Southern beekeepers hold on to honeyed tradition

For many a Southerner, Sunday mornings are incomplete without a buttery biscuit dripping with honey. What was once the rustic treat of rural America is now enjoying a renaissance.

“It’s very much like [wine],” said Robert Brewer, Jr., UGA Extension Services Coordinator for Towns County. Brewer is an international honey judge who has reviewed honey all over the United States and Europe.

Honey production shares many similarities with winemaking. The flavor of honey changes with the dominant floral sources, geography, weather cycles and soil characteristics. The harvest is seasonal, with spring and summer prime honey time. Tulip poplar, a favorite nectar for honeybees, will bloom across the CSRA in just a few weeks.

“The grape and the process of making the wine creates the flavor, and you could compare wines and honeys, absolutely,” said Wayne Hunsucker, an Evans resident who has kept bees for 30 years.

Like wine, honey is divided into varietals and judged by characteristics such as color, clarity, flavor and aroma. More than 300 single varietals are produced in the U.S. alone, according to the National Honey Board. Tupelo honey is popular in the South and avocado honey on the West coast. Wild thyme honey is famed in Greece, as is lavender honey in France.

“I find that people have very regional taste for honey. Up north, buckwheat honey is very popular and to Southerners, it has an unusual flavor,” Brewer said.

Vineyards can control certain aspects of farming that affect the flavor profile of wines, but bees determine where they will gather honey. They go to the flower they want, not the closest, and fly as many as 55,000 miles to produce a single pound of honey, according to the National Honey Board. Even when placed side-byside, hives may produce honey with distinctly different flavors, according to Hunsucker.

“Each hive has distinctly different personalities,” he said. “It’s almost like an individual, but it is this multiplicity of creatures.”

Chefs and gourmands are discovering how to use such nuances to enhance cuisine. For example, sage honey from California and thyme honey  from France go well on a Thanksgiving turkey because they blend well with traditional stuffing recipes. Orange blossom honey from Florida is an excellent addition to citrus punch or fruity desserts. Avocado honey, with its buttery flavor, goes well on grilled vegetables.

“In this area, we don’t have enough of a particular floral source to be known for honey,” Hunsucker said. “When there is no dominant floral source, we call it wild honey.”

Yet Georgia does produce a honey that compares to no other.

“We’re famous for our sourwood honey – which has actually been voted the best in the world a time or two,” Brewer said. Sourwood has a smoky, spicy, anise aroma and flavor.

Roadside stands pepper north Georgia highways, peddling everything from peanuts to pottery. But a stall selling sourwood — or any raw honey — is especially valuable because it cannot be found in your local grocery. Commercial honey is heated to extend its shelf life, but the process destroys the individuality of the flavor.

“So I would encourage your readers to try to purchase honey from local beekeepers and their county extension agents should be able to put them right on to some,” Brewer said.

When buying locally, Brewer looks for certain characteristics. Jars should be sparkling clean but free of the scent of cleanser, and the honey should be clear. Cloudy or speckled honey indicates the presence of pollen or other foreign matter. The honey should not smell or taste smoky, which indicates that the beekeeper got a little enthusiastic with the smoker when harvesting the honey.

“Although I did know a man who labeled his batch ‘smoke honey’ and sold every bit of it,” Brewer said. Such honey might be interesting on spareribs or in a barbecue sauce.

Hunsucker grew up in Florida, where gallberry and black ti-ti are dominant nectar sources for honeybees. With a well-developed palate, Hunsucker speaks about honey varietals like the poet laureate of beekeeping.

Clover honey, for example, he describes as having the soft, happy taste of young grass. Tulip poplar honey is rich and dark amber, but with a distinct single note, unlike holly honey, which is layered and complex.

“Your mouth is very involved when you put some holly [honey] in it,” he said. “I would call it an active flavor.”

Above all, Hunsucker recommends sourwood honey, preferably on fresh, hot buttered biscuits with a steaming cup of quality coffee.

“I’ll show you the portals of heaven,” he said. “I promise you.”

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