Honey bees make honey from plant nectar. They evaporate much of the moisture and add enzymes that change the composition of the nectar to give honey its unique taste. When the moisture content of the honey is at about 17%, the bees store it in cells of the comb. They then seal the cells with a white beeswax capping.
When bees have access to large areas of one kind of flower, such as clover, basswood, goldenrod, or buckwheat, they produce honey with a flavor and color typical of that particular plant. Bees blend honey naturallly by combining the pollens from many different flowers in areas where no one flower predominates. Honeys also are blended during packing to create a specific taste.
Honey is normally bought and sold in one of two ways: by variety or by color. Most consumers, whether buying honey in a supermarket, at a farmer’s market, or directly from a beekeeper, will typically buy either a blend of pure honeys, the so-called Supermarket Store Brands or a particular honey varietal, such as the most common of all the varietals, Clover Honey. The color and flavor of many honeys are linked; that is, the darker the honey, the more apt it is to taste stronger and more robust. The lighter colored honeys are usually more delicate and sweeter in flavor. Sometimes people shop for a honey varietal simply because they like the flavor or it reminds them of the kind of honey they had when growing up or they like to impress their friends with a unique treasure! Overall, these customers like the delicious flavors of honey; the color is irrelevant to them.
However industrial users, such as bakers, food processors, and beverage makers, will often buy honey by color. Industrial users are typically driven by ingredient cost. The industrial users will often contact a major honey packer (bottler) and buy in large totes or 55 gallon drums. While they want pure honey in the formulas, of course, they want the honey as an ingredient more for labeling purposes than for variety. In addition, the functional aspects of the honey, for example, as an ingredient used in baking, doesn’t much change if the honey is light or dark. Honey is hygroscopic and attracts moisture to the bread or dessert – a very valuable trait in baking. Generally speaking a very light colored honey is much more expensive than a dark honey. The baking company may specify a darker color grade such as amber honey, rather than a lighter colored honey such as a water-white honey.
A question that is often asked is how industrial grade honey is “made?” Most people understand how bees will visit a particular field of flowers to get a certain variety, e.g. Sage honey, but they can’t quite understand how an Extra Light Amber color of honey is found. Actually, the answer is rather simple.
Many commercial beekeepers, rather than keeping track of to what flowers their bees might go, are simply content to collect whatever honey the bees bring in at the end of a season. It’s a little more scientific than that, of course, but at the end of the season or month, or whatever the time period, the honey is collected and graded by color.
One last quick point: we are amazed at the fact that there are more than 300 varieties of honey found in the United States. However, only a small percentage of those honeys are popular. It sometimes takes more of an effort to market a particular variety, e.g. Huajillo or Sunflower, than to simply collect those honeys and grade them into amber and extra light amber honey for industrial usage.