Shopping for Honey: What to Know About Honey Color, Varietals, and Finding a Honey You Really Love

published Mar 20, 2015
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(Image credit: Camille Storch)

All week we’ve been following how Henry Storch, a migratory beekeeper and co-owner of Old Blue Raw Honey in Oregon, makes honey. Today, in the final post of the series, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about shopping for honey.

Shopping for honey can be a bit daunting when faced with such a wide variety of choices, so here’s what you should know — from what the varietal names mean to why, if you find a honey you love at the farmers market, you should buy it in bulk.

(Image credit: Camille Storch)

For the Truest Honey Flavor, Go Raw

For uses where the honey is really going to shine, a raw honey is best because pasteurizing or overheating honey simplifies and changes the subtleties of flavor that are present in raw honey. There is no standard set for what “raw” means in the honey industry, but for Old Blue Raw Honey, it means never heating the product over natural hive temperatures, about 100° F. If you plan to cook or bake with honey, seeking out raw honey is unnecessary.

Raw honey is perfectly fine for kids and adults, but infants under one year old should never be fed raw honey because it has the potential to make them sick.

(Image credit: Camille Storch)

What Do Honey Varietal Names Really Mean?

Often honey is labeled with a varietal name like “clover” or “star thistle,” but what does that mean? There are two broad categories of honey varietals:

  1. Cropland varietals, or honey produced from one crop nectar: When bees are placed in large crop fields like citrus, alfalfa, cotton, buckwheat, or meadowfoam, they’re often surrounded by acres and acres of just one flowering plant with little else blooming within foraging distance. In such cases, the honey produced is made from a majority of one type of nectar, and it might be labeled as such.
  2. Wildland varietals, or honey produced from multiple nectars: Bees foraging in natural areas often have numerous nectar sources at any given time, so the subsequent honey is labeled simply “wildflower.” In some cases, however, a single nectar source species predominates in quantity of nectar or flavor or both. Some common honey varietals made from wild plants include tupelo (from the South), wild blackberry (from the Northwest), black sage (from California), or goldenrod (from the East Coast). Old Blue Raw Honey offers limited releases of harder-to-find wildland varietals such as poison-oak and chittum, bigleaf maple and dewberry, and blackberry and salal.

Cropland varietal honeys tend to remain relatively consistent in flavor from year to year and location to location, but wildland varietals can vary considerably even from hive to hive in the same location during the same summer.

If the honey vendor at your local farmers’ market has a wild honey varietal that you really like, your best bet is to buy in bulk because he or she might never produce something quite like it again!

Note: Unless specifically labeled as “infused” or “blended,” varietal names do NOT mean that flavoring ingredients have been added to the honey.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

What Honey Color Signifies

The color of honey is a factor to consider, but one shade isn’t necessarily better than another. Darker honeys, in general, have stronger flavors, but some light honeys can be surprisingly powerful and distinct as well. There are many naturally occurring dark honeys, but a darker color can also be an indication that the honey has been overheated.

To compare colors and flavors, take a look at Old Blue Raw Honey’s 2014 offerings: the strongest flavors are present in the Bigleaf Maple (relatively light), Clary Sage & Hairy Vetch (medium amber), Blueberry & Chittum (medium dark), and Raspberry & Mint (dark).

If you’re unsure of what type of honey you like, you should talk to your local beekeeper or a knowledgeable honey purveyor and then do some sampling. Starting in June, Old Blue Raw Honey is offering a quarterly subscription service for honey enthusiasts who want to try three Northwest honey varietals every three months.

(Image credit: Camille Storch)

3 Tips for Finding a Honey You Love

UC Davis recently published a honey flavor and aroma wheel to help honey consumers describe the flavors that they’re tasting in varietal honeys (included with every Old Blue Raw Honey order of 6 or more jars).

  1. For allergies, ask for early-season varietals: Some people believe that honey can help desensitize them to seasonal pollen allergens. There is no scientific evidence for this, although some people still feel that it helps. If this is something you’re interested in trying, ask for early-season varietals that contain significant pollen. Pollen in honey can give it an almost gritty texture that some folks really enjoy.
  2. Crystallized (or solid) honey is a good thing: All natural honey will crystallize eventually, so you might encounter honey for sale that’s already set up, or sometimes an unused jar of honey sitting in a cupboard will become solid. That’s totally okay! In fact, some people prefer semi-crystallized honey for its thick, spreadable texture. To liquefy solid honey, simply place the jar in a bowl of warm (not boiling) water. It may be necessary to replace the warm water a couple times and stir the honey to restore a uniform liquid consistency. Honey that has been overheated rarely crystallizes, so finding solid honey is a good indication that it hasn’t been mishandled.
  3. Raw honey should say 100% honey, and nothing else: When looking for good raw honey, make sure the label doesn’t list any ingredients other than 100% honey. Honey can come in other forms like “whipped honey,” a process in which the honey is agitated and becomes somewhat thick and spreadable, but whipped honey shouldn’t have any additional ingredients. There are other honey products on the market like infused honey or more complicated honey sauces, but they should be clearly labeled with an ingredient list.

This week we’re bringing you an inside look at the story of Henry Storch, a migratory beekeeper in Oregon, as written by his wife, Camille. Stay tuned for more about migratory beekeeping coming up all this week!