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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Honey Expert to Teach Sensory Analysis Skills

You would be hard pressed to find anyone more enthusiastic about the potential of New Zealand honey than Maureen Conquer. The Auckland-based honey judge has been at the forefront of honey sensory analysis in Aotearoa since she returned from training in Italy 13 years ago. Now she is offering Kiwi beekeepers, honey technicians, chefs, foodies, or anyone with a taste for honey the opportunity to expand their pallet, knowledge and skills in a three-day workshop, in Auckland, in April. It’s all part of a long-held goal to advance the New Zealand honey industry, she explains.

Conquer is an unabashed ‘foodie’ having spent decades as a chef, beekeeper and, before that, the founder of the now well-recognised Matua wine label. So, when in the 1990s she brought the concepts of value-adding to the honey at her BeesOnline honey centre and restaurant, based in Waimauku north-west of Auckland, the focus on sustainability and individual varietals of honey were not well understood.

Maureen Conquer will impart some of her considerable knowledge of honey sensory analysis in a three-day course in Auckland, April 10-12. Photo: Dan Childs

“Most of the beekeepers thought I was totally nuts,” Conquer reflects.

“When I started in the ‘90s beekeepers just got all their honey, blended it together, whacked it in a cheap plastic container and sold it for pennies.”

It soon became her mission to not only gain better value for the wonderful honey produced in her own apiaries, but that of the whole industry. Therefore, having spent time as a wine and food judge, she began to eye bringing a similar level of expertise to her new passion.

“The response from the beekeeping industry was ‘oh yes, we had a bloke who did that once and he died, of diabetes.’ That was it. No one appeared interested in marketing honey like that. It was seen as hocus-pocus stuff,” Conquer recalls.

Having been bitten by the beekeeping and honey bug – “I went from one hive, to three to six, to 36 in six months. Read all the books I could, and spoke to everybody, because tasting that fresh honey was amazing” – Conquer’s passion for honey took her to Bologna, Italy in 2011 to immerse herself in three-days of one-on-one workshops with renown honey sensory analysis experts Dr Maria Lucia Piana and Gian Luigi Marcazzan.

Conquer has not only been lead judge at the New Zealand Honey Awards, but judged honey and mead at international competitions. Now, having seen the standard of honey exhibited in New Zealand soar, she believes the time is right to train the next generation of honey tasting experts.

“I am pleased that there is acceptance for this. When I came back home really inspired, 13 years ago now, I had the blessing of my tutor in Italy, Lucia. She was the first to start this whole journey and said, ‘yes, go back and teach’ and she gave me all the notes. But no one wanted to know about it here, they all thought I was a bit nuts. Now, there are enough people showing interest and it is very exciting for me.”

Therefore, April 10-12 in Auckland, Conquer will be imparting some of the skills and knowledge gained in her decades of dedication to honey sensory analysis and is calling on beekeepers, honey technicians, chefs or just passionate foodies to make contact and book a space on the course. She says it will be the longest and most detailed honey sensory analysis training experience ever offered in New Zealand, with Conquer having presented one or two-day courses upon request in the past, but nothing to the level which the upcoming training will provide.

“I am trying to get people inspired. It is about lots of tasting and trying to memorise what you have tasted,” she says.

Participants in Maureen Conquer’s honey sensory analysis workshop will have the opportunity to taste and learn about not only New Zealand’s most common honey varieties, but several lesser-known honeys, all to help foster a new generation of honey experts.

There is a busy scheduled planned for the course, including ‘vertical’ tastings – honey from the same apiary in different seasons – as well as horizontal; the same variety of honey from the same season, but across different regions.

“I want to keep it as a relatively small group so we can share our experiences. We will have some tasting independently, then everyone can share what they are tasting, because with one honey you can have five different experiences between people.”

There will be a focus on New Zealand’s main honey varieties on day one; mānuka, kānuka, honey dew, clover, kamahi, thyme, rewarewa, pohutukawa, tawari, vipers bugloss and rata; then on day two and three lesser known varieties will be added such as matagouri, black currant and orange blossom. There will also be analysis of the different forms of honey; liquid, comb, naturally crystallised, and creamed.

Conquer is a passionate believer that, if the New Zealand honey industry is to reach its potential it must present to consumers qualities in honey that are not being fully realised yet, such as full flavour profiles and regional and seasonal differences. New Zealand was once one of largest consumers of honey, per head of population, and to get back there Conquer says we need to tell the full story behind our honey to appeal to a new generation of honey buyer.

“By selling the stories and getting people emotively hooked into the product, it will help honey sell more and give the opportunity for added value,” she says. That is why she is motivated to help train more people to fully appreciate honey.

“We need to get new people developing these skills right across the board in our industry, so it is not just the big guys who are exporting. It is equally important, but in a different way, for the small beekeeper or chef to be inspired and impassioned by the different ingredients available,” she says adding, “Honey has to be the ultimate slow food and we need to learn to capture the terroir and natural sweetness of the regions”.


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