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

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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.


"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:

Twitter: MeredithGoad


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