Maple syrup continues to be produced on small farms in the same low-tech way that it has been for centuries. But that’s not the whole story.
Published Sept. 1, 2015. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Seafood Two Ways
It’s early March, and a team of our editors is driving along a winding dirt road in Vermont to visit a sugar shack tucked against a mountain covered with thousands of maples. At first glance, the passing forest scape is a canvas of barren trees and snowy fields, but a closer look brings into focus a web of silver taps and clear plastic tubing weaving among the trees—the sign that it’s sugaring season.
We’ve timed our trip carefully because sugaring season is both short and temperamental. Not only is the majority of the world’s maple syrup produced on relatively small-scale farms, like this one, throughout Canada and the northern United States over a period of just two months each year, but the sap production is entirely weather-dependent: Syrup makers must wait for freezing nights that are followed by warm days, a pattern that causes higher pressure within the tree to push sap out of the tree. Couple that with the fact that it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce just 1 gallon of maple syrup and it’s not surprising that this product can fetch more than $1.50 per ounce.
Anyone who’s tasted real maple syrup on pancakes, in desserts, or even in savory glazes or dressings knows that there is no cheap substitute. We confirmed as much a few years ago when we compared a few maple syrups with pancake syrups; the latter, corn syrup–based products that are a fifth of maple syrup’s price, tasted cloying and candy-like. This time, we decided to home in on pure maple syrup and gathered eight products, all Grade A Dark Amber since it’s the most widely available grade, tasting them plain and baked into maple syrup pie.
From Sap to Syrup
Pure maple syrup is simply sap from sugar maple trees that has been boiled to concentrate its sugar. To harvest it, taps connected to plastic tubing are drilled into the trees; the sap flows through the tubing into large storage containers where it’s held for no more than 24 hours (unprocessed sap is only about 2 to 3 percent sugar, so it spoils quickly). When it’s time to boil, the sap is transferred to an evaporator pan set over a large fire and reduced until it reaches 66 percent sugar density. (If it’s boiled much longer, the syrup will start to crystallize; any less and it will eventually spoil.)
After the sap has been boiled and filtered, it’s graded according to color, which also helps categorize the strength of its flavor. David Lutz, a forest ecologist at Dartmouth College, explained that syrup color and flavor are primarily determined by changes in the chemical composition of the sap throughout the sugaring season. At the start of the season, the syrup is very light-colored because the sap is infused...
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