Honey: The Taste of Terrain

By M. E. A. McNeil / Photography By Kathy Keatley Garvey | March 01, 2015
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Bee dips into honey

A flavor wheel is a tool to “listen with your nose”


A statue in the garden at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis is engraved with the likeness of the wine aroma wheel, a tool developed by Ann C. Noble, a now-retired sensory chemist and professor at Davis, and credited with broadening consumer understanding of wine tasting, thereby greatly increasing demand.

It seems only fitting, then, that out of this revered research center for food and wine would also arise a similar tool for describing the deeply nuanced tastes of honey.

In the world of wine, the existence of terroir, the concept that the specific place where wine grapes are grown imparts particular flavor, is still argued by some, but it is an indisputable fact that honeys taste of their environments.

Well beyond the simplistic descriptor “sweet,” an entire spectrum of bloom and season opens when a taster is encouraged to pause and savor the rich profusion of scents and flavors of a honey. But something was needed to make that experience as user friendly for the honey-loving public as the wine aroma wheel had for oenophiles.

Enter the Honey and Pollination Center at the Mondavi Institute (Honey.UCDavis.edu), established in the fall of 2012. When Amina Harris was hired as the first executive director of the Center, she had already been evaluating honeys for 35 years in her family business, and she knew that to accomplish the Center’s ambitious mission it would take more than just a publicity campaign. The breadth of honey flavors would need to be made accessible. To that end, she immediately set about creating a list of sensory criteria, a cheat sheet for learning to taste honey—like the one for wine.

In developing the wine aroma wheel, Ann C. Noble was looking for “a way of educating the consumer so he has a clue as to what’s there. Everybody understands ‘pineapples’ or ‘melons.’ That is not vague. On the other hand if you go on about ‘complex,’ ‘wonderful,’ ‘the mystic afterglow,’ what the hell is that about?”

What she ended up with was a wheel-shaped chart with radii expanding from a center with the most generic terms to more specific around the rim. The meat of Harris’ task lay in codifying the entire list of possible specific descriptors.

Thankfully, she was in an ideal place to do just that. The Mondavi Institute had already become a mecca for the assessment of wine, beer and olive oil. Her office is a short bee flight from the Institute’s Sensory Evaluation area, where Harris sought out the doyenne of much of the smelling and savoring that goes on there, Sue Langstaff. Langstaff has been a consultant to the wine and brewing industries for over 20 years, identifying, guiding and calling out hyper-sensory forensics.

Langstaff had already created an olive oil tasting panel at the Institute, or, more accurately, a flavor panel. Such panels are typically made up of industry professionals, but Langstaff has another approach. She does not discount genetic ability, but the individual who can taste a pepper at one part per billion, like a grain of sand on a beach, is highly unusual. She believes that sensory analysis is a skill acquired with practice, and she has found know-nothings easier to train than know-it-alls. Average training, however, for a sensory panelist is 60 hours. [Her screening process is entertainingly recounted in the popular book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), who tried for a seat as a taster.]

The olive oil panel is germane here because so many people trained for it were subsequently selected for the honey flavor panel. “From the standpoint of descriptive analysis, it doesn’t matter what you are tasting,” explained Langstaff. So it was that she gathered an eclectic group for this new task: Among them were tasters that she’d trained, along with others experienced with wine, beer and chocolate tasting, chefs, beekeepers and one restaurant critic: 21 in total.

“You are being trained to be analytical tools, instruments, measuring devices,” she told the panelists. “We don’t care about subjective feelings, opinions—how much you like the honey. So if someone smells jasmine, another smells straw and another says it’s lovely, we only care about jasmine and straw. They are terms that refer to specific objects that you can actually touch and smell. We are using words to describe the attributes of aroma, taste, flavor, texture and after-flavor of honeys.”

Noble has said, “The more precisely you file the information, the more easily you can retrieve it: That is the crux of learning.” To that end, Langstaff first introduced a basic tasting vocabulary to the panel.

Honey Flavor Wheel

Although humans are capable of smelling thousands of aromas, they perceive only five tastes—bitter, sour, sweet, salty and umami (a savory, broth-like flavor). Salty and umami were set aside as irrelevant to honey, as was sweet because honeys are assumed to be sweet (leaving aside variations in degrees of sweetness). The remaining tastes are bitter and sour.

Accordingly, samples of each of these two tastes were placed in front of the panelists, together with an additional sample to illustrate a texture: astringency. “We are learning a foreign language here, the language of honey. If I’m calling something bitter and you are calling it sour, we’re not communicating.”

With the tastes explored, the group was next directed to address the vastly greater vocabulary of aroma. At the back of the room stood “reference standards”: 64 wine glasses that Harris and Langstaff had painstakingly filled with physical samples that illustrate some words from the literature, grouped into categories such as flowers, fruits, spices, and others ranging from mushrooms to fir to green tea. None were aromas that would indicate a “defect” in the honey, since microbiological issues were not part of the inquiry.

Why such assiduous attention to putting words to scents? Olfaction accounts for 80% to 90% of the sensory experience of food. The nose functions like a gas chromatograph: aromatic volatiles are released by chewing, and they waft up to the upper reaches of the nasal cavity where they bind to nerve receptors that send a signal to the brain. Each receptor acts as a key to the lock of a particular kind of molecule; an odor can involve many molecules and therefore many signals that are perceived as a smell. This process is called retronasal olfaction.

In mammals, the number of genes involved with scent has increased through evolution to over 1,000, making them highly specialized smelling animals. In humans, about 300 of these genes have become dormant through mutation, although they remain active in other mammals— note the greater ability of dogs to differentiate and follow scents than humans. Primates that have developed color vision have large numbers of these functionless scent genes, having traded smell for sight.

One reason that not many people notice the aromas of honeys may be that active “sniffing” is crucial to smell. Only 5% to 10% of scent molecules floating in the air reach the roof of the nasal cavity. And it is difficult to dice out words for smells because smell, unlike other senses, is not consciously processed. In an ancient pattern, it is the only sensory information that is integrated directly into the cortical regions of the brain, to the centers for emotion and memory. Hence how a bite of Proust’s classic madeleine brought back a rush of childhood images.

The honey panelists were invited to sniff among the glasses and encouraged to bring to mind words for the scents they were experiencing. “You have to train yourself to associate this way,” said Noble. “It’s the kindergarten of the nose.”

Langstaff says that her first impression of a flavor may be a color, an image, or a sense of warm or cool before she comes up with a word she has learned to name it.

Why not use lab equipment for this analysis? Langstaff points out that, without a human, it would be impossible to assign sensory relevance to, for example, the 716 aroma compounds in pineapple. And, yet, “you can’t ask the consumer; their lexicon is ‘yum and yuck.’” The sensory evaluator needs to be a neutral reporter, “as analytical as Mr. Spock.”

Next, seated again at their stations, the tasters were each presented with a tray on a heating pad holding unnamed, numbered honeys in opaque containers. It was intentionally made impossible to see the color of the honey. “We are focusing on only aroma, flavor and texture, not color,” said Langstaff, pointing out that humans rely more on sight than smell. “We don’t want to bias you with the color of the honey.”

That may be a puzzling step, given that in the commercial market the color of honey is standardized and used to determine value. Lighter hues tend to be more costly, but Eva Crane, a respected authority, found only “a rough connection between color and flavor, in that honeys with delicate flavor are light whereas dark honeys normally have a strong flavor, but the reverse can also be true.” What it comes down to is that color is much easier to quantify than flavor, but blondes don’t necessarily have more fun.

Visual clues trump olfactory information, in part because visual input reaches the brain 10 times faster. Olfactory neuronal transduction, messaging, is the slowest in the nervous system, and it is the sense most difficult to verbalize. Interestingly, the dominance of sight data was demonstrated in an experiment at the University of Bordeaux in France, where white wine was disguised as red and tasters used different descriptors than when they had tasted the same wine as white.

The heating mats under the honey trays were there to concentrate the aromas. “For you to smell something, the chemical has to be volatile,” said Langstaff. “It has to be able to adhere to your olfactory bulb. The heated volatiles rise to the headspace in the cup.” She instructed the tasters to tip the lid first, to smell the gas above the honey. “What comes off are esters, floral compounds.”

Some immediately began filling in notes, others closed their eyes and sniffed again, reaching for words.

Finally, small spoonfuls of honeys ranging from orange, macadamia, cotton, several eucalypti, lehua, sage, mesquite, umo, clover, viper’s bugloss, pomegranate, along with various mixed wildflower and grocery store brands were held on the tongue and slowly swallowed, producing more silent reverence, more jotting and some “ohhhs.” Brows furrowed: The Sacramento Bee’s restaurant critic, Blair Robertson, asked himself: “Did I detect molasses? Or was it more like maple syrup?”

Tasting is the word used in this situation, but what happens in the mouth and nose is both taste—sensory input from the tongue—and smell, to combine as flavor.

“It’s like listening to an orchestra,” Langstaff said. “At first you hear the entire sound, but with time and concentration you learn to break it down, to hear the bassoon, the oboe, the strings.”

In her intensive sensory evaluation classes at Davis, Noble teaches her students to “listen with their noses.” She wanted tasters to be “like an explorer discovering a new ocean.”

After the largely silent tasting, Langstaff led a discussion among the panelists. “It tastes different than it smells,” was often agreed, as was “It changes as you hold it in your mouth.” Many descriptors were similar and often colorful.

The aftertaste of each honey was considered. A honey with a clean finish was described by one as “Having enough acid to wipe away lingering sweetness.” Sommelier Orietta Gianjorio described a honey with a short finish as “Like a good-looking man with no brains.”

Some opinions were wildly diverse—setting off a round of re-tasting. “We don’t all live in the same sensory universe,” Langstaff remarked.

The result of all of this intense work is the Honey Flavor Wheel, pictured here and available in hard copy through the UC Davis bookstore ($10) and online at Honey.UCDavis.edu/Products. Proceeds help the Center continue its work and fund the campus’ Harry H. Laidlaw Bee Biology Laboratory.

The hope in all this sniffing and savoring is that an educated clientele will emerge with the ability to distinguish varietal and local honeys from the substandard commercially produced honeys most of us may be used to—“like the Mona Lisa from a cartoon,” to borrow from Noble.

As Langstaff so eloquently puts it, “It adds quality to life when you stop and taste. When most people slow down and pay attention, they can do it. It is a wonderful gift.”

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