May 19, 2021
Take a quick look at the six jars of honey shown above. What did you notice? If the first thing that caught your eye were the different colors, then a brief description of honey’s relative visual properties might provide some insightful information. And, yes, it’s true that most of us generally choose honey based on color.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies commercial honey (the jars you typically find in the grocery store) into 7 color categories:
*Water White (0 mm – 8 mm) (Colorless and transparent)
*Extra White (8 mm – 17 mm) (Very light-yellow tint while remaining transparent)
*White (17 mm – 34 mm) (Slightly more yellow/very light amber, also transparent)
*Extra Light Amber (34 mm – 50 mm) (Transparent with a light orange/amber hue)
*Light Amber (50 mm – 85 mm) (Deeper orange /amber hue, not fully transparent)
*Amber (85 mm – 114mm) (Deep orange color and not transparent)
*Dark Amber (114 mm – 140 mm) (Very dark and opaque, referred to as “motor oil black”)
How Honey Color is Measured
The color of honey is typically measured using a continuous scale known as the Pfund scale of measurement. The scale consists of a glass wedge that varies in its color from lightest to darkest amber. The honey to be evaluated is poured into another wedge-shaped container and then the color is compared with the amber scale. The place where the color of the honey matches closest to the scale is then marked as the result. The final measurement is thus given in a number ranging from 0 to 140 mm (according to the scale length where the match occurs).
What Determines Color?
The color of honey is determined by its floral source, or blossoms of the nectar, and mineral content. Honeybees forage for both nectar and pollen. Nectar is the bee’s source of energy while pollen provides protein and other nutrients. As the bee forages, pollen grains collect on its head. The bee then uses its front legs to transfer the pollen to the pollen baskets located on its hind legs. Bees mix dry pollen with nectar to compact the pollen in the pollen basket. Honey, therefore, gets its color from the pollen that a hive gathers to make it.
Light colored honeys like citrus, rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus and thyme contain high amounts of calcium. Darker honeys contain higher amounts of potassium, chlorine, sulfur, sodium, iron, manganese and magnesium. Iron is what gives buckwheat honey its deep brown color.
Lighter-colored honeys generally have a milder flavor but with a pronounced floral aroma often accompanied by herbal, spice, vanilla, butterscotch or other enticing flavor notes. As the honey gets darker in color, the aroma and taste become more distinctive. All honey tends to deepen in color as it ages, but this change does not affect its flavor.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that soil, climate, water, wind and sun all contribute to every honey’s sensory attributes, including color, aroma and flavor. This unpredictable mosaic of natural conditions is a gentle reminder of the ever-changing profile of varietal honey. Clover honey from this year may surprise your taste buds with a slightly different flavor profile in the future.
(Honeybee gathering nectar from Sage blossoms)
Examples of light honey floral sources:
Examples of dark honey floral sources:
Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008