Pure maple syrup has long been recognized as an all-natural substitute for processed sugars. In recent years, maple syrup has also been classified as a superfood, due to its potential health benefits. However, the reason consumers keep coming back year after year, is the unique irresistible flavor that is enjoyed all year. Consumers often ask, “What causes the color and flavor variations of maple syrup?” The maple season supplies some clues.
The maple season begins when the temperature rises above freezing during the day and drops below freezing at night. This causes sap to flow cold and clear from the tree. Syrup produced from this sap is light in color and delicate in taste. As the season progresses, the sap loses some of its pristine characteristics, producing syrup that is darker and stronger in flavor. At the end of the season, tree buds begin to open, forming new leaves. This results in a strong flavor and a syrup that is no longer palatable. During the maple-producing months of February and March, a broad range of maple syrup colors and flavors are produced, providing consumers with a variety of grades to choose from.
USDA Grade A maple syrup standards
Maple syrup must meet United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. All USDA Grade A maple syrup must be 100% pure with no additives. It must have a minimum density of 66 brix, equal to 66% sugar. Individual state requirements may vary. Syrup that is less than 66% sugar can spoil quickly. Syrup with a density above 67% sugar is prone to crystallization. This in no way detracts from the flavor. In fact, many consumers like a thicker syrup, and will gladly put up with a few sugar crystals in the bottom of the container.
The New International Grading System
Many American consumers were accustomed to the original maple grading standard of USDA Grade A Light, Medium, and Dark, along with Grade B. In the fall of 2013, the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) adopted a new set of grading standards for maple syrup. The IMSI took into consideration the best characteristics of the Canadian grading standard and the USDA Grade A standard, combining them into a new international grading standard. This standard is made up of four grades that apply to all maple syrup produced in North America:
- Golden Delicate Maple Syrup with a Delicate Taste
- Amber Rich Maple Syrup with a Rich Taste
- Dark Robust Maple Syrup with Robust Taste
- Very Dark Strong Maple Syrup with a Strong Taste
Each of the maple grades has its own unique color and flavor. The addition of the flavor descriptors added clarity for consumers wanting to differentiate between grades.
Which Grade Do You Prefer?
For maple syrup consumers, the first question that comes to mind is, “Why select one grade over another?” The answer is a matter of personal preference, and to a lesser degree, how and where you use the product. Lighter-colored grades are often used to add richness to an entree. The darker grades are used to supply a distinct maple flavor. With three grades to choose from, the culinary combinations are limited only by one’s imagination.
Golden Delicate: A maple syrup with a golden color and a mild delicate maple flavor.
When maple flavor experts taste Golden Delicate, they quickly pick out its subtle maple, almost nutty, sometimes buttery flavor. This has traditionally been viewed as the Holy Grail of maple syrup. It is the grade that maple producers have built their reputation on. Golden Delicate is often referred to as first-run syrup because it is most often produced during the wintry weather at the start of the season. This grade excels as a topping for ice cream or on specialty deserts. It also adds a very subtle maple flavor to an entrée without distracting from the entrée’s flavor.
Amber Rich: A maple syrup with a light amber color and a rich full-bodied taste.
Amber Rich has long been the standard of the industry. Amber Rich is darker than Golden Delicate, with a slightly more pronounced maple flavor. This grade adds a rich maple flavor to pancakes, waffles, or French toast. It is also versatile enough to use in maple cooking where a sweet, subtle maple flavor is wanted without distracting from the taste of the entrée. Traditionally, Amber Rich has been a consumer favorite.
Dark Robust: A dark syrup with a pronounced robust maple taste.
Dark Robust gained popularity with consumers over the last decade. This grade has a dark color with a wholesome, very identifiable, maple flavor. Its darker color gives it the appearance of a richer, thicker darker consistency, yet the density and clarity are the same as the lighter grades. It is preferred by buyers who are looking for a full-bodied maple flavor. This is a versatile syrup that goes well on a stack of pancakes or in your favorite recipe. It shines when making toppings or glazes, maple cakes or pies, and of course, maple bread pudding.
Very Dark Strong: A very dark syrup with a strong taste.
The Dark Strong grade often comes from syrups made late in the season. It has a dark signature color and strong flavor that is unmistakable. Maple contest judges do not consider Dark Strong a table grade. For this reason, it is not included in most maple syrup contests. It is used primarily for cooking. When a recipe, like maple-baked beans, barbecue sauce, or marinades, calls for a pronounced maple flavor, Dark Strong adds an unmistakable maple taste. People who like cooking with maple should keep this grade in the back of their refrigerator.
Storage and Packaging
It makes no difference if maple syrup is bought in a plastic jug or glass container—all are approved food-safe. Refrigerated maple syrup will keep for months, but be sure to follow the “Refrigerate after opening” directions on the container. For long-term storage, consider placing the container in the freezer. Maple syrup placed in the freezer will keep for several years. If syrup is not refrigerated and mold forms at the top of the container, do not throw the product out. Simply bring the syrup to a boil, quickly remove it from the stove, rinse out the original container, and then repack the syrup in the original container. Do not boil the syrup for an extended period as it will become cloudy and need to be re-filtered.
In today’s market, the top three grades are priced the same. Because the fourth grade, Very Dark Strong, is not considered a table grade, it is often sold at a modest reduction in price. There are many different price ranges in stores. The reason for this is due to the syrups’ origins and the locations where they are sold. This is especially true when buying from large wholesale outlets. Just like any other wholesale food product, maple syrup will often be sold at a lower price and its quality may be variable. One way to avoid uncertainty is to buy locally produced syrup. Syrup produced locally is a quality product that supports local farmers. Consumers also get to meet the folks involved in the production of pure maple syrup. You can round out your local buying experience with the purchase of value-added products not found in the larger grocery chains.
Choose from a Wide Variety of Maple Confections and Value-Added Products
Today the consumer has a wide variety of maple products to choose from. Many maple producers carry a full array of value-added maple products:
- maple sugar candy
- maple cream
- maple-coated nuts
- maple seasonings
- maple mustard
- maple barbecue sauce
- granulated maple sugar
- maple cotton candy
One of the most popular maple products is bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup. This bourbon-flavored maple syrup is stored for months in barrels used to age bourbon whisky. Syrup stored in a bourbon barrel takes on the flavor of the original product. Although the product uses 100% pure maple syrup as a base, it is no longer considered 100% pure. It is considered a value-added maple product and must be labeled as maple-flavored. Another maple product getting consumer attention are maple beverages and health drinks. These carbonated and non-carbonated products are becoming increasingly popular in health food markets across the nation. They supply a healthy alternative to beverages that contain high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners.
Maple Syrup Quality and Health Benefits
Consumers are more conscious of how and where their food is produced. Increasingly they are demanding nutritious and healthy food products for their families. In a world of processed food, it is refreshing to find a product like maple syrup that not only tastes good but is good for you. In a comparison of the nutritional value of pure maple syrup to other popular sweeteners, pure maple syrup has more beneficial minerals and vitamins. Independent nutritional studies have labeled maple syrup as a super food. These studies have found that it not only has valuable minerals and vitamins, but it also has antioxidants that are beneficial to health and wellness. No matter if it is light and delicate or dark and robust, 100% pure maple syrup is the healthy all-natural choice.
Heiligmann, Randall, Melvin Koelling, and Timothy Perkins. 2006. North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual, Second Edition. Columbus: Ohio State University Extension in cooperation with the North American Maple Syrup Council. PDF. https://holmes.osu.edu/sites/holmes/files/imce/Program_Pages/Maple/North....
IMSI (International Maple Syrup Institute). 2012. “Welcome to the IMSI website.” http://www.internationalmaplesyrupinstitute.com/.