We have been searching for a gourmet quality maple syrup for close to 5 years. Sadly, we have been disappointed by the taste of many brands and appalled at some of the ridiculous nutritional and promotional claims made by manufacturers.
While “taste” is subjective, found below are a few relevant facts on the state of the “industry” and maple syrup labelling practices:
- Canada now controls about 80% of the production of maple syrup;
- Canadian conglomerates have been buying up or putting out of business most artisan producers in both Canada and Vermont;
- Vermont maple syrup is considered to be the quality benchmark in the industry and Canadian conglomerates having been purchasing Vermont brand names;
- “Sugar-free” maple syrup is an oxymoron unless you prefer factory-processed foods;
- Claims of “Organic” maple syrup seem rather foolish since we are talking about tapping a forest or maple trees rather than a vegetable patch.
In effect, the production of maple syrup is largely industrial and small quality artisans are being squeezed out of business. While maple syrup is a natural sugar not unlike honey or agave, it is still a sugar and should be used sparingly in one’s diet.
Why Vermont Maple Syrup?
Soil conditions in Vermont produce a softer syrup. Most soil experts believe that it is due to the limestone in the soil which imparts this “softer” flavor profile.
Having sampled hundreds of syrups, we believe that there is a distinct difference in the quality of Vermont maple syrup over syrups primarily sourced in Canada.
Some years ago, Vermont did away with the “A, B and C” classification of maple syrup. For those who found the old grading system useful, please find below the new classification comparison:
OLD: “Fancy” or “Vermont Fancy”
NEW: Grade A | Golden Color and Delicate Taste
This is the lightest of the new maple syrup grades and highly recommended for drizzling over waffles, pancakes, or ice cream.
OLD: Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber
NEW: “Grade A | Amber Color and Rich Flavor”
This grade of maple syrup is a little more flavorful and works well when cooking and baking.
OLD: Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B
NEW: “Grade A | Dark Color and Robust Flavor”
This grade of maple syrup is even stronger in flavor, and is best used for recipes that require a heavy maple flavor.
OLD: Grade C
NEW: “Grade A | Very Dark and Strong Flavor”
This grade of maple syrup is very strong, and probably best used as a substitute for molasses and for making maple flavored candies.
The important consideration is that the grade of the maple syrup – now all uniform – has little if anything to do with the quality of the syrup. For instance, many gourmet connoisseurs prefer the “dark color and robust flavor” (formerly Grade B) to the lighter colored Amber (formerly Grade A).
Modern Production Techniques
In its most simple form, the production of quality maple syrup has not changed radically over the years. Nevertheless, the heavy hand of industrial conglomerates has definitely altered the quality of the products to the detriment of the consumer and, certainly, for many artisan producers.
Harvesting the Sap
Harvesting the maple sap is still primarily dependent on the climate. Specifically, sugar maple trees (also, red and black maples) are tapped by inserting a plastic or metal tap about 1 1/2″ inches into a maple tree of no less than 12″ in diameter.
The sap will run in the early spring when the temperature rises to near 40° F and gradually slows as the temperature falls during the evening and morning hours. The ideal temperature for tapping is a daily high of 40° F and a low of around 20° F at night.
Sustained temperatures in that range will produce high quantities of maple sap, but the weather in Vermont (and other places) can be totally unpredictable resulting in vastly different yields from season to season.
Trees normally have only one sap point and that sap point produces a “dead space” of about 2 inches in diameter in the trunk of the tree. Most successful sustainable maple syrup farmers avoid tapping trees below 16 inches in diameter and are careful where the following year’s tapping will occur to avoid permanently damaging the tree.
While the sap was traditionally captured in a metal pail, most modern harvesting techniques now collect the sap by induced gravity through an extensive series of plastic lines that channel into a central receptacle. Miles of these lines can be seen dotting maple tree forests in Vermont.
Boiling the Sap
The raw maple sap contains about 80% water. Most of the water is extracted from the sap through compression and the resulting product is then heating to near boiling to remove the remaining water and concentrate the syrup.
Forty-three gallons of maple sap produce one gallon of maple syrup.
Reducing the maple sap to syrup is the most delicate part of the process to create maple syrup.
The boiling temperature of the sap should not exceed 219º F to avoid caramelization. A few degrees one side or the other can compromise the equipment or result in an inferior product.
Bottling the Maple Syrup
The resulting syrup is then stored in wooden barrels or vats before it is bottled. Some maple syrup is aged in bourbon barrels before being bottled which imparts a slightly different flavor.
For more information on maple syrup, please consult our frequently asked questions.