Maple Syrup's Whole World Is Changing

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
February 3, 2014

Photo: StockFood

Maple syrup has had a rough go of it lately.

NPR’s The Salt—which apparently counts among its reporters at least one waffle obsessive—has run two stories on the stuff in the last week: one on a sap discovery and another on grade inflation. And last September, the final member of a “maple syrup gang" responsible for an $18 million Canada sap theft was arrested.

What is going on out there? 

The Way It’s Graded Has Changed

Vermont no longer uses the grading system of A (light, medium, and dark ambers, representing a spectrum of light-to-medium flavor), and B (a robust, richer taste). Now, it’s labeling all syrup “grade A” across the board, classified from Grade A Golden (Delicate Taste) to Grade A Very Dark (Robust Taste). Not everyone is pleased. 

"Well, I think it’s kind of dumb," said Sandy Gebbie of small Greensboro, Vermont producer The Gebbies’ Maplehurst Farm. “What it’s doing, in my opinion is, there are big producers and there are little producers… when all of Vermont adopts it, [the big producers] can market more freely globally.” Gebbie thinks the new labels will confuse her customers: “I’ve been at this for 35 years. I’m going to have to start all over again, saying ‘Gee, you’d like ‘robust’ flavor’?”

The state has until the end of 2014 to adapt to the new rules, according to Gebbie, so we’ll be snapping up as much of the old-school Grade B bottles as we can, while we can. 

The Way It’s Harvested Has Changed

It’s possible that the current method for how to tap trees trees is a myth. “The time-honored method calls for inserting a tap near the bottom of a tall, mature maple tree,” reports NPR, because it’s thought that sap flows from the top of a tree to its bottom. But recent research suggests that not only do young saplings produce sap, but those with their tops lopped off do, too. “They capped them with a tube and put them under vacuum pressure,” NPR reports. “The small trees produced large amounts of sap, proving you don’t need old trees to make syrup.” The mystique of the old, thickly forested syrup forest could soon be lost to ugly, gangling groups of little crown-less trees.

The Way It’s Used Has Changed

Savory uses for maple syrup are on the rise, whether it’s in a chicken recipe, a cocktail or even a grilled cheese. As far as we’re concerned, it’s less pungent and much more flexible than honey.