Friday, December 11, 2015

A Sticky Question

Perhaps this is a side effect of beekeeping, but I've really begun to notice a proliferations of cheap and/or fake honey on the market. It's a bit annoying, but the general public has caught on that real local honey is something special that is worth paying for. So while cheap diluted garbage is annoying, it doesn't cause any philosophical dilemmas.

Though the image is from Amazon, I actually saw this product at my local supermarket recently.
For me, this is the probably the most egregious example I can think of regarding cheap/fake honey.

However, there is an issue that provokes me a little more. I've taken note of a new trend called "artisanal honey." Some of these are honeys that are unique monofloral honeys or high-quality local honeys. Most of them, though, are honeys that have been mixed with some sort of flavoring, either in the form of an extract, fruit, or syrup, or they're produced using a maceration process. This actually bugs me quite a lot because I frequently see these flavored honeys on shelves in my local groceries, wrapped in fancy packaging and sold for as much (if not more) than good quality honey.

This is on my mind because a friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article about a new shop in Mystic, CT called Sticky Situations. It looks like a fun shop that sells flavored honeys and maple syrup.

As you can see, they have quite a selection of flavors, about half of which you would never find in nature, which is a dead giveaway that they've been flavored. For example, although some of you might find bacon-flavored honey intriguing, I never saw a bee pollinate a pig. (That would be a spectacle, though!)

On the other hand, they also carry a number of honeys that are possible to produce naturally, but usually aren't here in the States -- for example lavender honey. When my DH went to Portugal last year, he brought me some fantastic mono floral honeys, including lavender and rosemary. These honeys are produced on farms that have fields and fields of just one herb. However, the "lavender" honey I've seen produced in the US and Canada has been local honey (a mild tasting honey, usually) flavored with lavender oil. (Note, I'm not saying all US lavender honey is flavored honey, only the ones I've seen. Maybe real lavender honey is available in California where there are big fields of it. Does anyone know?)

Lavender field in Portugal

In terms of Sticky Situations' cranberry-flavored offering, I find that an interesting flavor because monofloral cranberry honey can be produced right here in New England. Thanks to Marina Marchese's presentation last year (she's the owner of Red Bee and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society), I've had true monofloral cranberry honey. So looking at the photo of the cranberry honey being sold by Sticky Situations, it's immediately apparent that this stuff is not "real" honey. Without even assessing qualities like taste, texture, and viscosity, the color is just wrong. Cranberry honey is reddish, but it most certainly does not have the color of canned cherry pie filling.

This looks more like cranberry sauce than cranberry honey.
With consideration to these flavored honey products, here is my question -- How should they be compared to honey that is "just honey" -- no added flavors? In other words, is there (or should there be) a distinction between artisanal honey like the kind produced by Red Bee and the flavored kind sold by Sticky Situations?

Merriam-Webster defines artisansal as the adjectival form of artisan -- "one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods."

Applying this definition to honey, I suppose that there is no difference between honey that's allowed to stand on its own merits and flavored honey, but there is this part of me that works really hard out in the bee yard and has tasted the difference in nectars that are gathered throughout the year. It's this part of me wants to appreciate the unique flavor profile of each nectar source that comes in. This same part objects to this lack of distinction between honey produced only from flowers and honey that has been altered in some way.

BTW, it's not that I think flavored honeys have no culinary interest or that they're always inferior to the genuine article. I've had some creations that have carefully considered the flavor profile of the honey itself prior to altering it. In that case, I really do view them as artisanal products, and I appreciate the knowledge, time, and work taken to produce them. However, generally speaking, the beeks I know who create them make their buyers aware that the honey has been enhanced/mixed in some way. They don't try to pass it off as something the bees made all by themselves.

More often, though, the flavored honeys I've encountered use a neutrally flavored, cheap honey as the base. It makes sense because if you have great honey, why camouflage it? So in that case, are we really enjoying the honey, or the added flavoring? If it's all about the flavoring, is it really a special honey? Or is it more of a honey-based equivalent of a lollipop?

Flavored honey sticks

As a beekeeper, I've kind of developed a protectiveness for what my bees do and how honey is perceived. Ok, I'll admit that there are "baking honeys," but there are also honeys that you enjoy just as you would wine, olive oil, or any other luxury good. These special honeys, I feel, should not be lumped into the same category as honey that's mixed with flavorings, natural or artificial.

Of course, it's possible I'm just being snobby or close-minded or resistant to change. I do cook with honey, which means constantly mixing flavors up, so I'm not sure how that differs from selling a product that has been pre-mixed. Still, somehow it just feels wrong to not clearly label that the product has been altered. For instance, I love sangria and other wine-based drinks, but I would never consider adding a bunch of essential oils to wine and trying to pass it off as something that was grown and fermented that way.

I don't know... Are you a purist or a culinary explorer? If you sell your honey, what's your take? Do you view these flavored honeys as competition? Or do you simply see them as area to expand what you can offer (possibly at higher profit)? What do you think of all this? 


  1. I'm not sure I've thought of it much. I've had "cinnamon honey" and other lightly flavored honeys, and this seems okay to me. I've always known these were externally flavored though. Passing off flavored honey as some sort of artisan effort doesn't seem quite right. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    1. Yeah, you've touched on exactly what bothers me -- that the imposters are masquerading as the genuine article.

  2. Sugar-free imitation honey is even worse than a skim milk, decaf cappuccino! Or it's like thinking Aunt Jemima's syrup is just like real maple syrup! Horrors! ;-)

    When a friend of mine took up beekeeping, he was really excited because his wife at the time was into making flavored honeys. To me, that was just wrong. Before I started keeping bees, I never really liked honey. Now, people go places and bring me different honeys (or I'm lucky and win some!) and I can't wait to taste the terroir that comes with them. I've been planting lots of lavender in my yard over time, hoping that would add a particular flavor to my honeys. Alas, I think I need a field like your picture to get anywhere. However, I do find that my honey is flavored by the lemon balm which is outpacing the lavender in my yard.

    So, I'll come down on the purist side. There are so many interesting flavors in nature already. Let the honey speak for itself, even if it's just "floral"!

    1. Sugar-free imitation honey; skim milk, decaf cappuccino; Aunt Jemima syrup; sugar-free, gluten-free vegan cupcakes; lite Cool Whip; dieter's chocolate ... Heresies all! (Making sign of the cross.) LOL!

      Love your story about how you didn't like honey before you took up beekeeping. I can relate. With one exception (my beekeeping uncle's honey), I didn't love honey until I met a local beekeeper who used to sell his produce at the coop I belonged to. Of course, back then, I didn't realize that most commercially available honey sold was either diluted with syrup or that it was the cheap stuff flavored with just a little bit of good quality honey. It was with great skepticism that I tried his wares. Every last sample was fantastic, but his tupelo honey... Wow! Mind blowing! That old beekeeper and his wife made a convert out of me.

      Speaking of honey, that's so cool that you mentioned lemon balm as part of your terroir. I've let a few people (whom I really like ;-) ) try your amazing honey, and we all thought it had a hint of citrus, too. And the perfume of it! Oh, it's sooooo good. Definitely no need to add any flavorings to it. Thank you again for sharing!!!


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!