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March 15. 2014 9:11PM

Forest Journal: Making the grade in the syrup biz


Maple syrup soon will be classified as "Grade A," with subclassifications ranging from "Golden, Delicate Taste" to "Very Dark, Strong Taste." (COURTESY)


A traditional maple syrup grading set, used by sugar-makers to determine classification. An empty sample jar, left, is filled with syrup and compared to the colors to its right. Whichever it matches is the grade of the batch the sample came from. JACK SAVAGE 

MAPLE SYRUP - the making and the marketing of it - is at once as simple as can be and surprisingly complicated.

Making the naturally sweet treat is as easy as drilling a hole in a sugar maple tree, collecting the sap that runs out of it and then boiling the sap down until it's as sweet and thick as you like it. Just add pancakes. Or waffles. Or ice cream. Or, for the truly decadent, maybe just a straw.

But there are at least three things that conspire to complicate such a simple recipe. First, any time a man has the chance to invent all sorts of gadgets that he simply must have in order to properly accomplish a task, history has shown that he will do exactly that.

I learned to make maple syrup on family land in the upper elevations of the mountains of West Virginia (yes, there are sugar maples that far south - for now, anyway). We used a bit and brace to drill a hole and hand-carved wooden spiles stuck in the hole to funnel the sap into an odd assortment of water buckets and kitchen pots and pans. We boiled it in a kettle over an open fire, and it was delicious.

Today, I'm just a small-scale hobbyist, but instead of a kettle, I have a purpose-built, raised-flue evaporator with a separate syrup pan sitting on a firebox equipped with a blower, with fresh sap feeding automatically as the roaring wood fire boils it down. Leading up to the start of the season, I pore over catalogs of sugar-making supplies showing off the latest, greatest gewgaws that are guaranteed to increase production, promote tree health or save labor while making maple syrup.

If I bought all the tools and gadgets I thought I needed and still wanted to sell my syrup at a profit, I'd have to charge about $300 a gallon, which is about six times the going rate. It's a perfect way to make a small fortune if you're starting out with a large one.

The second complicating factor is that maple syrup is - as I hope you noticed this morning at breakfast - food. And thus there are not only certain expectations and minimum standards for cleanliness and lack of contamination, but also market demands for consistent quality. That means there are specific rules to follow about the kind of equipment one uses, bottling temperature, viscosity, etc. The reputation of real maple syrup rests in every sugar maker's hands.

The third complication is what to call the stuff. It's maple syrup, sure, but one fellow's top-grade stuff probably should be the same as the next fellow's top-grade stuff, so the consumer knows what he's getting when he digs deep to pay for the real deal.

For a while now, we sugarmakers have agreed to describe our product by color as Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B. Grade B often comes with the qualifier that it is of no lower quality than Grade A but rather just darker and more "mapley" in flavor.

Some folks will tell you that they like the taste of Grade B better. Some syrup makers will tell you it's the best, too, but there's a chance that might be because their shelves are empty of Grade A. After all, the best stuff of all is the stuff you've got.

But just as I was never able to convince my parents that the "B" on my report card was just as good as an "A," the industry has never been able to dissuade consumers of the perception that somehow Grade B is the underachiever of the syrup family. So for some time now, the International Maple Syrup Association (yes, there is one) has been considering new, simpler names for the different grades of maple syrup. After all, if the most excellent beer can be light or dark, why shouldn't all shades of maple be equally valued?

Thus you soon will begin to see Grade A: Golden, Delicate Taste; Grade A: Amber, Rich Taste; Grade A: Dark, Robust Taste; and Grade A: Very Dark, Strong Taste. But no Grade B.

And it should go without saying that the best of these are New Hampshire-made, though there are rumors that a few people in Maine and Vermont occasionally get around to making a gallon or two.

My advice? Better get the last of the Grade B while you still can. 'Cause I hear they aren't making it anymore, and it's so good, it might even be worth $300 a gallon.

To learn more about sugar making, visit one of New Hampshire's many sugar houses this season. The Forest Society's Rocks Estate hosts the NH Maple Experience, which you can learn about by visiting www.therocks.org.

"Forest Journal" is published every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire's Conservation Magazine, published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at jsavage@forestsociety.org.


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