To perfect my understanding of artisanal honey and how it is made, I attended the Honey Sensory Analysis course at the CNR Research Center (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche) in Bologna, Italy. I was joined by beekeepers, pollenologists, entomologists, bee professors and nutritionists from around the world. I was the only gringo among attendees from New Zealand, France, Canada, Sweden, Belarus, and Germany to name a few countries. As a demonstration to the diversity and talent of the delegate pool, my table-mate was Peter Lewis, Chief Hives & Honey Steward of the Great Yorkshire Show in England. The oldest continuous agricultural and honey show in the world.
Our tutors were some of the best in their respective fields. Biochemists, biologists, researchers, nutritionists; all gave us a better understanding of how honey is made by bees and processed by man. Our lead instructor was Raffaele Dall’Olio, as an animal biologist and beekeeper with a masters degree in honeybee research, he is the founder of the Italian Registry of Experts in The Sensory Analysis of Honey.
Raffaele began with what Honey Sensory entails and why it is essential to the beekeeper and buying public. The first half of our nine hour day began with the general principles and equipment needed for sensory analysis. Example; plastic spoons are used because metal spoons will immediately impart a different taste the moment they touch the tongue. Speaking of the latter, we spent an hour on the anatomy and physiology of the mouth and olfactory senses and how and where the tongue senses bitter, sweet, sour and salty. After lunch, we learned the origin of honey, its composition, and physical properties. The rest of the day was spent smelling unifloral honey samples.
We spent the week learning about honey’s nutritional properties. We were educated on the causes of crystallization, both natural and induced (Gonnet vs Dyce method). We discussed what causes honey fermentation and how to prevent this (hint: let the bees completely cap the combs). We became fluent with the European Codex Alimentarius Standard and the EU Directive regarding the quality criteria of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) content, diastase activity, honey acidity and melissopalynology analysis. We also learned to cook with honey. How to pair honey with food and cheeses. How to prepare honey with pastries, desserts, and dressings for meats, seafood, and salads.
Every day we tested ourselves on unifloral honey…all 42 of them. “Organoleptic” became the word of the week as we smelled, looked at and tasted honey from throughout the world. We sampled so much honey, I was surprised no one went into a diabetic coma. On Friday we had our final exam and honey tastings. I did well but could do better with continuous samplings of various European honey. Having said all this, I passed and am one of a few Americans listed with the Italian Registry in the Sensory Analysis of Honey.
Terroir is a word I have frequently used on this site and during our apiary tours. I believe it captures the character of our artisanal wildflower and sourwood honey. Like with wine, terroir can express the essence of the finest tequila (agave), coffee, tomatoes, maple syrup, chocolate and even cannabis. Terroir captures all the environmental factors affecting a harvest; the land, climate, soil type and even farming practices. Collectively, these elements embody and give character to the nutritious foods we eat and drink. The Honey Sensory class contributed to and enhanced my beekeeping and honey analytic skills. Terroir is no longer just a noun to me. It is part of my journey to being a better beekeeper and caretaker to an incredibly complex creature and the amazing gift she gives us - honey.