NPR logo From Cotton Candy To Cat Pee: Decoding Tasting Notes In Honey

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From Cotton Candy To Cat Pee: Decoding Tasting Notes In Honey

Honey can be as golden as the sun or as dark as molasses. Researchers have identified over 100 different flavors in it, too, some more savory or stinky than others. Ellen Webber/NPR hide caption

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Ellen Webber/NPR

If bees in France buzz around the lavender fields, foraging for nectar, what does the honey they produce smell or taste like?

Yes, a bit like lavender.

But not all the floral, spicy or woody aromas detectable in the roughly 300 varieties of honeys being produced today are so easy to name.

That's where the new Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel, developed by a sensory panel at the Honey and Pollination Center at the University of California, Davis, comes in.

The Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel created by researchers at the University of California, Davis. Courtesy of Regents of the University of California, Davis hide caption

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Courtesy of Regents of the University of California, Davis

We've got nothing against simple descriptors like "sweet." But the tastes of honey are much more varied and complex than that, as we've come to appreciate with wine and coffee.

If we find ourselves exploring novel varieties of honey, like Meadowfoam honey from Oregon, which has notes of roasted marshmallow and vanilla, then our vocabularies can expand right along with our palettes.

"We want people to be able to express what they're actually tasting," Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at UC-Davis, tells us. And so the honey-tasting wheel was born.

For me, molasses was the first descriptor on the wheel that jumped out.

I love buckwheat honey, which I first discovered in western New York's Finger Lakes region.

"Oh, yes, you do get a kind of molasses hit" with East Coast buckwheat honey, Harris assures me. And maybe some dried fruit as well, like figs or prunes, she says.

But what other notes does buckwheat hit? It's pungent — some might say stinky — a little barnyard-like. So, back to the wheel.

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"Yes, it comes up as having a goat or cat pee smell," Harris says.

Truth be told, I had gotten a whiff of animal from buckwheat honey (as unappealing as it sounds). But I'd never been able to put it to words.

"Cat pee" is one of more than 100 descriptive terms that made it onto the honey flavor wheel.

To develop the wheel, Harris assembled a sensory panel that included about 20 tasters including food chemists, beekeepers and supertasters who've been trained to detect nuances in coffees, cheeses, wines and olive oils. In addition, there were a few tasters who were just honey enthusiasts.

They started out by filling dozens of little glass jars with all kinds of things to nibble on and sniff — to prime their taste buds and sense of smell.

"There were little pieces of melon, bits of a fir tree, lavender oil — you name it," says Harris. The tasters would smell these jars to get cues for the different notes they detected in the honey they tasted.

"Then, we'd go around the room and discuss each honey," Harris says. All kinds of tasting notes started to emerge — everything from the standard, such as the floral notes of orange blossom, to the more obscure, like quince and bergamot (the citrus found in Earl Gray tea). There was outrageous cotton candy and the downright unappealing cabbage, locker room, burnt toast and wet earth.

Some honeys start out tasting one way, but then contrasting flavors emerge and linger. For me, thankfully, it's the fig, not the cat pee notes, that stay with me when I taste buckwheat honey.

"It's very subjective," Harris says. "What I'm tasting may not be what you'll taste."

But if the wheel can cue me to identify that earthy note in my honey as cat pee, well, now we've got an interesting conversation going!

"Interest in varietal honeys has been growing steadily for the last five years," Harris says. And just as consumers are looking for novel and distinct tastes in everything from wines to chocolates, vinegars to cheeses, she hopes the flavor wheel will help fuel the explosion in interest.

If you want to check out how honeys made near you compare, the National Honey Board makes it easy to search by state or honey variety.