Understanding floral source shows Alberta honey in a whole new light

Understanding floral source shows Alberta honey in a whole new light.

The different flowers from which bees gather nectar create wide variation in the color and taste of honey. That spells new possibilities for consumers and opportunities for beekeepers.

On a visit to your local supermarket, you’ll always find a shelf or two of pure, natural Canadian honey. Unless you inspect the labels carefully, you might miss one important fact: most of the honey you see is in fact blended from different kinds of honey.

This blended product, light in color and mildly sweet in flavor, is what most Canadians think of when they think of honey. It’s a must-have on their toast, in their tea and in all kinds of baking and cooking.There’s a deeper, more complex level to honey appreciation: choosing one that’s produced by bees foraging predominantly on one type of flower.

Depending on the flowers from which bees gather nectar, the resulting honey can vary significantly in terms of color, sweetness and overall taste. The nearly clear color of canola honey occupies one end of the spectrum, while many wildflowers produce a honey that’s far darker with a deeper flavor. By blending honeys from different floral sources, producers arrive at the color and taste consumers like.

As Nicole Gaudette, Senior Sensory Scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc explains, looking beyond blended honey to what she calls ‘unifloral’ honey unlocks a world of possibilities for consumers.

“Alberta produces 40% of Canada’s honey, and it’s not just one style,” says Gaudette. “There are differences based on the flowers that bees feed on, and there’s a real opportunity to educate people about these differences and celebrate them.”

Differentiating honeys based on floral source seems a lot like wine’s distinction between grape varietals, and the way cheese is labelled cheddar, mozzarella, gouda and so on. Gaudette believes, moreover, that now’s a great time for honey producers to reach out and educate consumers.

“The consumer is looking for taste experiences, and they very much want to be engaged,” she says. “When someone posts their farmers’ market visit on their Instagram, that shows the kind of engagement that’s possible.”

As a sensory scientist, Gaudette’s work studies both objective and subjective aspects of flavor. Under her direction, trained tasters can accurately describe what a food product tastes like. Consumer research can then assess how well most people will like a given flavor. She believes this foundational work should be a priority for Alberta’s agrifood industry. Which floral sources do consumers prefer in regard to uniflower honey? There’s no good data available.

The opportunity, in fact, goes far beyond the borders of Alberta, of Canada, or even of North America.

“The Japanese market is absolutely screaming for Alberta honey, which they regard as pristine, very high-quality, almost luxurious,” says Gaudette. “Our honey fits what the Japanese are looking for.”

As she see it, it’s high time our honey took the varietal approach to marketing that’s standard for products like wine and cheese. In time, consumers could learn they have a favorite floral source for their honey and could seek it out by name.

Says Gaudette: “If we don’t capture and celebrate the unique characteristics coming from Alberta honey, such as whether it’s from a single flower, I think we’re selling our honey short.”