Shedding Light On Syrup Grades

Recently, we were invited to contribute an article to an indie food and beverage magazine - CRAFT by Under My Host. We're excited to announce their Fall 2017 is now available and certainly worth the read! Fast forward to page 38 for our piece by following this link: Shedding Light On Maple Syrup Grades, or for a less exciting version (without pictures), we've pasted the article below. 

Shedding Light On Maple Syrup Grades
by Daniel Cosman
When you pick a bottle of maple syrup up off the grocery store shelf, its label typically won’t say anything about forest ecology and seasonal rhythms, or microclimates and microflora, or the particular subtleties of the producer’s approach to their craft. In most cases, the only information that offers you any idea of what that particular syrup might taste like is the grade. 
When it comes to labelling, maple syrup is graded and classified by colour alone, but the grading system has changed significantly over the past decade. While experts have established new, internationally agreed-upon grades, the old grading systems persist both on bottles and in the minds of consumers. 
Say goodbye to Canada’s No. 1 through No. 3, and the United States’ light, medium, and dark amber. All maple syrup is now referred to as golden, amber, dark, and very dark. To define where light, amber, and dark begin and end, producers reach for a spectrophotometer with matched square optical cells that have a 10-millimetre light path at a wavelength of 560 nanometres.
Colour values are expressed in percentage of light transmission, and the higher the light transmission the lighter the grade. A golden maple syrup must be above 75%, while dark and very dark syrups are well below 50%. Even if the industry demanded that we indicate the light transmission on the label at the time of bottling, because maple syrup tends to darken somewhat over time, it would eventually be incorrect.
Unfortunately, the new grading system still makes no effort to enlighten consumers on the range of maple syrup’s qualities and characteristics, or to encourage appreciation of its many subtleties. Understanding and seeking out these subtleties elevates the experience of tasting syrup to a celebration of geography, ecology, history and culture.
The colour and flavour of syrup shift throughout the season for many reasons. Climate, microclimate (the unique characteristics of a particular location), season, and technology all play important roles. Syrups produced in late February are typically very light in colour and delicate in taste. As the season progresses, temperatures rise and life begins to stir in the forest. Enzymes in the tree begin to change the sugars, as do bacteria and yeast endemic to the forest that become established in the tubing and buckets. Swelling maple buds release phenolic compounds that contribute to the darkening of syrup and the strengthening of its taste.
The influence of microflora and the maple tree’s awakening biological system on the evolution of a maple syrup’s flavour cannot be overstressed. Nor can the impact of the systems for collecting, filtering, and boiling down the maple sap to its ideal sugar concentration of 66.5 brix.
Some lament the advent of modern technology in the sugar bush and yearn for the old days when wood smoke, fire and tradition were the heart and soul of the sugaring season. It’s certainly true that the efficiencies afforded by a combination of high-brix concentration, flueless pans, and diesel evaporators have the potential to produce technically perfect and totally uninspiring maple syrup, devoid of traditional flavours or regional identity. Yet this isn’t always the case.
If a producer is so inclined, they can monitor sap temperature, yeast and bacteria cell counts, and wait for the perfect moment to begin a very controlled evaporation process employing a specific combination of heat and time to produce a maple syrup that truly expresses all of its natural potential. We know more about maple syrup today than ever before, and making a truly exceptional batch remains a captivating and complex process.
Every farmer has their own approach to producing maple syrup, and every farm has a microclimate that inevitably affects a syrup’s quality and flavour. Each day of sunlight and rain within the woods, and each step in the production process – from the length of time the sap sits in a reservoir before it is boiled, to the concentration point at which the reverse osmosis system is set – contributes to an entirely unique maple syrup. 
This uniqueness is worthy of exploration, but in truth this can only be done if we indulge ourselves in buying maple syrup directly from the farmer. This is because most of maple syrup’s nuanced and complex flavours – floral, fruity, earthy and herbaceous – are lost in the mix as soon as the spring sugaring season comes to an end. At this point, the majority of the world’s maple syrup is scooped up by the large packing companies, blended for a standard, boring flavour, and shipped off to the local supermarket with generic labels.
It is doubtful that we will ever see the prestigious tasting panels of the world of wine applying their gustatory brilliance to the judgement of maple syrup, but for those interested, maple syrup direct from the farm offers a delectable surprise.
ArticlesSarah CosmanComment