March 20, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Maine Maple Sunday reveals a sweet science

As with many things nowadays, the grading of maple syrup soon will be going global. In the meantime, it's a tricky, sticky business.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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.

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This weekend is Maine Maple Sunday, when the public can visit some of Maine's sugar houses.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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This weekend is Maine Maple Sunday weekend, the time when maple syrup producers open up their sugar houses so the public can watch them make syrup, sample maple candy and syrup on ice cream and partake in many family-oriented activities. Some places have activities scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday. To find a sugar house near you, go to the Maine Maple Producers website and click on the map or go to this calendar of events.



HOW DID 18TH-CENTURY Mainers make and use maple syrup? Find out Sunday at Old Fort Western, the 1754 National Historic Landmark fort and museum overlooking the Kennebec River in downtown Augusta. The fort will hold its annual "Maple Syrup Day" from 1 to 3 p.m.

People at the fort will be whittling spiles, tapping trees and collecting and boiling sap over an open fire. Inside the kitchen, over an open hearth, there will be a cornbread baking demonstration. In the parlor, maple syrup will be transformed into maple sugar, a staple 18th-century sweetener.

Admission to the fort on Maple Syrup Day is always free. Donations are welcome. Donations and proceeds from the fort's store sales will benefit the non-profit Old Fort Western Fund, dedicated to teaching, preserving and discovering local history in the Kennebec Valley since 1922.

For more information, call 626-2385 or email 


THE UNIVERSITY OF MAINE Cooperative Extension All-Star 4-H Dairy Club will hold its fourth annual all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast fundraiser at 8 a.m. Sunday. The breakfast, which costs $6, will be held at Brookridge Boilers Sugarhouse on Route 111 in Lyman. The money raised will be used for the club's educational programs. There will also be a maple basket drawing, with the proceeds going to the Cancer Society's Relay for Life.


If you like to cook, you've probably got some darker syrup as well because it has a more robust, intense flavor.

Simple, right?

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.

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