Pure maple syrup is a true breakfast pleasure, right up there with hot coffee, thick-cut bacon and a warm breeze blowing in through an open window. But most of what’s consumed here in the US isn’t maple syrup at all: it’s a corn syrup-based goo gussied up with maternal branding like Mrs. Butterworth and Aunt Jemima. The real stuff is scarcer and more expensive because it’s made exclusively from the sap of the sugar maple tree.
Sugar maple trees only grow in the chill of Northeast America and eastern Canada. Their sap is scarce: it can only only be collected during a four- to six-week period known as “sugaring season”, which usually begins at the end of March. With winter’s grip softening, maple trees mix water absorbed via root with sugar formed during photosynthesis, which forms sap. The short window of below-freezing nights and roughly 45-degree Fahrenheit days causes the sap to thaw, expand, run and become easier to collect.
Does Maple Syrup Get Better with Age?
Everybody wants to put a little age in their food and spirits these days. But unlike world-class bourbon or dry-aged beef, pure maple syrup has a lifespan of about two or three years and doesn’t really get better with age. Checking the syrup’s “best-by” date is one way to make sure it’s still pancake-worthy, but it’s also a good way to estimate when the syrup was produced (most bottles don’t divulge that). What all this means is that you shouldn’t wait too long to break the seal on the bottle. Also it’s important to remember that once its seal is broken, pure maple syrup goes in the fridge, not the pantry.
The people who make pure maple syrup, known as sugar makers, either collect sap the old-fashioned way with individual buckets, or they use a system of tubes to syphon sap directly from trees to storage tanks. Right from the tree, sap is roughly 2 percent sugar. To become maple syrup, it goes into an evaporator, gets boiled to 219 degrees and is given time to caramelize. Then, it’s filtered, graded and bottled. The whole process, from tree to bottle, takes around 18 hours. The finished maple syrup is about 66 percent sugar, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Pure maple syrup is a nutrient-rich elixir that contains natural fibers, minerals, fats and proteins. And from a taste perspective, it possesses a rich and complex flavor that other sweeteners can’t touch. These are the best maple syrups from five states in America’s Northeast. To find out which one you like best, whip up a short stack of pancakes and do your own research.
The Maple Syrup Grading System
Not all maple syrups are alike. It’s not even a given that syrups produced from the same tree, at the same time, will be identical. The color, flavor and density of syrup vary depending on the amount of bacteria in the sap during the collection process. But that doesn’t mean one syrup is better than another — they’re just different. In the past, darker, more robust syrups were classified “Grade B”. But this was considered degrading to different flavors of syrup. The new grading system has gotten rid of “Grade B” altogether, and now distinguishes each syrup by taste, not color. Here are the basics:
Grade A, Golden Color with Delicate Flavor: A light and sweet syrup that is produced throughout the sugaring season, popular for waffles, French toast and pancakes.
Grade A, Amber Color with Rich Flavor: A slightly stronger and sweeter syrup than the Grade A Gold, it’s also popular on all syrup-laden breakfasts.
Grade A, Dark Color with Robust Flavor: Probably too strong for the breakfast table, this syrup is used more commonly as a dessert topping or baking sweetener.
Grade A, Very Dark Color with Strong Flavor: With the strongest maple flavor out of any of the above syrups, it’s used in baking or for people with a very refined sweet tooth.
Editor’s Pick: 50 years after Mickey Cochran started a small skiing resort in Richmond, Vermont, his grandchildren decided to tap into the 20,000+ maple trees on the property. That was in 2010. Today, Slopeside Syrup produces three types of maple syrup: Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Fancy Grade.
Fadden’s Maple Syrup
Best of New Hampshire: Fadden’s is a fifth-generation family business that’s been operating out of the same sugarhouse since 1896. Their sugar maple orchard is located in White Mountain National Forest, not too far away from NH’s recently deceased “Old Man of the Mountain”. In 2015 Fadden’s won their second consecutive (and seventh overall) Lawrence A. Carlisle Memorial Trophy for excellence in maple syrup production by the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association (NHMPA). Because of 2015’s long winter, their sugaring season started toward the end of February, which is late by their standards, and will run until the end of April.
Crown Maple Syrup
Best of New York: Founded in 2010, Crown Maple doesn’t have the history of other maple syrup companies. But they’re quickly making a name for themselves in the Northeast. On Madava Farms, Crown Maple collects sap from over 40,000 trees on 2,500 acres in upstate New York’s Taconic Hardwood Forest. Along with producing four grades of USDA-certified syrups, they also encourage customers to take a tour of their farm and learn how maple syrup is produced.
Hilltop Boilers Pure Maine Maple Syrup
Best of Maine: Just over New Hampshire’s border in southwestern Maine, Hilltop Boilers has been in business for over 30 years and through four generations. Each year, they tap their healthiest trees and collect the sap buckets daily throughout sugaring season. When it comes to Maine maple syrup, these guys are a perennial powerhouse, winning award after award. Most recently they were awarded the Best Maple Syrup in Maine for 2015 by Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Brown Family Farm
Best of Vermont: On each bottle of Brown Family Farms maple syrup is a cow and a barn, which accurately reflects the company’s ethos of simplicity. They collect sap in buckets and produce syrup in small batches. Although they make a variety of pure maple syrups, the jewel in their crown is their New England Grade A Dark Amber, which they claim is the perfect pancake syrup.