Sunday, October 19, 2014

Honey Tasting with Marina Marchese

Updated: Made some corrections.

This past Saturday, my local bee club had a wonderful opportunity to learn honey tasting from Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey. Marina is certified by the National Registry of Experts of Sensory Analysis of Honey in Italy and is an expert in single-origin honey. She is also the founder of the American Honey Tasting Society.

Marina at the tasting tables
Marina is a terrific spokesperson for honey. She is articulate, smart, beautiful, effortlessly chic, and elegant. Most importantly, I've never met a person so passionate about honey. Her mission is to educate people about honey so that they will understand what a precious and rare treasure it really is. She does this by helping people discover the diversity of floral sources in honey from various locales.

Marina's books
Here are some notes I jotted down from the morning session:

On the Value of Honey

  • The Egyptians understood how valuable honey was. When Carter discovered King Tut's tomb, it was filled with things he would need during the afterlife. This include jars of fine wine, olive oil, and... honey.
  • One honeybee works her whole life to make a mere 1/12th tsp of honey. Good quality honey is rare. It's hard to make. It's hard to find. It really should cost as much as caviar.
  • In order to get the public to appreciate honey the way it should be appreciated, they really have to be educated on the real value of it.
The Difference between Honey Judging and Honey Tasting
  • The UK has a National Honey Show every October that lasts three days. It highlights a wide range of honeys from different floral sources. It's a spectacular event that beekeepers should attend at least once if they can. During the show, participants can submit samples of 4-6 jars (all jars are part of just 1 entry, not separate entries) which are judged. Judges put them in categories by color. They also judge features such as cleanliness (no fingerprints, debris, foam, bee parts), water content (17-18%), and clarity. However, they pay very little attention to flavor unless it is spoiled. Also, no crystallization is allowed, which means that many of the entries have undergone a bit of pasteurization -- a process that diminishes the flavor of honey. Unfortunately, this judging process means that very fine honeys can be overlooked for something as trivial as a fingerprint on a jar or an incorrect label. 
  • By contrast, honey tastings are a common event in Italy where she trained. Honeys are lined up by floral source in wine glasses, and they are sampled just like fine wines. Specially trained honey sommeliers conduct the tastings, and they're looking for sensory qualities in the honey like flavor, aroma, and color. Crystallization is fine as long as the crystals are not jarring to the senses. The emphasis in tasting is on quality and character rather than quantity and consistency.
  • If one is interested in attending an Italian honey festival (sagra del miele), which is one way to experience once of these tastings, it's best to travel in spring.  They occur all over the country.
You know you're in for a good time when you walk
into a room to this set-up.
  • Marina discussed the term "terroir" at length. In French, it means "soil, earth," and it invokes a sense of place. 
  • There are many foods that have terroir, foods that identified with one particular location and which don't taste the same if produced anywhere else. Some examples are Champagne, Vermont maple syrup, Chianti, Kentucky bourbon, Idaho potatoes, and Georgia vidalia onions.
  • There are also many honeys with terroir: Tupleo honey from Georgia and Florida, Maine blueberry honey, New Zealand manuka honey, California sage, North Carolina sourwood, lavender honey from Provence.
  • Often the foods or honey may not be grand. Sometimes the story behind the item is the attraction.
  • Terroir is shaped by a host of environmental factors like climate, rain, soil, weather, sun, mountain slopes, etc.
  • Environmental factors affect floral sources, which in turn affects bee behavior. It also determines whether there can even be any honey during a particular season.
  • During a tasting, we are tasting the terroir of the honey.
The Importance of Tasting
  • Allows us to identify defects in the honey like high water content and adulteration.
  • Ensures the quality and safety of honey.
  • It opens conversations with the consumer, thereby educating them. Educated consumers are repeat customers.
  • Allows beekeepers to connect with chefs and people in the food industry. These are people who get excited learning about food and who can pair them in creative and delicious ways.
  • Allows us to tell stories about honey and to demonstrate how all honeys are not the same. They differ by season and region. 
  • It provides culinary enjoyment.
Why Education is so Important
  • So many people who say they don't like honey have never had real honey. Even people who buy honey have often never encountered the real thing. They've only been exposed to "funny honey," which is little more than flavorless sweet syrup. 
  • The US produces only about 1/3 of our honey. The rest is imported, often in less than truthful circumstances. For example, a lot of honey is cut, blended, ultrafiltered, etc. A lot of honey is transshipped, i.e., honey from China is shipped to places like Australia where it is labeled as something packaged there and then imported into the US.
  • Other big companies that produce canola honey (which is a GMO product that has no flavor) blend it with a more flavorful honey and sell the diluted honey as "clover" or "alfalfa" or whatever.

Sensory Analysis
 During a sensory analysis, we are looking for things like:
  • Color. There are 7 colors rating from clear to dark amber. Some colors are even greenish or bluish. Kudzu produces a purplish honey that tastes a bit like a grape jolly rancher. Color is determined by floral sources and even mineral content.
  • Aroma, taste and flavor profiles. The nose can smell thousands of odors (aromas), but the tongue can only perceive five tastes (bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami). Flavor is a combination of aroma and taste.
  • Texture and viscosity. These depend on temperature, humidity, water content, and crystallization.
  • Nectar sources
  • Visual appearance -- the presence/absence of pollen, bubbles, dust, propolis, wax
  • Taking notes on honey tastings is a good way to remind oneself of how a honey tasted.
  • Properly stored honey never spoils. However, honey contains essential oils from their floral sources. As honey ages, the essential oils evaporate, so honey loses some of its flavor.
  • As honey gets older (or if it's improperly stored), it produces a chemical called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). This also diminishes the honey's flavor.
  • The ideal spoon to use during a tasting is a plastic tasting spoon that doesn't impart any flavor to the honey. These can often be found on foodie websites.
  • A lot of how we experience flavors is based on memory and experiences. 
Tasting wheel
Those are my notes on the morning. In the afternoon, we did an actual tasting. Since my background is in instructional design, I was quite excited. I love practical exercises! Anyway, she wanted to demonstrate how flavor really is a combination of taste and aroma, and how so much of what we taste comes from our noses. We started out with Marina giving us all a spoon to dip into a brown powdery mixture. Then we pinched our noses and tasted. With no sense of smell, it just tasted a bit sweet. Then we got to breathe and taste. Wow! Cinnamon! 

Next, she provided us all with a honey tasting wheel, which we reviewed. We also got to sniff various glasses that she'd filled with things like coffee, lavender, soil, beeswax, etc. to get our noses in gear. 

Stuff to get our sniffers up to snuff
Finally, we sampled 5 different honeys that she had brought in as well as several other honeys brought in by some club members. My absolute favorite was a goldenrod/Japanese knotweed honey. There was also a buckwheat honey that I thought was positively foul. So glad I found that out today since I was considering planting a large patch of it next year.

Of course, by the end of the tasting, we were all sticky and buzzed from the sugar rush, but also feeling like a rather lot of happy Pooh Bears. 


  1. Wow, what an amazing treat. Thanks for taking good notes and sharing them. I'm glad all that invasive Japanese knotweed I saw growing in CT is good for something!

    I wish I knew about the honey tastings before I went to Italy - I'll have to plan that into my next trip if I get there again!

    1. Yes, it was quite the treat! Marina said that she experienced her first tasting during a honey festival (sagra del miele) in a Tuscan town called Montalcino, whose motto is Citta del Miele -- the City of Honey. How cool is that? She also mentioned that there are honey festivals all over Italy, but most of them take place during the spring, though they sometimes occur in the fall. I suppose that makes sense since one has to wait for the flows. She also said that even if there isn't a honey festival going on, you can go into little shops or the equivalent of our roadside stands and experience honey tastings that way, too. Ah, Italians and their food. They have the right idea.

    2. Here's a cool site I found:

      I haven't had time to explore it fully, but it would be a great resource for traveling! Check out the Italy section - they need one on Slovenia!

    3. Oh, wow, what a great site! Thanks for sharing!


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