Maple Syrup – An Upside Down World Where A1 Isn’t Always Best, And ‘Original’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Pure’

“Growing up in Quebec, I found the winters brutal. Sure we had crisp, sunny days that put a swing in my step …and I loved the end-of-winter tradition of  ‘sugaring off’ when the sap of maple trees is boiled into a syrup and eaten on snow cones in the forest.”

Jini Reddy, quoted in Winter, edited by Melissa Harrison

I, too, was brought up in Québec in Canada, which means I was pretty much brought up on maple syrup and it went into everything. Obviously over pancakes, but also over ice cream, in salad dressings, on sausages, as a glaze for roast chicken, in a sweet soufflé, with brussels sprouts and bacon, with butternut squash mash… I always keep a bottle of it in the fridge ready for the next creative, inspirational application. Chef Massimo Bottura uses his in his foie-gras-filled apple pudding!

But now there’s a problem. I have an absolute horror of becoming one of those obsessive, earnest types who go around shops peering short-sightedly at labels, but I can see it is going to happen!

The table below gives the equivalent USA/Canadian grading systems and a description.

Beware of very misleading labelling of maple syrup

Why? It’s all to do with maple syrup. In 2008 there was a bad harvest of maple syrup in Québec, in Canada where 80% of the world’s maple syrup comes from. In the UK, where sterling was struggling, the price doubled. So a small importer in Wales began mixing the liquid gold with carob syrup – and it’s now on sale with at least one major retailer as ‘Clark’s Original Maple Syrup’.

Don’t be fooled – this is nothing like the real thing. Pure maple syrup starts off as sap in the maple tree. The cold climate in Québec and New England (especially Vermont) encourages the trees to store starch in their trunks and roots for the winter, and this starch turns into sugar. In the spring, the sugar rises in the sap.

If you are based in Europe, and want to be absolutely certain of the quality of the syrup you are buying go to the Pure Maple site.

all about maple syrup
Jakeman’s Canada No 1 Medium going onto ice cream… fabulous resiny taste

All maple syrup has the same sugar content

The ‘sugaring’ season is about a month long, and takes place in February to April dependent on the latitude. A small hole is made with a drill, and sap drips out into a bucket. The sap is converted into syrup by evaporation. About 35-50 (depending on sugar content) gallons of sap are needed to make one bucket of syrup. All maple syrup has the same (66% on the Brix scale) sugar content (the only thing to be said in favour of Clark’s Original is that it has a lower sugar content and so is probably ‘healthier’), but the taste varies.

The taste varies according to when the maple syrup is harvested

Sugar produced at the beginning of the season has a lighter colour and is sweeter. As the season progresses it becomes darker and stronger becoming first ‘medium amber’, then ‘dark amber’, then, according to US grading system (why don’t they just use the Canadian system? Well, there are signs of some simplification, see below)  ‘grade b’ which means it is less than 44% translucent; or a No 3 under the Canadian grading system. In my book anyway (I like my whisky peaty) this is the top graded, most delicious, most maple-tasting syrup.  Waitrose Amber, No 2 is not bad – No 3 is almost impossible to find, even in Canada.

The different grading systems for maple syrup

Canada produces about 80% of the world’s maple syrup so you would think that it made sense that the Canadian grading system did for everyone. But the Americans have their own, different system, and within the States, Vermont (which produces about 5% of world production, with a slightly higher product density) has developed yet another. However, thankfully, at the end of 2013 Vermont authorities realised that their system was just confusing for the international market, and they have taken steps to bring their grading system more in line. In January 2015 the US Department of Agriculture announced a new grading structure for the voluntary standards aimed at being more understandable internationally. The USDA has specific definitions for colour (eg ‘golden colour’ has a light transmittance of not less than 75%Tc) and density (the light colour maple syrup must be between 36 degrees Baume [66.9 degrees Brix] to 37 degrees Baume [68.9 degrees Brix] at 60°F.)

USA 2015
Note: all syrups except processing grade must include a batch code
Vermont 2013
Note: may be used within the State of Vermont until 1 January 2017. Thereafter US grades apply
No1 extra light (AA)golden colour and delicate tastegolden, delicate taste
No1 light (A)amber colour and rich tasteamber, rich taste
No 1 medium (B) amber, rich taste TO dark, robust taste
No 2 amberdark colour and robust tastedark,robust taste
No 3 darkvery dark colour and strong tastevery dark, strong taste (not previously available in the retail market)
  processing grade – may not be sold packagedprocessing grade

Which grade is buckwud?

One of the best known makes of maple syrup is the Canadian Buckwud – the company gives a brief history of maple syrup on the label, but no grading information. After a determined internet search it seems that it is a ‘dark colour and robust taste’ . Now I’m curious – why is this Canadian company using the US grading system? It’s a brand developed specifically for the UK market.

More than 70% of the world’s maple syrup is produced in the Canadian province of Quebec. Production runs under a contested type of cartel system controlled by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. The Federation is approved by the provincial government which in 1990 became the only wholesale seller in the province. Later in 2004 the Federation gained further less popular powers enabling it to specify which producers can make maple syrup and how much they can make. The idea was that the Federation could stockpile syrup if necessary and iron out the market effects of lean years. However, production is now increasingly mechanised and some producers want the freedom to sell on the open international market.

maple syrup
… and they said “it’s gud”

For other posts and recipes about maple syrup go to:

For a specialist book, read Maple Syrup by Casey Elsass

For an update on the effect of climate change on the American production, read this excellent article in The Financial Times.

Canadian maple cookies recipe
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Domini Hogg

Thank you for sharing your pancake tips. I had no idea you could freeze pancakes!

Domini Hogg

also, is the last pancake tosser Mary Beard?

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