Show me the honey
The Scottish Bee Company’s Suzie Millar is a sommelier with a nose for quality honey, says Morag Bootland
Not all honeys are created equal. But here in Scotland we produce some of the finest in the world, a fact that is verified by the expert senses of honey sommelier Suzie Millar.
Suzie and Iain Millar set up The Scottish Bee Company in 2017 with the intention of using the amazing honey that is produced here in Scotland to support the conservation of bees. They buy honey from bee farmers across Scotland, from the Strathdon Valley in Aberdeenshire through Perthshire and Fife and into Dumfies and Galloway, to produce a range of quality honeys.
Suzie’s background is in chiropracting and Iain’s in finance, so producing honey was a leap. But their business is going from strength to strength and they’ve now trained Scotland’s first ever bee farming apprentice in Katie Warwick, who is in charge of their own hives. Suzie has undertaken some training of her own to become a fully qualified honey sommelier.
We’re probably more familiar with being incredibly impressed by the knowledge and skills of wine sommeliers, and Suzie explains that being a honey sommelier has lots of similarities.
‘A honey sommelier is someone who specialises in the taste, texture and quality of honey,’ she tells me.
Suzie trained with the Italian National Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey. ‘It means that I can distinguish between whether a honey contains lots of flora, if it is a polyfloral honey, or if it is a monofloral honey where the bees have foraged on just one type of flora.’ In Scotland there is one main type of monofloral honey and unsurprisingly that’s heather. Suzie describes the characteristics of this as ‘rich with lots of toffee and vanilla notes’.
When it comes to polyfloral honeys that’s when it gets a bit trickier to identify what the bees have been foraging on.
‘You can have lime trees, sycamore, wildflowers or oilseed rape,’ says Suzie. ‘We’ve even had honey with fava beans. But then you’re getting really niche and it’s very difficult to pick out the individual smells.’
I’m curious as to whether anyone can train as a honey sommelier, or if you need to have especially atuned senses or a natural abilty. Suzie assures me that anyone can learn the skill.
‘I don’t think I had any natural ability. The training lasted for five days. The first day was focused purely on
‘A honey sommelier is someone who specialises in the taste, texture and quality of honey’
background and we weren’t allowed to smell or taste the honey. The second day was entirely spent analysing the texture of honeys. The third day you solely analyse smell and finally on the fourth day you taste the honey.
‘It is bonkers. You think to yourself, how on earth am I going to be able to spend eight hours just looking at textures of honey? But it is absolutely fascinating. You learn about which parts of the tongue taste different things and the different types of tastes that there are; sweet, sour, umami. It really makes you an expert on taste. I also loved the fact that it taught me what a good quality honey should be.’
And that’s massively important to the ethos of The Scottish Bee Company. ‘If there’s a smoky smell then you know that the bee keeper has been using too much smoke to get the bees away and it’s no longer allowed to be called honey.
‘If it’s been ever so slightly overheated then it’s not allowed to be called honey. Or if it’s been mixed with anything or put in the wrong container and has a slightly metallic smell then it’s no longer allowed to be called honey. But, nobody knows that in the UK!’
Katie and Iain are determined to maintain the highest quality standards in their honey and test it using a mixture of sommeliers and lab testing.
‘The Germans and Italians are pioneers in quality honey, says Suzie. ‘We’re determined to follow suit.’ www.scottishbeecompany.co.uk