I never gave honey much thought until I had my first taste of local wildflower honey. I grew up with the stuff bought in a bear at the grocery store and thought all honey was the same. With that first taste of wildflower honey at the farmers market, I knew I’d been wrong.

As I learned more about honey, I discovered that the flavor of honey depends very much on what the bees feast on. When bees gather nectar from one specific source, the honey from those bees is known as a varietal honey. The honey that I had from the grocery store when I was growing up was clover honey. It seems to be the most common varietal that comes in those little bear jars.

The wildflower honey I eventually discovered is known as a regional honey because it isn't associated with one specific variety of plant from which the bees draw nectar. Instead the bees draw nectar from many different flowers in one region. So the wildflower honey that I get here in South Jersey will look, smell and taste different from wildflower honey in a different region.

According to Honey.com there are over 300 types of honey available in the United States. The website has descriptions of a few of them including dark-colored avocado honey gathered from bees that feast on California avocado blossoms and very light-colored fireweed honey collected from bees that gather nectar from the perennial herb.

UC Davis has a Honey and Pollination Center, and the center has created a Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel. Its purpose is to help those who want to dig deep into the various types of honey describe what they’re smelling and tasting. The creators say it will be “invaluable to those who love honey and want to celebrate its nuances.”

The back of the wheel has instructions on how to taste honey and information on four honey profiles to get users started with their tastings. The front of the wheel has just under 100 descriptors. There are plenty of words you’d expect — those that describe sweet like “caramel” or “cotton candy” and words that describe citrus like “orange” or "lemon." But, there are also descriptors that might surprise you like “locker room,” “cat pee,” “goat” or “moldy.”

It seems as if the tastes in honey can be as complex as the tastes in wine or cheese. Some honey lovers are choosing to have honey tasting parties, just like there are wine or cheese tasting parties. The Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel would be a good tool to have on hand.

There are straight honey tasting parties, where the only thing tasted are several varietals of honey. Guests are served water and perhaps oyster crackers to cleanse their palate in between tastings, but the honey varietals aren't paired with food or beverages.

There are also honey tasting and pairing parties where a variety of cheese, breads, crackers, chocolates, nuts, desserts, beverages and more are served. Guests can pair the honey with the various other foods to see what works together and what doesn’t. Grandpa’s Gourmet offers some good tips on hosting one of these parties. 

My advice would be to start local. Hit the farmers market and find different varietals from the various vendors. Perhaps buy wildflower honey from honey producers in the same region to see if there are subtle differences that come from bees that gather nectar in the same region but are several miles apart. Once you learn about honey from your own region, branch out to honeys from others.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Host a tasting party to discover honey varietals
The Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel will help tasters detect if there is the flavor of cotton candy or smell of locker room in their honey.