discerning the sweet from the sweeter: a short history of maple syrup

This weekend, Vermont sugarhouses will open their doors to the public and welcome us to two full days of tours and maple-related festivities. If you live in New England, you probably know that Vermont is the largest U.S. producer of maple syrup, with nearly 2,000 maple producers! However, even if you are an avid consumer of the sweet stuff, you may not be savvy to syrup’s intricacies, or the history behind its production.

To begin with, although “A” commonly trumps “B” in typical grading systems, maple syrup does not necessarily follow suit. To fully understand the difference between the two, and the widespread understanding that “A” is better than “B,” we have to take a short look into New England history…

When colonists first set foot on American soil, the most desirable sweetener was white, crystalized, refined sugar imported from the West Indies. When colonists learned the lay of the land and the tricks of the syrup trade, the clearest, palest, early syrup was considered the highest quality because it most closely resembled white refined sugar. In fact, they even went so far as to pour the pale syrup into loaf pans to produce white sugar loaves, similar to sugar cubes.

Today, this pale, historically-coveted syrup is referred to as “grade A.” It is clear and sweet, and it is made from the sugaring season’s earliest sap. As the season progresses, the sap begins to thin out, and the sap-to-syrup ratio increases; each gallon of syrup requires increasingly more sap and must be boiled for increasingly longer periods of time. With longer boiling times, late-season sap results in thicker syrup with a higher sugar content, and a particularly robust maple flavor. Marketed as “grade B,” this late-season syrup packs a punch with flavor, and more often than not, offers you a better bang for your buck. Although grade A’s higher price implies higher quality, the two grades do not exist in a clear-cut hierarchy. Rather, they have distinct flavors and each offer unique taste experiences.

While syrup’s long shelf-life makes it easily attainable year round, we’re currently in the second half of the sugaring season, and the chance to learn about sugaring first hand is at our finger tips! If you don’t want to travel as far as Vermont, check out New Hampshire’s weekend festivities, Maine’s Maple Sunday, or Connecticut’s vast array of sugaring houses. Better yet, head over to Western Massachusetts, and take your pick out of 300 different maple syrup producers.

For more listings about maple syrup events, check out Discover New England, and if you’re interested in learning more about the history behind maple syrup, the Atlantic’s article, Making the Grade will ceratinly do the trick.

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