If you’re like most Mainers, chances are you have a lighter-colored maple syrup in your fridge for those mornings when you crave a stack of hot pancakes dripping with sweet syrup.
If you like to cook, you’ve probably got some darker syrup as well because it has a more robust, intense flavor.
Not exactly. Take that darker syrup, which in Maine is called Grade A Extra Dark Amber. In Vermont and New Hampshire, that same syrup would be labeled Grade B. In New York, the label might read “Extra Dark for Cooking.” And in Canada, it’s called “No. 2 Amber.”
Confused? So are all the countries around the world that want to buy our maple syrup, but aren’t sure exactly what they’re getting.
This complicated system of grading maple syrup is no fun for the maple producers, either, who must slap a different label on their product depending on where it’s being shipped.
All of this will change over the next couple of years as maple producers move toward a standardized grading system that’s been proposed by the International Maple Syrup Institute. Under the new system, all syrup, no matter where it comes from, will be classified into just four categories for retail sale: Golden Maple Syrup with a Delicate Taste, Amber Maple Syrup with a Rich Taste, Dark Maple Syrup with a Robust Taste and Very Dark Maple Syrup with a Strong Taste.
“We certainly hope that globally it’s going to make it much better for the maple industry,” said Eric Ellis of Maine Maple Products, who is vice president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. “The international trade is the fastest growing market at this time. When we have even three to four, or four to five, grading systems just within New England, it becomes very confusing for export trade partners. If they buy it in Vermont, it’s ‘Fancy.’ If they buy it from Maine, it’s Grade A Light Amber. If they buy it from Canada, it’s No. 1. Essentially, they’re all the same maple syrup.”
“There is no such thing as a Grade B in Maine,” said Michael Bryant of Hilltop Boilers in Newfield. “Maine does have a Grade A extra dark amber that somewhat simulates Grade B.”
For small producers – the kind of homey sugar houses you’ll visit on Maine Maple Sunday this weekend – the process of grading syrup is fairly simple. They just hold the syrup up to a line of bottles in a grading kit and eyeball it.
“The grade of a syrup can change on a daily basis, from tree to tree,” Bryant said.
The color and clarity of a syrup are affected by factors such as the time of year, the cleanliness of the equipment and the amount of bacteria in the syrup.
“In the beginning of the season when it’s cold temperatures, everything is really clean,” Bryant explained. “It’s just been put out, there’s very, very little bacterial growth, so you end up with some light-colored syrup. Near the end of the season, the equipment gets dirtier, the temperatures get much warmer, so you tend to get more bacteria growth which darkens the syrup and also gives it a stronger flavor. The sugars, actually, in the syrup start to change a little bit too.”
Some people think a lighter color means a better-quality syrup, and that a darker, Grade B-style syrup is not as good – which is one reason states like Maine don’t use the Grade B label and the new standardized system will also be doing away with it. Lighter does not necessarily mean better, maple producers say.
“You know, a lot of people want a darker amber syrup because it’s got a stronger flavor to it,” Bryant said.
Indeed, darker syrups have been gaining in popularity as more people have gotten interested in cooking and experimenting with different flavors. People who are into cleansing diets that use maple syrup insist that the proper syrup to use is Grade B because they believe (incorrectly) that darker syrups have been less processed and contain more nutrients.
Large packers who purchase syrup in bulk use a spectrophotometer to determine maple syrup color. A sample of the syrup goes into the machine, and the machine sends light through the sample and measures how much is refracted.
Syrup is also graded by taste, although there is no grading kit or special machine for that. It’s much more subjective, and requires a lot of experience.
“What you see as good flavor and what I see as good flavor could be two different things,” said Lyle Merrifield of Merrifield Farm in Gorham, who is president of the Maine Maple Producers Association.
Like color and clarity, flavor is affected by time of year, bacteria and cleanliness. There’s usually not an issue, Merrifield said, but syrup should always be tasted just before or right after filtering it to make sure it hasn’t picked up any off flavors.
“You’re always making sure there’s no musty flavor to it,” he said. “You want to make sure you had clean filters. You want to make sure you don’t taste any kind of off flavor or chlorine. Some producers are still cleaning tanks with a chlorine-water mix, which is not harmful, but they really don’t need that in the process. And it doesn’t take very much of that left someplace, or a little bit of residue, to get into the syrup, and once it’s concentrated it makes it even worse.”
Later in the year, producers taste for a hint of “buddy syrup,” an unpleasant flavor that’s found in sap collected from maple trees as they come out of dormancy and are starting to bud. It’s a harsh, almost bitter taste, Merrifield said. “You’re not getting all the sugars you need for your syrup.”
The bulk of syrup sales are still in the medium amber category since it’s a good overall syrup that works well with pancakes, French toast and cereal. That syrup should last a good long time, but it will last longer if you keep it in the refrigerator, Merrifield said, or even in the freezer. It can be frozen in a glass container because the syrup won’t freeze solid, expand and break the glass.
Unrefrigerated maple syrup can get a little mold growing on top, a problem that is easily rectified by skimming it off and then heating the syrup up again on the stove until it boils.
“Syrup has quite a shelf life,” Merrifield said, “and an unopened container really should never grow any mold on it.”
Merrifield once tasted some Vermont maple syrup that had been sealed in a gallon container for at least 50 years. Other than a slight tinny taste, he said, “the syrup was just as good as the day it was put in there — no mold, no nothing. And just as clean and pure and light as you could ever imagine.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: