain of grassy flavours: fresh hay, alfalfa, freshly-trimmed tree branches and all the wonderful green growing things of the summer.
Capilano: Herbal Tea
Reserved aroma, medium straw colour and a demure but elegant palate of fresh licorice root tea. Perfect for sweetening your homemade herbal teas on the first crisp mornings of early fall.
Forest Heights: Apple Blossom
Lovely flavours of flowering trees – apples and pears – and a whiff of beeswax. If honey wore clothing, this one would be decked out in a frilly white sundress with matching pale pink hair ribbons.
Westmount: Summer Fruit
Medium straw colour and a quiet nose gives way to zingy flavours of crisp apple, berry skin and just a hint of citrus. Drizzle over fresh fruit for a simple but snazzy dessert.
Pale yellow, redolent of freshly rolled beeswax candles. A hint of baking spices and cinnamon will have you thinking of baking pies after making those candles.
Fulton Place: Grandma’s House
It’s the colour of toasty pie crust and it smells like it too, but the palate is all floral perfume. You’ll be remembering visits with grandma or strolls through flower gardens in full bloom.
McCauley West: Rose Petal
Medium yellow with a hint of earthy, green aromas that give way to a wallop of flowery, rose petal flavours. You’ll almost be able to hear bees buzzing in a giant rose bush.
Wild Hive: Classic Candy
The amber-brown colour will have you thinking of freshly-pressed apple juice, but the unique flavour is uncannily like a Tootsie Roll. Chocolate taffy and a vanilla aftertaste reinforce the nostalgic sense that you’re eating treats from days gone by.
If you’d like to pick up some delicious honey and taste the difference from yourself, check out the YEG Bees Honey Co-Op.
Head over to Dustin Bajer’s website for an awesome resource on beekeeping, permaculture and other awesome stuff. And thanks to Dustin for prompting me to do those honey notes!