Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Honey! It's Complicated!

Have you ever gone to the store and seen a shelf of fifty different kinds of honey and wondered to yourself, "Why is there so much damn honey?"

I'll tell you why.

Honey is complicated.

There are almost as many varieties of monofloral honey as there are varieties of flowers, and so many more than that if you take into account the infinitely variable mixtures that we call “wildflower” honey. Last Sunday, I brought my modest collection of ten different varietals of honey over to my friend Martina's backyard farm for a casual honey tasting. Fueled by honey-sweetened cocktails and homemade dill butter, and joined by Patrick Tobin, we tasted each variety in turn.

So what exactly makes buckwheat honey so different from, say, orange honey?

It’s important to note that all nectar-based honeys, regardless of variety, are created in the same basic manner. A forager bee collects nectar from blooming plants, accumulating as much as seventy milligrams (85% of the body weight of an average bee!) from up to 1500 individual flowers per trip. Once back in the hive the forager passes its nectar load to a house bee, which will begin to “ripen” the nectar into honey. The house bee adds enzymes, bacteria, and yeasts, which start to break down and reassemble the natural sugars contained in the nectar into a variety of new compounds. As these reactions take place, the house bee starts to reduce the water content of the nectar, from a starting concentration of between 40% and 95%. It does this by forcing a droplet of the digesting nectar onto its proboscis, stretching it out to increase the surface area of the liquid and fanning its wings to evaporate the water. By doing this, and continually adding more and more nectar, the water content may be reduced to around 17%. At this point, the house bee will store the finished honey in a cell and coat it with a thin layer of fresh wax in order to preserve it.

Tim: This is really interesting honey!
Martina: This is a really interesting drink!

The simple answer to the question of why there are so many kinds of honey is obvious. Honey is generally categorized according to the flower or nectar source it was made from, and that source determines the characteristics of the end product. Buckwheat honey comes from hives surrounded by fields of blooming buckwheat. Orange blossom honey comes from hives placed in citrus orchards. The bees gather nectar from a single source simply because there is nothing else around (oh boy, monoculture!), and it's that singular nectar source or mix of sources that determines the specific aroma, flavor, and color of a honey. Buckwheat honey is buckwheat honey, whether it comes from Pennsylvania or Canada.

The real answer is, of course, a lot more complicated. The average honey is made up of:
17.2% water
38.4% fructose
30.3% glucose
1.3% sucrose
7.3% maltose
1.4% oligosaccharides
1.1% acids
0.17% ash (minerals)
PLUS enzymes, proteins, vitamins, bacteria, yeasts, and pollen.
These, of course, are approximate values, and can vary hugely from honey to honey.

Honey, as you might expect, is about 95% percent sugar of one kind or another (by dry weight). The ratio of fructose to glucose is different from honey to honey and can make a huge different in the perceived sweetness and other qualities of the honey, such as texture and the rate of crystallization. The 1.4% percent average of oligosaccharides may consist of any mixture of complex sugars such as isomaltose, nigerose, turanose, maltulose, kojibiose, αβ-trehalose, gentiobiose, laminaribiose, maltotriose, 1-kestose, panose, isomaltosyl glucose, erlose, isomaltosyltriose, theanderose, centose, isopanose, isomaltosyltetraose, isomaltosylpentaose, and raffinose (to name a few), all of which make some small contribution to the overall taste, depth, and subtlety of the whole. Most of those complex sugars aren't found in the original nectar, but are actually formed during the ripening process via the actions of the enzymes, acids, and symbiotic microorganisms that are added to the nectar in the bee's gut.

Argh, snake, it's a snake! Of buckwheat, buckwheat, buckwheat honey.

People are always surprised when I tell them that honey is quite acidic, but with an average pH of 3.9, most honey is as acidic as diluted table vinegar and contains almost 10 different acids! Gluconic acid, which is the most common and accounts for most of the acidity of honey, is made by the bee-excreted enzyme glucose oxidase and some of the naturally occurring bacteria that exists in the hive. Think of the acid in honey as a flavor enhancer, like salt in baking. You don't (or at least shouldn't) taste it in the end product, but without it the result would be flat, lifeless, and boring.

That's all the easy stuff. Minerals are where it starts to get a little bit harder to explain, but I'll give it a shot. The concentration of minerals in a honey is highly correlated to its color. Dark honeys tend to contain much higher amounts of minerals, particularly potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, manganese, chlorine, sulfur, and silicon. Unfortunately, not a huge amount of research has been done into the causes of honey coloration, but the current best guess is that it's a mix of many different factors such as the ratio of sugars, the caramelization of those sugars by the natural acid content of honey, and the mineral content.

This sure is a tasty tableau.

The enzymes, proteins, vitamins, microorganisms, and pollen are what's left over, and probably worth a post all their own. The short answer is that honey is chock full of naturally bee-produced enzymes, symbiotic bacteria, yeasts, and protozoa that live within the bee's digestive system and contribute to the ripening process, and small amounts of vitamins and proteins leached from pollen accidentally mixed in during the production process.

Finally, we're left with the golden question.

Why is honey so good?

I have no clue, and frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Honey is indefinable.

Honey is amazing.

Honey is magic.

Check out Patrick Tobin's take on the honey tasting and see some more pictures at his blog:

Martina is planning on posting her impression of the honey tasting as well. It's not up yet, but check out her sweet urban farming blog in the meantime:

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