The National Honey Board reports that there are over 300 honey varietals in the United States. A single honey varietal’s characteristics are largely formed by the nectar qualities from a specific flower or plant variety, and these characteristics are passed into meads made from single honey varietals. This is to say what should be obvious, however sometimes goes overlooked: The flowers the bees collect nectar from in order to make honey matters. Like specialty grains for brewers, honey varietals play one of the biggest parts in forming the flavor of the finished mead, so it is critical that meadmakers understand the differences.
Honey is a complex mixture of sugars, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. It is big business, with over 1.85 million metric tons annually produced and sold worldwide. Honey is the most expensive supply of sugar for making fermented beverages, and the United States imports a great deal as Americans consume more than we produce. Like many expensive amenities that are often imported, honey fraud exists. I cannot stress this enough — purchase your honey from a reputable source.
Beekeepers are essential for providing crop pollination services. In order for cross-pollination to take place, flowers will entice or bait pollinators like honey bees (Apis mellifera) to enter the flower and find the stamens. A bee’s entire body (including its eyes) is covered in fine hairs that trap pollen. As the bee moves from flower to flower gathering nectar it aids in cross-pollination essential for that flower to reproduce.
Nature is simple — a honeybee will not fly any further or work harder to get the nectar it needs to make honey. They will go to the closest sugar source they can find. So if you live in a big city and there is a lack of floral sources, but there is a discarded soda can, guess where the bee will be headed? A few years ago in Brooklyn, New York a mystery was unfolding when honeybees were found to be producing a bright red honey. Luckily a honeybee does not fly very far, about 5–6 miles at best. They also do not fly at night or when it rains so they are very dependent on their immediate environment for food sources. These honeybees were tracked to Dell’s maraschino cherry juice factory. The bees had found some of the concentrate syrup — which led to the unusual honey that was popping up. The point of the story is that beekeepers have input on the nectar their bees have access too, and as such, the honey they produce.
The base flowers to single varietal honeys are like soil terroir is to grapes. It matters where the nectar, sap, or pollen is sourced. Soil, weather conditions, and temperatures that affect the growth pattern of the flower or plant all play a role.
Single-varietal honey results from beehives placed or built in a field where only, or primarily, a specific
flower or plant grows. Bees will all use that plant’s nectar and, in turn, that is the type of varietal honey those honeybees will produce. Beekeepers need the bees to pollinate, so they extract the honey so the bees keep pollinating.
The most popular honey that most are familiar with is wildflower honey, which has a few definitions. The wildflower honey you find in a grocery store is most often just a blend of honey from various sources, with the goal of the packaging company being to create honey that is consistent in flavor and color. This is different from a “wildflower honey” your local beekeeper may sell, which isn’t likely to be a blend but instead will be honey from a mix of flower sources. Because of this, it will likely differ based on time of year harvested, rainfall, and the types of flowers the bees collect nectar from. This honey is fantastic for making melomel (meads made with the addition of fruit). However, for making traditional meads, I highly recommend using a single-varietal honey where a specific, and often more interesting, profile is gained.
I have made at least 70 different single-varietal honey meads over the past 27 years, and I have at least 12 more in the works at Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry and Pittsfield, New Hampshire. Some of the more common single-varietal honeys I have used include: Avocado, blueberry, raspberry, almond, meadowfoam, Brazilian pepper, Arizona mountain pecan, tupelo, orange blossom, heather, and star thistle. Each of these meads were unlike any other mead that I had made, even when using the exact same recipe to make each traditional mead.
With these single-varietal meads I am always looking to see the differences between how the raw honey tastes, and compare that to what it tastes like after fermentation. My personal preference for these meads is the lighter colored honey, however we have lots of customers who have loved the darker single-varietal honey meads, so it really comes down to preference when choosing which varietal you’d like to work with. Many honey varieties are pretty obvious what the primary flavor and aroma will be (blueberry honey will give notes of blueberry) but others are more difficult to imagine without trying a mead from them first-hand. I’ve attempted to help describe many of the common varietal honeys with the chart below.
Making mead is a very straightforward process, however the devil is in the details. As a professional meadmaker, I spend the most amount of time working to perfect my skills and knowledge. Making meads from single varieties of honey allows for me to learn more about how the honey might work in a fruit mead, or spiced meads. My strawberry and rhubarb mead I found was lacking when I made it with wildflower honey, so I changed to use orange blossom honey and the mead instantly improved. All of our spiced meads are made from orange blossom honey as well as I’ve found the character of orange blossom honey plays really well with most spices. The more honey varieties you make mead from, the more tools you’ll have in your meadmaking toolbox.
Varietal honeys can vary greatly in color, viscosity (mouthfeel), aroma, and taste. Not all honey ferments the same and remember honey is a natural product and as such may change with seasons and environment. It is possible to harvest honey from the same hive in two different seasons and find a different taste profile. Keep in mind too that a honeybee only makes about 1⁄12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime (only the females make honey). Finding a single varietal that will yield sufficient mead to drink needs to be considered. A way to put this into perspective and emphasize this point is that it would take about 150,000 bees to visit 1.2 million flowers to make enough honey for us to make one 750 mL bottle of mead. This helps explain why honey isn’t cheap!
In addition to the risk of counterfeit “honey,” as mentioned earlier, another reason to buy from a reputable seller is that there can be some inherent danger with some plants and flowers. One that comes to mind is rhododendrons. It is not advisable to ferment from honey sourced from these plants that have toxic properties. There is a condition known as “rhododendron poisoning” or “honey intoxication” that is well-documented but rare. Grayanotoxin is a naturally occurring neurotoxin found in the nectar of rhododendrons. Symptoms from digesting this honey may include salivation, perspiration, vomiting, dizziness, and low blood pressure. There have been reports of Nepal’s Gurung people who live mostly in small villages in the vast Annapurna mountain ranges harvesting honey that produces hallucinogenic reactions. In this remote region, they practice an ancient tradition of honey hunting where they descend towering cliffs on handmade ladders to harvest honey nestled under jagged overhangs. In spring, the Gurung’s honey contains the rare substance called grayanotoxin from rhododendron flowers that’s known for its intoxicating effects. Some accounts say it’s a deadly poison, others refer to it as an aphrodisiac, powerful medicine, and a hallucinogenic drug. All of this is to say, always ensure you know where your honey is sourced and what specific sap and nectar was harvested.
Beekeepers often have the same source or sources for their honey, so when looking for a single-varietal honey, your local beekeeper might not be the best place to find what you are looking for. I have had good success with companies like Z Specialty Food, and via the National Honey Board’s Honey Locator (https://honey.com/honey-locator). The more you buy the better the price break — you can expect to pay more than $8 per pound for honey. But just like with any fermentation or food recipe, the better the quality of ingredients, the better tasting the final outcome (assuming you know what to do with that ingredient). If the honey is quite earthy, like buckwheat, pumpkin blossom, or heather, I find these work better in a blend with lighter honey.
So, you want to make your varietal mead and are wondering where to start? Here is a list of varietal honeys that are reasonably easy to get ahold of, most of which I’d recommend the amateur meadmaker give a try. An even more extensive list can be found on the National Honey Board website or in The Asheville Bee Charmer Cook Book by Carrie Schloss.
|Pale, Light||Origin / Source||Aroma||Taste|
|Acacia||Black Locust Tree Eastern USA; Italy; Hungary; Bulgaria; Ukraine; Serbia; Romania; Canada; China||Slightly floral; fruity; sweet almond||Very mild; hints of vanilla; golden raisin; currant|
|Basswood||American Linden/Lime Tree Honey; Southern Canada; Appalachians; Eastern/Southern USA; France; Spain; Germany; Russia; Poland; China; Ukraine; Hungary; UK||Woody; incense; resin; caramel; buttermilk; beeswax; musty||Menthol; sage; balsamic; camphor; green melon; green banana; citric, bitter aftertaste|
|Blackberry||Pacific Northwest; Texas; Virginia; East Coast; Mexico; Chile; Brazil; Guatemala; UK; New Zealand; Europe Native to New England; Michigan; Wisconsin; Oregon; New Jersey; California; Florida; Georgia||Currants; brown sugar||Lemon peel; butter|
|Blueberry||Native to New England; Michigan; Wisconsin; Oregon; New Jersey; California; Florida; Georgia||Fruity||Blueberry; violet; jasmine; lemon; fresh cheese|
|Dandelion||Greece; Italy; North/South America; New Zealand; China||Milk; wet hay; musty||Vanilla; chamomile|
|Ginger||Acacia honey with ginger||Light spicy; floral; fruity; ginger||Spice; ginger|
|Lavender||Southern Europe; Africa; Mediterranean; Southwest Asia; France||Floral; camphor; almond; vanilla||Light; delicate; lavender; peach; camphor; almond; vanilla|
|Raspberry||USA||Floral; cocoa butter||Berry; meadow; lilac; floral|
|Sage||California||Woody; roasted food; brown sugar||Oak; toasty; smoky|
|Sourwood/ Lily of the Valley||North Carolina; Appalachian Mountains||Cinnamon; clover; vanilla cupcakes; anise||Butter; caramel; anise|
|Medium||Origin / Source||Aroma||Taste|
|Carrot||United States; Europe||Sweet resin; almond extract; coconut||Earthy mushroom; grass; celery; almond|
|Clover||Widely available in USA; Sweden; New Zealand; China||Light spice; floral; vegetal; dry hay; grass; cinnamon; brown butter; vanilla||Mild sweet; crisp floral cinnamon|
|Meadowfoam||Oregon, USA||Vanilla||Toasted marshmallow; vanilla; cinnamon; caramel custard; burnt sugar|
|Orange Blossom||USA: Arizona; California; Texas; Florida; Mexico; Brazil; France; Spain||Orange blossom floral; honeysuckle; hawthorn; hyacinth; melon||Floral; orange; tangerine; rose; jasmine|
|Dark||Origin / Source||Aroma||Taste|
|Buckwheat||Minnesota; New York; Ohio; Pennsylvania; North/South Dakota; Wisconsin||Musty; malty beer; aged wood furniture; dirty socks/laundry (Not my favorite to ferment from)||Chocolate malt balls; dark red cherries; toasted coffee molasses|
|Corsica, Mediterranean||Licorice; coconut; woody||Woody; caramel; cacao; dark brown sugar; sorghum; licorice|
|Cranberry||Wisconsin; Northeast USA||Cranberry; floral||Tart red cranberry; cinnamon; candied fruit; brown sugar; dried plums|
|Fir||Greece||Pine resin; barley; smoky; burnt sugar; animal scents (also not a favorite of mine)||Malt; caramel; toasted barley; toffee; molasses|
|Tasmanian Leatherwood||Tasmania, Australia||Woody, floral; spicy pine; grape juice||Woody; intensely floral; spicy; leather; menthol; anise; musky; camphor; peppery|
|Tupelo||Southern Georgia; northwestern Florida; Apalachicola River Basin||Stewed fruit; raisins; bread; floral||Butter, caramel; pineapple; butterscotch; jasmine; pear|
• This story is intended for mead makers looking to broaden their knowledge of the various honey varieties available to them. Byo.com digital members who would like to learn more about Michael Fairbrother’s general meadmaking advice and steps, visit https://byo.com/article/single-varietal-mead-making/
Varietal Mead Recipe
(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = 1.120 FG = 1.012 ABV = 14%
Most of the traditional mead recipes that I make follow this ratio: 1 part honey, 3 parts water. Using that ratio, it’s easy to scale a batch up or down as needed.
15 lbs. (6.8 kg) single-varietal honey
3.75 gallons (14.2 L) non-chlorinated water
12.5 g Go-Ferm
15.9 g Fermaid-O
10 g (2 packets) Lalvin Narbonne 71B-1122 dry yeast
Step by step (meadmaking day)
Sanitize the fermenting equipment — fermenter, lid or stopper, airlock, funnel, etc. — along with the yeast pack and a pair of scissors.
Fill a sink or cooler with hot tap water and soak honey container(s) to make the honey easier to pour. I don’t recommend using boiling water; be patient. If your honey is crystallized, don’t worry — all raw and natural honey crystallizes over time (with the exception of Tupelo blossom honey), especially in colder temperatures. Soaking the honey container in hot water will turn it back into liquid form. Pour honey into the fermenter.
Using the honey containers, collect room temperature water one container at a time and fill the fermenter to a total volume of 5 gallons (19 L). Get every drop of honey out of the containers (placing the lid on and shaking may be necessary, as may using a small portion of warmer water in the containers). Remember, it takes a bee its entire life to make 1⁄12 of a teaspoon of honey.
Stir the must until all honey is dissolved and well mixed. This usually takes 5 to 15 minutes, possibly longer.
Prepare yeast. Add 12.5 g of Go-Ferm and the yeast to 1⁄2 cup of water at about 104 °F (40 °C), then mix. Let stand for 20 minutes. Slowly bring the temperature of the mixture down to the temperature of your mead must by adding small quantities of must. When the temperature of the yeast slurry and must are similar, add the yeast slurry to the fermenter and stir vigorously.
Seal fermenter with a sanitized airlock and keep the fermenter in an area of about 64–68 °F (18–20 °C).
Fermentation should start within 24 hours.
(First 1–2 weeks)
Sanitize all equipment used to stir the must for each nutrient addition. Please note that adding nutrient and stirring may cause the mead to foam so care must be taken to do this slowly. A slow stir before adding the nutrient will allow the release of residual CO2. Follow this staggered nutrient schedule:
• Add 5.3 grams of Fermaid-O at 24 hours after fermentation begins.
• Add 5.3 grams of Fermaid-O at 48 hours after fermentation begins.
• Add 5.3 grams of Fermaid-O at 72 hours after fermentation begins.
By monitoring your airlock activity, you will notice the slowing down of fermentation. Depending on many factors this could be somewhere after one month, but often I would plan for three months. Your mead then is ready to be transferred to a secondary fermenter. Sanitize your fermenter and siphoning equipment.
Carefully siphon the mead into the fermenter. Leave as much sediment as possible in the primary fermenter.
Let the mead clarify in the secondary fermenter for three months. I prefer to either filter or let it naturally drop brilliantly clear. Alternatively you may wish to add a fining agent such as isinglass to facilitate clearing, and/or potassium sorbate to prevent further fermentation.
(Bottling day, 3.5 months after beginning)
Sanitize siphoning and bottling equipment and bottles. Carefully siphon the mead to a bottling bucket. I recommend this mead be made still, but if you wish to carbonate it you would add priming sugar at this point.
Fill and cap bottles like you would any beer you were making.
Bottles may be consumed at any time, but a general rule of thumb is two weeks after bottling or kept and aged for six months or more to achieve superior flavor.