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.
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.
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.
Geology is key
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.
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.
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 ….