How Can You Tell if Your Syrup’s ‘Pure’?

by Tig Tillinghast

I got an email from a recent customer today asking whether or not our syrup is “100 percent maple” and “pure.” He noticed that neither term was mentioned on the label, while it’s plastered on many others.

I replied that it is, and that by indicating “Vermont maple syrup” on the label, it’s required to be both. But I also realized that most maple users aren’t familiar with the terms, and the profusion of various labels actually does the industry a bit of a disservice by causing uncertainty.

Here’s the upshot:

– You want to make sure the maple syrup you buy is just maple syrup, and not some maple-flavored corn syrup concoction. If you get the cane sugar or corn syrup variety of syrups, you might as well just use store-bought cane sugar. It’ll taste pretty much the same and serve your sweetening needs. It will not, however, contain the soulful flavor of the sap that runs through trees at the break of winter.

– If the label says “Vermont maple syrup,” you’re fine. There’s actually a nice fellow here in Vermont whose job it is to go around trying syrup and making sure that no one is selling an adulterated product. Syrup from other states can probably be trusted if it has on it the label “100 percent pure.” This fellow who wrote in today taught me a lesson, and I’ll probably add that language onto our next batch of labels, with the expectation that most people can’t be bothered to know all this.

– Speaking of the different states, I have to relate an old story handed down about the sugarers in the different northern New England states. Back in the heyday of buckets, people would once in a while find a red squirrel drowned in sap when they came to collect from the trees. The story goes that in Maine, the sugarer would throw out the sap and the squirrel, wash the bucket and then set it back up. In New Hampshire, sugarers just throw out the squirrel and keep the sap. In Vermont, the sugarer throws out the collects the sap and makes sure to remember to wring out the squirrel to get the last drop. Of course, I’ve heard this story with any combination of those and other states in various orders. It’s considered politic to use your own state as the punchline.

– Back in the 1870s, syrup grades made a lot of sense. Ever since then, they haven’t. Back during the Civil War, people up here used maple sugar as their primary sweetener, having lost access to most of their cane sugar supply, and it being so expensive to ship it great distances. As a result, the most flavorless syrup – the lightest – was the most highly valued. This was the basis for our current grades, with Grade A Fancy being the least flavorful. The different states have slightly different terms for the grades, but you can use Vermont’s as the basic model: Grade A Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B, Commercial. The further you go along that list, the darker the syrup (in fact, as of now grade is determined solely by color). Usually, the further you go along that list, the more flavorful the syrup. Most people find that in taste tests they prefer something close to Medium Amber or Dark Amber, as they are quite flavorful, but not quite so strong as the others, which can often also have caramel and other “off flavors.” In another post, I’ll deal with the fact that new technology has broken the link between color and flavor, but for now suffice it to say that people paying more for Fancy syrup are more often not getting what they would prefer, were they to know the difference. This is one reason why prices for Fancy syrup, once at a premium, are just about equal to most of the lower grades.

(This is medium amber held to the light)

– TillinghastMaple.com has been conducting a rolling poll of people’s preferences for syrup grades and thicknesses. People who indicate that they feel they know their favorite most often choose Medium Amber. In most years, the vast majority of our syrup produced is Medium Amber and Dark Amber. As the season rolls along, syrup tends to get darker as it is produced, in part because of metabolism reactions in the tree sap and in part because of the collected carbon and other elements collecting on equipment as it is used through the season.

– Different regions have different syrup flavors, but my own informal research into this seems to show that very local conditions and production methods produce these flavors. I don’t find that a particular region of a state has a consistent flavor, but rather that individual sugar producers have consistently different flavors, and that these flavors may or may not be different from those produced by their neighbors. As a syrup shopper, you should try several different syrups over time and home in on the ones you prefer best. If you’re not buying syrup from multiple places each year, to have side-by-side tests, then you’re just never going to see this wonderful variation. For the record, my favorite syrup isn’t produced by me. There’s a fellow in the town next door named Gerard Stevens whose syrup would, in the words of my grandfather “put hair on your chest.”