What is varietal honey?

Blackberry Bush FlowerWhen customers try our varietal honey for the first time, we often get the question, “How do you flavor your honey?” While single-varietal, pure honey does, in fact, have a unique flavor type or profile, the way in which that honey gets its flavor usually comes as a surprise to most. It’s not in the way you’d first suspect!

It’s a very common misunderstanding that a particular varietal of honey is created by adding flavoring to the honey, and it’s not without good reason. After all, this is how some common foods and drinks are created – a blackened salmon or a Blackberry Mojito. However, in the case of a single-varietal honey, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

Pure vs Infused Honey?

Technically speaking, anytime additives are mixed into honey, it is no longer considered “pure honey”.  Pure honey is simply that – one ingredient that comes directly from the honeycomb and is bottled in a jar. Often times you’ll hear of “pure whipped honey”, which is simply honey that has been spun or whipped by a machine that introduces air bubbles and transforms it into a creamy texture. Think of this as fluffing heavy cream until it takes on the texture of a whipped crème - the concept is very similar.

Let’s be clear here. Adding ingredients to honey – making it an “infused honey” – isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in particular if the ingredients are of a high quality, totally natural and complement the complex flavor tonalities of honey. But adding ingredients is not how true varietal honey comes to be.

Henbit Flower

Varietal Wines and Honey

A single-varietal honey is very similar in concept to a varietal wine. For wines labeled as a certain varietal in the U.S., it means that the wine in a bottle contains at least 75% of a predominant grape source (note: in Europe and other parts of the world, this percentage is higher). A Pinot Noir, for example, is made using grapes from the species Vitis vinifera, a red wine grape originally from the Burdgundy region of France. What this label tells a consumer is that the wine contained within the bottle will have a certain flavor profile to it. While a Pinot Noir can differ in taste from one region to the next – or even from the same vineyard one year to the next – it has a relatively consistent flavor that differs from other types of wine, such as a Merlot or Cabernet. Further, this [relative] consistency in flavor differs from a common “red wine”, for example, which indicates that the wine was produced from a mix of several types of red grapes.

Similarly, a varietal or “single-varietal” honey means the honey was produced from a predominant floral source. But it’s not quite that simple…

Location, Timing and Experience

As bees forage for food, they travel to different flowering plants and gather nectar throughout the year. Generally speaking, this can be from almost any of the nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants; an almond tree, a magnolia tree, a blackberry bush, a field of strawberry plants or even a common weed such as the dandelion. If there is something blooming and there are honeybees within proximity, you can bet they will visit that flower. Thus, the trick to producing varietal honey comes down to location, timing and experience.

Location: First, the location of a honeybee hive needs to be within a close enough distance for the bee to visit the flower. Bees will fly upwards of 5 miles from their hive to gather water and food (i.e., nectar), but are extremely efficient creatures and prefer to visit closer food sources if available. So to capture a large quantity of a given nectar source, a hive needs to be as close to that source as possible. Bees will revisit that source of nectar until the flower has stopped blooming, or producing nectar. 

Timing: Second, because flowering plants have cycles in which they bloom, it’s critical for a beekeeper to be aware of these cycles and understand how they can vary from one year to the next.  To highlight this, let’s use a Blackberry Honey as an example.

Assuming hives are placed close to blackberry bushes, and just as those bushes begin to bloom in spring, a beekeeper will remove existing honey supers (the top boxes of a hive where bees store their honey, as opposed to the lower boxes typically used for raising baby bees or “brood”) from the hive and replace them with empty honey supers/boxes. As honeybees begin to visit the blackberry flowers, they bring blackberry nectar and pollen back to the hive and begin filling the empty supers with honey. It’s important to note that honeybees could also fill these supers with other nectar sources. But because of their close proximity to blackberry bushes, the predominant nectar source is often from the blackberry bushes located near their hive.

As the blackberry blooms begin to taper, honeybees will stop visiting the blackberry bushes and move onto other nectar sources. Therefore, it’s crucial to harvest the honey supers at the end of the blackberry bloom before they begin bringing in other nectar sources.

Experience: Lastly, because of the complexities involved with Mother Nature, the year-over-year differences in the timing and strength of a given bloom, and the intricacies occurring within one honeybee hive to the next, location and timing don’t always guarantee that honeybees will produce a given varietal. Two honeybee hives placed 5 feet apart from one another can produce vastly different honey, despite having arguably identical opportunities to produce the same exact honey. Therefore, it takes a tremendous amount of experience and attention to detail to harvest a truly varietal honey.

Tulip Poplar Forest Floor

What Kind of Varietals Exist?

In the United States alone, there are over 300 different types of honey varietals available. While not a comprehensive list, the National Honey Board (an instrumentality of the USDA) has listed the more common varietals on their website.

Rare Varietals and Crafted Honey

At Crafted Honey, we take great pride in the quality and purity of our varietal honey. By the very nature of a varietal honey, there is a much more limited supply than of a common wildflower honey. Therefore, we have a more limited quantity of our varietals available during any given year.

We celebrate the art of capturing a 100% pure, completely natural wildflower and single-varietal honey. So much so, that we decided to name our company after the process behind it. This is our art, our passion, our craft.

Let's Recap:

  • Pure honey = one ingredient (honey) without additives of any kind
  • Infused honey = honey that contains other ingredients – e.g., a spiced honey, cinnamon honey, lavender mint “flavored” honey
  • Whipped honey = machine spun honey that’s whipped until it takes on a creamy texture; it can also be infused
  • Wildflower honey =  pure honey from an assortment of floral sources – think of a blended red or white wine
  • Varietal honey = honey that takes on a unique flavor profile of a predominant nectar source – e.g., Blackberry, Sourwood

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