Maple Facts and Fictions
The How and the When
Maple syrup is made by boiling the thin (like water), slightly sweet sap of the sugar maple tree in large, shallow pans over a very hot fire. The sap is boiled until most of the water in the sap has been evaporated, and it is concentrated, or “reduced,” to syrup. As much as 40-45 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup!
In theory then, making maple syrup is not a complex operation. In fact, syrup production is physically demanding, labor intensive, time-consuming, and messy.
The season of production spans the bridge between winter and spring, which in Vermont tends to be a very wet and muddy time of year. It’s accepted around here that we actually have five seasons in Vermont, the 5th being “Mud Season.” Mud Season comes at the end of winter when copious amounts of melting snow and ice create muddy conditions just about everywhere. This of course is the time of year when we make maple syrup!
When we begin to set up for sugaring sometime in February, we are forced to use snowshoes to navigate the 4 to 5 feet of deep snow lying in the woods. By the time the sugaring season is over, tiny wildflowers are bursting forth from the forest floor, fiddlehead ferns are poking their dark green knuckles out from under last fall’s decaying leaves, and the tiny frogs called spring peepers are shrilling their greetings to potential mates at a volume way out of proportion to their size. In between, if it has been a good year for maple syrup, the snow has melted, the ground has thawed, and millions of gallons of water have been released into the streams and rivers of Vermont. Meanwhile, many additional millions of gallons of water have been sucked up by the thirsty maple trees as they emerge from the dormancy of winter. This water is the main ingredient of the tree’s sap, which nourishes the tree and its newly forming leaves.
We collect sap from each one of our thousands of maple trees by tapping them. That is, as winter draws to a close we visit each tree, and we drill a small hole in the tree’s trunk. Into that hole we insert a small spout, which we secure by “tapping” it in with a hammer. This activity is the reason that each hole with its accompanying spout is called a tap. In our sugarbush (a forest that is primarily sugar maple trees), each tap is connected to a system of pipelines through which all of the sap flows to the sugarhouse (the building where we boil the sap down to syrup). It is stored there in large tanks until it can be boiled.
The first people to discover a process by which the slightly sweet sap of the sugar maple tree could be transformed into a delicious, nutritious, and useful food were the indigenous inhabitants of northeastern North America. Indians of the Northeast and northern Midwest had terms for maple sugaring, and maple sugar figured importantly in their mythologies and histories, when European explorers first encountered them. Early European colonists in the Northeast learned the process, and soon were producing their own maple sugar.
It was actually the drier, solid maple sugar that the colonists were after, which they used as an alternative to the cane sugar that had to be imported from the West Indies. This product is achieved by boiling the syrup until its sucrose has been concentrated to the point that it will crystallize when it cools. For this reason, many terms related to making maple syrup refer to maple sugar. The activity itself is called sugaring; the maple forest is a sugarbush; the place where maple syrup is made is a sugarhouse; and the person who engages in these activities is a sugarmaker.
Maple Syrup Grades
There is one question that I am sure we have been asked more than any other in our 26 years at the Greenmarket. What is the difference between lighter-colored and darker-colored maple syrups? Though all grades of pure maple syrup are identical in density and maple sugar content (66.9%), the color of the syrup can and does range from pale golden to dark brown. In fact, maple syrup is graded solely by its color. This difference in color has mostly to do with when the syrup is made. As the spring warms up, the sap coming from the trees becomes darker in color, producing a darker syrup. Corresponding to color, the darker the syrup is, the stronger its flavor. The State of Vermont distinguishes four maple syrup grades. From light to dark they are: Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B. It is important to understand that ALL maple syrup is produced by exactly the same process.
Generally, the first syrup we make in a given season is very clear and light in color, like ginger ale. This syrup is graded Vermont Fancy. It has a subtle but complex flavor, with hints of vanilla from the vanillins that are naturally present in maple sap. Our Fancy grade is an excellent, sophisticated table syrup, delicious with pancakes, waffles and French toast. It is also fantastic on ice cream or fresh fruit.
Grade A Medium Amber is a shade darker than Fancy. It is still a light, aromatic syrup, but it has a slightly more pronounced maple flavor. this, along with Grade A Dark Amber, is the traditional “pancake maple syrup.”
Grade A Dark Amber is produced toward the end of the season as the weather warms up. It has a robust maple flavor and is great in yogurt and oatmeal. It is also a good choice for baking. If you’re looking for that very hearty, “traditional” maple flavor, you probably want Dark Amber.
Grade B maple syrup is usually made at the end of the sugaring season, just before the maple trees bud. Almost as dark as molasses, the very strong, intense flavor of Grade B has been described as “hard–core.” Traditionally considered a cooking–grade syrup, Grade B has gained popularity in recent years as a table syrup. It is also well known for its beneficial use in a cleansing fast known as the Master Cleanse.
Although we are very happy that Stanley Burroughs, the author of The Master Cleanse, recognized the health benefits of pure maple syrup, we are disappointed that Mr. Burroughs did not really understand how maple syrup is made. He recommended Grade B syrup because he assumed, probably due to its dark color and intense flavor, that it was less refined than other maple syrups. However, NO pure maple syrup is refined in any way whatsoever. ALL pure maple syrup contains many beneficial nutrients, including minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and iron. Traditionally, maple syrup is considered to be good for digestion and the circulatory system. It has fewer calories most other sweeteners and contains no fat at all.
At the Greenmarket, people often ask us which grade is best. The answer is, whichever one you like best!