varietal honey

What does terroir have to do with honey?

I seldom switch allegiance midstream, but I just did. I set out to write about the terroir of honey, but as I read stacks of material on artisanal crops, a nagging thought kept doubling back. In fact, the more I read, the naggier it became until I had no choice but to backtrack.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 161 No 2, February 2021, pp. 161-164.

Ultimately, I decided the concept of terroir makes little sense for honey. Although it’s tempting to align honey with crops that rely on terroir to distinguish themselves, and it sounds cool, honey is unique and doesn’t fit the profile of other terroir crops.

Honey is different

Several things set honey apart from artisanal crops such as wine, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, hops, and chili peppers. And don’t forget cider, tea, cannabis, tomatoes, and agave. Four come to mind:

  • Honey is not a plant part, nor is it secreted by a plant.
  • Unlike other crops, honey is manufactured by an intermediary.
  • The intermediary honey bee has an extreme foraging range, a distance that can span many soil types and microclimates. In addition, she has no prohibition against mixing nectar from different species or far-flung sites.
  • Honey bees are not genetically identical to each other, meaning their honey-manufacturing enzymes are likely different.

Once honey bees combine nectar from a ragbag of plant species and add their own genetically driven digestive enzymes, the terroir of the place where the crop grew becomes obscured beneath a cascade of variables.

Because of these exceptions, beekeepers have developed a looser definition of terroir, one that fits what the bees are doing. One keeper described the terroir of honey as “the composite taste generated by all flowers that grow in a certain region.” While it’s true that a local palette of flowers will produce a unique taste, a mix of “all flowers that grow in a certain region” does not fit the classical definition of terroir.

Honey is the only crop with an animal intermediary coming between the plant and the product. Plants cannot produce honey without bees, but bees are not concerned about the finer points of terroir.
Honey is the only crop with an animal intermediary coming between the plant and the product. Plants cannot produce honey without bees, but bees are not concerned about the finer points of terroir.

What is terroir?

Terroir is nothing if not impossibly hard to pronounce. Even my French-Canadian husband can barely spit it out. He tries too hard and I don’t try hard enough, but no matter.

The word terroir means “of the earth.” In current usage, terroir refers to the taste and flavor of a particular crop, a flavor that’s partially attributed to the environment in which it’s grown. This “sense of place taste” is influenced by soil type, topography, elevation, and climate. Less obvious perhaps, the flavor is also tweaked by sun exposure, slope, rainfall, insects, and microbes. And finally, human interventions such as agronomic practices and crop processing affect the finished flavor.

Although many factors affect the finished product, one thing remains clear. Terroir is not something that makes an assortment of plants taste a certain way. Instead, it’s something that makes one specific variety of plant taste different depending on where it’s grown.

Wine grapes are the most famous terroir crop, extremely dependent on specific growing conditions.
Wine grapes are the most famous terroir crop, extremely dependent on specific growing conditions.

Geology is key to terroir

Soil is a product of local geology. As rocks erode and plants die, the accumulated debris forms soil with very specific chemical and physical properties. These properties combined with patterns of wind, rain, and sunlight determine which microbes will live in the soil, which in turn influence things like pH and nutrient profile. Together, they dictate the range of plants that will take root and thrive.1

Small differences in topography can make big changes in soil type. A lofty peak may have no soil at all because of wind erosion, or a north-facing slope may have a suboptimal nutrient profile because of sparse plant growth, or a depression may have a low pH because of swampy conditions.

Of coffee, Stefano Biscotto of Chambers & Chambers Wine Merchants2 says the soil type affects the molecular composition of the beans, which dictates the method of roasting. Volcanic soils, for example, are good for coffee because they are rich in magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and calcium. And high elevations, which are cooler, create more acidity.

Microclimates caused by topography and soil-type can occur close together. Some wine growers divide their vineyards into subplots, and harvest grapes from similar plots together, rather than combining everything into one massive harvest. Separating grapes by microclimate gives the vintner greater control over the final product.3

The partnership between the specific location and the grape variety is vital. Vineyards that grow the very best Chardonnay, for example, may grow only a so-so Viognier. It’s the marriage of the two — variety and place — that produces the golden egg.

Volcanic soils at high altitudes are especially appreciated by coffee growers.
Volcanic soils at high altitudes are especially appreciated by coffee growers.

Hops and beans and other things

The subtle nuances of craft beers are largely due to hops. Hops, like all crops, are bred for specific characteristics. But the same variety of hops grown on different soil types in different climates will taste vastly different. For example, the Yakima Valley of Washington State is famous for growing hops of just the right bitterness and aroma, one reason so many craft breweries litter the Pacific Northwest.4

In order to compare the taste of varieties grown on diverse plots of land, growers of hops often make single malt, single hop beers.5 By holding the malt origin and brewing practices constant, they can evaluate the taste nuances inherit in single hop varieties grown in different conditions.

Again referring to coffee, Stefano Biscotto explains it this way: “Terroir brings out the characteristics of the given variety.”

Similarly, if you wanted to taste the influence of terroir on a specific variety of wine grape, you would grow identical vines in different places. After controlling for variety, cultural methods, processing, and aging, you can attribute flavor shifts to the taste of place. The combined influence of subtle environmental factors makes some grape-growing regions incredibly famous — and others not so much. According to the Terroirist.wine website, “A terroir can bring excellence to life only with a very specific wine.”6

All these artisans stress the same point: The effect of terroir is on the specific variety grown. Nowhere do they speak of multiple varieties grown together as beekeepers try to describe it.

The microbrew industry is dependent on excellent hops, judged on flavor and bitterness.
The microbrew industry is dependent on excellent hops, judged on flavor and bitterness.

Terroir and honey

To test the effect of terroir on honey, you would need to grow a specific variety of flower on separate plots of land and then, controlling for harvest and processing techniques, compare the flavors of the honey.

Let’s say you choose to grow a variety of yellow sweet clover, Melilotus officinalis. You could plant several acres in Pennsylvania and several acres in Ohio, and bring in your honey bees. At the end of bloom time, you harvest the honey from both sets of hives and compare the taste. Seems simple enough.

The causes of flavor shift

Unfortunately, it’s not simple. Most likely you will taste subtle differences, but what’s causing them? Is it terroir or are you tasting variations due to other nectars combined with the yellow sweet clover?

In truth, honey bees lack discipline when it comes to controlled experiments. In stark contrast to a sessile plant wedded to the earth at a single spot, the bee is free, unencumbered by boundaries, slopes, soil types, or drainages. Even if you place your hives within large fields, some bees will stray, contaminating your varietal with a farrago of roadside weeds, competing crops, or even the sweet clover growing a mile away on an entirely different topography.

Flavor shifts due to terroir can be subtle, but shifts due to radically different nectars can knock you over. If you have competing nectars in a sample of honey, it is nearly impossible to assign some of those flavors to terroir and some to “foreign” nectar.

This is especially true when you consider the laxity with which we label honey. According to M.E.A. McNeil in her article, “Tasting, Really Tasting Honey,” something legitimately called orange blossom honey may be as low as 27 percent orange blossom nectar.7 My bet is that if you compared two samples of such honey looking for differences in terroir, what you’re likely tasting is differences caused by the nectars comprising the other 73 percent.

The terroir of a region is reflected in hot sauces made from specific varieties of chili peppers.
The terroir of a region is reflected in hot sauces made from specific varieties of chili peppers.

The meaning of monofloral

Some beekeepers are quite adept at producing monofloral honeys with low levels of cross-contamination. These keepers move their bees into fields at the beginning of bloom and remove the honey before the bees switch allegiance to something else. But even these honeys are not pure. We’ve all watched our bees return home by the thousands. The pollen-collectors among them may have identical lemon yellow saddle bags — almost — except the few that carry red or blue or purple. It’s safe to assume that some nectar carriers have equally independent minds.

Furthermore, most monofloral honeys are less mono than you might think. The common definition of monofloral or varietal honey is one that is predominantly from the nectar of one plant species. As far as I can tell, the word “predominantly” in this case means it’s the largest of the various nectar components. To add to the confusion, the FDA says, “You may label the honey with the name of the plant or blossom if you or the honey producer has information to support the conclusion that the plant or blossom designated on the label is the chief floral source of the honey.”8 Apparently, it doesn’t even need to be half, hence the 27 percent orange blossom honey mentioned above.

I’m not suggesting that the terroir does not affect the overall flavor of the honey. Certainly the terroir would affect each of the component nectars in some way. But because honey contains a hodgepodge of various nectars — and therefore a medley of flavors — it would be impossible to say which of the flavors, or how much of a flavor, is due to terroir and how much is due to the nectar assortment. Too much complexity and too many variables render confusion.

The terroir of tobacco is especially important in the production of cigars.
The terroir of tobacco is especially important in the production of cigars.

The horizontal beanstalk

Another problem with defining terroir as the “combination of flowers growing in a certain place” is that change is upon us. Places that once produced unique blends of local flora are now overrun with invasive plants. Along the Pacific Coast, the entire Interstate 5 corridor is covered with one giant Himalayan blackberry vine, extending from British Columbia into northern California. Or so it seems. What was once a succession of plant communities adapted to local conditions is now covered with this invasive berry. Like the beanstalk made famous by Jack, invasives grow faster and wider and taller than anything outside of a fairytale.

On my last tour of the American southeast, about the only thing I saw was a fluffy blanket of kudzu. It spreads like a mantle of mold, covering everything — barns, homes, garages, trees, tractors, and abandoned school buses — beneath soft mounds of green. It’s even unsafe to pause on the sidewalk. If we compare two crops of honey on two plots in a kudzu region, are we tasting the sense of place or the sense of kudzu? We have variables galore and no way to control them.

The terroir of processed food

Remember, none of the classic terroir crops has an intermediary coming between the plant and the harvest. Grapes are plucked, fully formed, from the vine where they grew, as are tomatoes and hop flowers. The same applies to coffee beans, cacao beans, and tea leaves. Only post-harvest are the crops processed by humans.

But honey is processed even before it’s harvested by humans. By the time your bees are finished digesting and regurgitating the mix, honey is a highly processed substance, nothing like what the plant secreted.

To attribute flavors to terroir by tasting honey, is like assigning characteristics to an oil well by analyzing your packing peanuts. Although packing peanuts are made from oil, the oil is processed with additives before you ever see them. Processed with additives, just like honey.

Cacao beans, nestled in large pods, are affected by the taste of place.
Cacao beans, nestled in large pods, are affected by the taste of place.

We need a new word

Perhaps what we need is a new word, one that describes the origin of flavor better than a borrowed word that doesn’t quite work. I propose a word that celebrates the bee’s independence and recognizes how she adds flavor regardless of the terroir — or in spite of it.

Foraging out of bounds, messing with your varietals, concealing your sense of place, and acting like she owns the place is what a bee does. In the process, she creates exquisite and sublime flavor combinations a human could never imagine. Let’s give credit where it’s due and stop lumping honey together with something as pedestrian as a grape vine.

Notes and References    

  1. Kruckeberg, Arthur R. Geology and Plant Life: The effects of Landforms and Rock Types on Plants. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.
  2. Tark, SungHee. “What is terroir and how does it affect your coffee?” The Perfect Daily Grind. March 23, 2018. https://perfectdailygrind.com/2018/03/what-is-terroir-and-how-does-it-affect-your-coffee/
  3. Burgess, Laura. “What the heck is a microclimate?” VinePair.com. October 12, 2016. https://vinepair.com/articles/what-the-heck-is-a-microclimate/
  4. Beans, Carolyn. “How does a crop’s environment shape a food’s smell and taste?” ScienceNews. September 10, 2020. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/terroir-food-crops-environment-smell-taste/
  5. Schimke, Cedar. “Brewing Terroir: Unearthing the distinct regional flavor of hops.” The Growler. February 26, 2018. https://www.growlermag.com/brewing-terroir-unearthing-distinct-regional-flavors-in-hops/
  6. Terroirist.Wine “Terroir Matters” February 11, 2020. https://terroirist.wine/2020/02/11/terroir-matters/
  7. McNeil, M.E.A. “Tasting, Really Tasting Honey: The Sensory Evaluation of Honey Training at UC Davis.” American Bee Journal 160, no.5 (May 2020): 549-553.
  8. FDA. “Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products: Guidance for Industry.” February 2018. https://www.fda.gov/files/food/published/PDF—Guidance-for-Industry–Proper-Labeling-of-Honey-and-Honey-Products.pdf

13 Comments

  • And onions. Walla Walla, Maui, and Vidalia, etc.

    I had the hardest time reading “terroir’ because first I saw terrier and then I saw terror. A new word would help me personally too!

    Based on the idea of bees as independent beings–freedom honey, sovereign honey, microclimate honey… Based on meld, mingle, amalgamated honey, maybe harmony honey or symphony honey could be useful and are more interesting. Marry as in cooking or melange seem closer to the right concept but married honey makes me think of a wedding ceremony and melange honey doesn’t have the right ring to it. This isn’t easy. I think it might require actually inventing a completely new word, but “Harmony Honey” at least sounds nice together.

    • Lisa,

      These are great ideas! No one else has come up with any. Before I published this in ABJ, the editor asked me to propose a word, but I couldn’t think of a single thing. Maybe I should set up a way to vote on them.

  • I keep using the word terroir but thinking all the bee variables as you described. “local” is just not sexy. We have local honey tastings in my area, ( San Francisco Bay area) and it’s astounding the flavor profiles from neighborhood to neighborhood. And from hive to hive. The word has to have the exotic feel of terroir but describe the variables to put forth. I did a French to English on-line translation of uniqueness and got….. unicite (accent eout on the final e!!)

  • I have no opinion on “terroir”. But I definitely label my honey with a month/year “vintage”.

  • I think the word we’re looking for is fourrage instead of terroir… (French word for forage).

  • Rusty, you are the BEST writer! The packing peanut and oil analogy, wow, great! Made me smile

  • As your Quebecois husband would say, “Honey, n’est worry pas tes brains.”

    Just lick the spoon.

  • My MO is to do every other frame foundationless for comb honey (if it tastes exceptional). I then crush and strain everything else sorted by color and location. Labeled by locations and vintage. I always do so to enjoy the differences. I’m often ridiculed by other beekeepers for destroying the wax every year, but they all enjoy tasting them side by side. I feel confident with my decision.

    • Gabriel,

      “I’m often ridiculed by other beekeepers for destroying the wax every year.” Let them ridicule all they want; they have no idea what they’re missing. Once you mix all the cells together, it all tastes the same. With comb honey, you can taste all the cells separately. In all my beekeeping years, I have never once extracted honey. If I need a little without comb attached, I crush and strain the amount I need. I’m happy to see some real honey lovers like you.

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