Jane Says: All Maple Syrup Now Makes the A Grade

The B rating is a thing of the past—but there’s still the full range of tastes and colors to try.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 25, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Which grade of maple syrup is the best? I always thought Grade A was, but Grade B is what’s recommended for my springtime Master Cleanse. It’s less processed, right?

—Alexis Steiner

Maple syrup terminology is perplexing. How does one parse the flavor differences among Vermont Fancy, Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, and Grade A Dark Amber? How do they compare with Canadian syrups, which are graded by number? And is a syrup labeled “Grade B” somehow inferior to “Grade A,” or, counterintuitively, is it better in some way? Just to be clear, I’m talking about the real stuff—made by the evaporation of pure maple sap—not the thicker, sweeter, cheaper “pancake syrup” (which is mostly high-fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring) that hogs most of the shelf space at supermarkets.

During evaporation, maple sap is concentrated to the desired sugar content, or brix—a minimum of 66 percent sugar, 66.9 percent in Vermont and New Hampshire. The chemical changes that take place during heating cause the distinctive maple color and flavor to develop, according to sources such as the Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program. In short, the darker the hue, the more intense the flavor. The rule of thumb is that lighter-colored syrup is made earlier in the season and darker syrup is made later, but the outcome can be manipulated to a certain extent; a lengthy boiling time will cause syrup to darken, for example.

Basically, though, Mother Nature is calling the shots, and factors such as the level of sugar concentration in the sap and the proliferation of microorganisms come into play. Sap from the same tree or stand of trees can produce syrup that goes from light to dark and back again within a few days—even within the same boiling run. In other words, go figure.

Grade B maple syrup was once relegated to baked goods, but consumer demand has been steadily increasing. I think Americans have gotten comfortable with bolder flavors in general, and then there’s the Master Cleanse contingent, which exists for days on a concoction of maple syrup, lemon juice, water, and cayenne pepper. Stanley Burroughs, the developer of the popular detox regimen, mistakenly believed that Grade B, with its more robust character, was less processed than Grade A (which it is not; see above), and a culinary myth was born.

No matter—you’re still hankering for a nutritional nugget, aren’t you? According to the University of Vermont libraries, which have impressive coverage of all things maple, the syrup has virtually the same calorie content as white cane sugar (50 calories per tablespoon) but contains significant amounts of calcium (20 milligrams per tablespoon) and potassium (35 mg per tablespoon), small amounts of iron and phosphorous, and trace amounts of B vitamins. Its sodium content is low (2 milligrams per tablespoon). And you may also be interested to know that the overwhelming majority of maple syrup is produced in forests where no herbicides or pesticides have been applied, so most could be considered organic; it can be certified organic by an accredited program such as that of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.

For about three decades, the lack of standardized labeling terms has been a fraught subject within the maple industry, but collective wisdom has finally prevailed. Based on a 2010 petition from the Ontario-based International Maple Syrup Institute, which represents maple producers in Canada and the U.S., the classifications have been revised by the USDA and its across-the-border counterpart, AAFC (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). There will be no more Grade B or Vermont Fancy. There will be no more numbers. Instead, there is one grade, Grade A, and it encompasses four new color and flavor classes: Golden Color and Delicate Taste; Amber Color and Rich Taste; Dark Color and Robust Taste; and Very Dark Color and Strong Taste. The last category, a new one for the retail market, reflects the newfound taste for stronger-flavored syrup. (There’s also a “Processing Grade,” which possesses minimal quality defects yet still meets government standards for food safety. It isn’t sold retail but is used in products such as candy, yogurt, and breakfast sausages.)

The new names may sound clunky, but they do take the guesswork out of buying the stuff (and you’ll find some brief tasting notes at the end of this column). The top-producing state, Vermont, which was loath to give up the “Fancy” designation (admittedly an outstanding marketing moniker), adopted the revised classifications ahead of schedule, in 2014. New York, the country’s second largest producer, is implementing them this year. Other states and the Canadian provinces are making the transition as well.

Savvy producers are embracing the change, with an eye to expanding globally. And given that the annual supply of maple syrup is contingent on the weather, healthy forests, hand labor (trees do not tap themselves), and about six weeks of frantic activity, a couple of poor seasons are enough to catapult prices into the luxury goods realm.

Well, we don’t think twice about paying serious bucks for good olive oil, and maple syrup is nothing if not versatile in the kitchen. At Gourmet, we thought of it as a stealth ingredient, using it to add depth and complexity to desserts as well as standards such as mashed sweet potatoes or winter squash, but also to cocktails, vinaigrettes, pan sauces for chicken or pork, glazes for broiled fish or ribs, and more. It was nice to hear, then, that “Maple syrup is not just for pancakes” is virtually the mantra at Crown Maple, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Energy financier Robb Turner, the new owner of 800 pristine acres that hadn’t been farmed since the Civil War, formed the company in 2010. Familiar with the area since his days as a cadet at West Point, he’d been looking for a weekend retreat; aside from gorgeous views, a trout stream filled with brookies, and diverse wildlife, his swath of hardwood forest boasts around 20,000 mature sugar and red maple trees. (There are now 30,000 more trees on additional owned or leased land.) Turner, a former army engineer, understood the mechanics of the maple industry, so to speak; the contrast of cold nights and warm days makes for pressure buildup in the trees, causing sap to flow out of judiciously placed tapholes. Soon his dream of a weekend house was eclipsed by one far more ambitious—not just the largest tree-to-bottle maple syrup production facility in North America, but a product with the brand-name recognition of a craft-distilled bourbon, say, or an artisanal chocolate bar. High-end chefs have taken note, as have purveyors such as Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, Murray’s Cheese, and Sunshine Foods.

A couple of weeks ago, shortly after the sap started running, I paid a visit to Crown Maple, based at Madava Farms (named for Turner’s two daughters, Maddie and Ava) and created with the help of Turner’s wife, Lydia. My vision of a rustic, old-time sugaring operation, albeit with no expense spared, vanished as soon as I caught sight of the building at the top of a long, sweeping driveway. At 27,000 square feet, Crown Maple, which is open to the public, isn’t a sugar shack, it’s a sugar château, with antecedents in the wine country, not the backcountry. There’s a soaring entrance hall clad in New York State granite, a kitchen and dining room for special events, and a tasting room paneled in warm, satiny maplewood.

“Maple trees can be tapped for 100 years if they’re taken care of,” said Tyge Rugestein, the company’s chief operating officer, adding that they’d started readying the trees for tapping the second week in January and had been in snowshoes for a month. An experienced tapper can drill and insert 200 to 400 taps a day; one tree can handle up to three taps at the same time, depending on its size and health. The image of trees fitted with buckets and spigots is charming but outmoded; today, most sugar houses rely on a labyrinthine relay system of plastic tubing (200 miles’ worth at Crown Maple) to carry the bland, watery sap from the trees to collection houses. As the temperatures stop seesawing between freezing at night and thawing during the day, the trees undergo the metabolic and chemical changes that trigger the formation of buds, and the sap stops flowing.

Crown Maple uses an energy-efficient reverse osmosis machine to remove much of the water from the sap without heat (the extracted water is repurposed for cleaning machinery and watering the gardens), and then it’s boiled in a gleaming evaporator to develop its flavor and reach the ideal sugar concentration; it’s measured first, the old-fashioned way, by watching how it sheets down a big spatula (“like legs in wine,” Rugestein noted), and then double-checked with a hydrometer.

I’ve had the chance to taste the four new categories of Grade A maple syrup, and I think I need them all.

Golden color and delicate taste: The palest in color and most delicate in flavor, this is fabulous drizzled over yogurt, fresh ricotta or shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or ripe berries.

Amber color and rich taste: The sweetener in my next pecan pie.

Dark color and robust taste: Pancakes, waffles, French toast, ice cream, rice pudding, the savory applications mentioned above—you name it.

Very dark color and strong taste: Like sorghum, this has a whang to it that makes me crave corn cakes, corn bread, Indian pudding, and baked beans.