Honey (Part II: Varieties of Honey)

By: Patrick Gouin

Late harvest honey is currently being made by our bee friends and Summer is in full-effect here in New England, so it’s only appropriate that we move on to Part 2 in our series about honey by talking about some of the different types available to mead-makers and some ways that I personally like to use them. Like many things, there’s no right or wrong way to use and blend honeys when making a mead. You should always use the process that you find works the best and yields quality results for you personally. However, that’s not to say that there is never need for improvement, large or small.

“To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.” -George Keller

(Take a moment to grab a beverage, if you feel so inclined).

Onward!

When it comes to types of honey, people often read labels that say things like, “orange blossom” or “blueberry blossom” honey, but they don’t quite know exactly what that means. Some people think it’s honey that has been infused with or flavored-heavily by oranges or blueberries (in this example). What it actually means is that these varietal honeys were produced with the majority of the nectar coming from those specific plant’s blossoms that the bees have harvested. Whereas, for example, “wildflower” honey comes from a variety of wild flowers, as the name implies. These single-varietal honeys always resemble some of the characteristics of the fruits or blossoms of the plants to a certain degree, it is often not an overwhelming aroma or flavor that you get, but slightly more subtle and nuanced.

I like to use single-varietal honeys (and there are a lot of them) like a brewer would use a specialty grain when creating a beer. I use them mainly to contribute complexity and depth to a mead that otherwise would be mostly made-up of something like wildflower or clover as the bulk of the fermentable sugars. I find such honey to create an excellent foundation for my product, then I can play around with some of the flavors and aromatics that I desire from the single-varietals. (Clover is technically a single-varietal honey, but I tend to use it the same as I would wildflower because it’s light). Again, this is my method, and by no means is this the only way to do things. Just a way to do things. I’ve made plenty of meads using 100% varietal honey as well and yielded excellent results.

Just some of the many types of honey available to the mead-maker

Just some of the many types of honey available to the mead-maker

All that being said, I want to briefly discuss some of the most common varieties of honey out there (including some personal favorites) and how I like to use them. Trying to tackle them all here would prove to be an exercise in futility, but I’m sure that down the road I’ll touch upon many others that I am leaving out.

Orange blossom is one of the most common varietals of honey out there. The term “orange blossom” itself is actually just a distinction for any type of citrus blossom blend honey. So in this particular case, it does not mean that beekeepers have parked their hives in front of an orange field and let the bees do their job, like is common. Orange blossom honey tends to have a light citrus flavor and is highly-aromatic. I like to use this varietal when I make Melomels, or fruit meads. I find that the citrusy aspects lend themselves nicely to fruit-forward meads and give the product a heightened nose, bringing out the great aromatic qualities of the fruit being used, and the honey itself. For example, when making my Pineapple Melomel, I will only use this honey because I find that it really goes nicely with the flavors and aroma of the pineapple. You should treat your recipe designs like a chef would when creating a dish. Finding compatible flavors and aromas is one key to making an outstanding mead.

Clover blossom is another very common varietal out there, like I mentioned earlier. It’s actually the most common – which is one of the reasons I still personally consider it a base-honey, like wildflower, in addition to it generally having a light flavor, aroma, and color, with a higher moisture content. Clover blossoms are the main source of pollen for this variety, but it’s common, and within the law, to blend other honeys into it while still being able to label it as “clover honey.” You’re almost always guaranteed to get a product with the aroma and flavor of clover, but some claim that genuine clover honey is very strong and not as enticing to consumers as the more-common blends that you find virtually everywhere honey is sold. There are also a lot of types of clover honey; with white, alsike, red, and white/yellow sweet clover plants being the most important for honey production. Clover is often what most people think of as being typical honey, including it’s flavor and color, which ranges from very pale to light amber. Like every other honey, location and source make a significant difference from one product to the next.

Tupelo blossom happens to be one of my favorite honeys for mead-making, and many others share that same opinion. There are several reasons for it’s superiority in my mind. Without getting overly complicated, it has a very-high levulose (naturally-occurring fructose) content, while also containing a low amount of glucose, and a high amount of maltose. That, along with a low ash content (minerals), being high in acids, and having a moderate pH level makes it ideal for mead-makers. All of these are factors when considering the rate and overall health of the mead’s fermentation, and tupelo blossom honey gets an above-average grade here. It is pleasantly strong when it comes to aromatics and it’s flavor is mild and very unique. It tends to add a large amount of complexity and character to a finished mead.

Blueberry blossom is another one of my personal favorites, and I mainly use it in Melomels; either to support blueberry fruit in the mead itself or to add complexity to other fruit meads. Blueberry honey is taken from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush and usually produced in New England or Michigan. It is typically light amber in color, with a pleasant flavor, a little bit of tanginess, and a subtle blueberry aftertaste and aroma.

Alfalfa blossom is very pale to light amber in color with a subtle spicy flavor and mildly-scented floral aroma. It’s delicate nature doesn’t overpower other flavors and it does not have as much perceivable-sweetness as most other varieties of honey. I have used this in the past to blend with other honeys and ingredients for my meads, but it would certainly taste fine by itself as well.

Sage blossom, like alfalfa, is pale in color with a mild, herbal flavor. It has a very floral aroma with a delicate hint of sage. Sage honey is also one of the few varieties that will never crystallize. In the past, I’ve primarily used this to blend because of the subtle flavor and aromatics that it lends to mead.

Eucalyptus blossom is another one of the herbal varietals. Much stronger than sage blossom though. It has a wide spectrum of color from pale to dark-amber. The flavor is unique with a hint of menthol that some people don’t care for (intensities vary). This is another varietal that I mainly use as a specialty honey to add complexity to meads. I have brewed with it as 100% of my honey profile for a Blackcurrant Melomel and it did work out quite nicely. However, I don’t think I would use it by itself again. There’s better-suited options out there for single varietal meads, in my humble opinion.

Buckwheat blossom is one of the strongest varietal honeys that is dark amber in color (probably one of the darkest out there), full-bodied, with a distinctive flavor. It’s so strong that I never use this as the base honey in any of my meads. I have used it in the past to back-sweeten meads that have a dessert aspect to them prior to packaging or again, to simply add some complexity. It has lots of potent and complex molasses, earthy flavors and is high in ash (mineral content) and antioxidant compounds. Side note: buckwheat is neither a grass nor is it wheat. It is a fruit related to rhubarb and one of the first crops cultivated in the United States.

Avocado blossom is another one of the darker-colored honeys. It has a rich, molasses, and almost buttery flavor. This is a good candidate to use in conjunction with or in place of buckwheat blossom. It can be hard to find, so I contemplated leaving it off this list, but when used to support other honeys, you can do some wonderful things with this one. Avocado blossoms are in season about the same time as citrus blossoms, the latter of which is usually preferred by honey bees.

Unless you are getting honey from a beekeeper, it’s often hard to actually know what you’re getting sometimes. Make sure you check out the product that you are using or planning on purchasing, especially since you plan on dropping your money, and more importantly, your time and energy into making a batch of mead. You want a quality product for all you hard work and patience.

I hope you found some of that info interesting and hopefully it gives you a better understand about some of the many honey varietals that are out there.

As always – Cheers, and happy brewing!

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