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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Sweet Sensory Schooling

For three days last month, seven ‘students’ undertook New Zealand’s first Honey Sensory workshop of its kind, in Auckland April 10-12 and hosted by Maureen Conquer. Among them was Apiarist’s Advocate editor Patrick Dawkins who went in with an unrefined honey palate – could it be improved?

Despite being from wine country, Marlborough, I have an admittedly uneducated palate. Being a beekeeper with a focus on queen breeding, honey is also not top billing in my business. Nevertheless, I was attracted to undertaking the honey sensory workshop offered by expert honey judge and Wild Forage business owner Maureen Conquer because, one, I am rather fond of consuming honey and wanted to be able to better differentiate between varieties, and two, I had an eye towards any potential future honey label in our Pyramid Apiaries business and best defining and marketing our honey.

Participants on Maureen Conquer’s Honey Sensory Workshop are treated to a visit to Comvita’s Wellness Lab in Auckland where they were hosted by Noelani Waters, standing. From left, Patrick Dawkins, Ralph Mitchell, Jody Mitchell, Logan Bowyer, Rose Swears, Grass Esposti, Michael Molloy and Ken Brown.

So, how capable am I in both those tasks following the April workshop in Mt Eden? I can answer that better after running through what, and how, we learnt. One thing I can say from the start is, I have strengthened relationships with some likeminded members of our honey industry after three days of putting our tasting skills through a workout together, and there is a lot of value in that alone.

In New Zealand we cannot import any foreign honeys, so this was strictly an education in Aotearoa’s finest … actually it was an education in many fine honeys and a few not so suited to my taste buds (read acacia…). That’s a compliment to the wide range of honey varieties assembled by Conquer over several decades, from the likely candidates of clover and mānuka, through to less common but the still well-known vipers bugloss, beech honey dew, rata and rewarewa, plus rarer finds of mingimingi, orange blossom and Spanish heath.

Before any of those honeys went into our mouths however, we were taught the basics of how to assess honey with multiple senses; sight, smell and taste. Alongside that we were encouraged to take detailed notes, to assist later recall, and were given guidance on the seven basic honey flavours. With so many honey varieties on the menu, being provided the skills and knowledge to make and record such full assessments was essential to accurate differentiation during training and to build knowledge going forward.

Coming from the South Island, the likes of rewarewa, tawari and pohutukawa honey can be hard to find and the training provided me a far greater ability to identify these varieties. In fact, by the time we got to some blind tastings on day two and three I was over-confident in my ability to match samples with floral source. However, with guidance from our tutor, any mistakes in the blind tasting made for perhaps the best learning tool as they resulted in even deeper analysis of our individual perceptions.

Honey expert Maureen Conquer displays one of many New Zealand honeys tasted over three days at the Wild Forage Honey Sensory Workshop in Auckland last month, as workshop participant Logan Bowyer watches on.

After gaining a greater understanding of various New Zealand varieties, day two and three saw our group presented ‘horizontal’ tastings, i.e. the same variety of honey from the same season, but from differing regions, as well as ‘vertical’ assessments, i.e. honey samples from the same apiary but gathered over several seasons. The horizontal tastings were assisted greatly by all my fellow ‘students’ own offerings of honey, with the likes of Logan Bowyer of Mānuka Orchard providing an array of honeys from their facility and Michael Molloy of Rare Honey with mānuka honeys in a range of grades, complimenting the collection on offer.

Also complimentary to the expertise of Conquer was her aid in preparing samples and presenting the course, Andrea Crawford of Comvita’s honey lab, who mirrored our tutor’s infectious energy for honey sensory analysis. It wasn’t just an array of honey varieties and blends that the pair dished up either, there was a wealth of knowledge imparted over the three days on wider topics such as detecting honey defects, labelling requirements, and food pairings with various honey varieties. On top of that, a quick trip down to the Auckland Viaduct for a tour of Comvita’s Wellness Lab provided more sensory stimulation.

It was a lot to take in for someone entering the training with a limited palate, but Conquer provided an abundant information pack to take home which, along with my own notes, will be invaluable to maintaining my new set of knowledge.

So, can I now identify New Zealand’s main honey varieties? And, can I write an appealing honey description of my own business’ produce, from year to year? While a rock isn’t transformed to a diamond overnight, no matter how much pressure is applied, I am undeniably more confident in both aspects now and feel more compelled to embrace packing the produce of my hives. Plus, I have taken home a tomb of honey sensory analysis information and tasting notes to which I can refer. I think the key will be ongoing tastings, so I will be buying up various honey varieties online and in my travels.

Any beekeeper or honey seller with their own label would benefit from any future training courses which Conquer is willing to host. And that’s the rub, she’s trying to pass the baton and educate a new generation of honey experts. I for one encourage her to do so and hold more such training courses, and our industry to support such efforts. If I can educate my limited palate, then anyone can!


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