The Unofficial Field Guide to American Maple Syrup: Exploring the potential one lick at a time
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
This Unofficial Field Guide is dedicated to The Inner Circle: friends, families, and neighbors who have all cheered on the exploration of artisanal maple syrup. They’ve hauled sap, tended evaporators, evaluated scores of batches, prepared food, played music, kept us laughing, and generally demonstrated the stickiness of “mapling”—it brings people together in fellowship, and for that we are eternally grateful.
This field guide would not be possible but for one amazing syrup maker, Paul T. Haldeman. It is his love of all things natural, and his relentless pursuit of The Deliberate that unmasked the beauty of Whole Maple for so many. Due thanks must also go to all of our Tasters, but most especially Jeri Haldeman and Susan Zabriskie, who have discerned and evaluated every batch, crafted amazing recipes with what they found, and been amazing ambassadors both near and far. Thanks also to Will McCulloch, who crafted our original website and for providing the motivation to relaunch something uniquely our own; Patricia Nelson (Grandma Pat) for setting up a first class syrup cellar and letting us tap her trees; Jose Rene Martinez, our friend who assisted greatly in standardizing the Simplified Syrup Assessment process; and Dave and Susan Haldeman who supported acquisition of land for sap collection and trees to fill our sap buckets.
First a disclaimer: This unofficial field guide is more “traveler notes” than “scientific study,” but is is born of love and it needed to be written.
An attorney by trade (too obvious, with “first a disclaimer”?!?), I fell into syrup making rather by accident. After emerging from a taxing domestic reorganization, I adopted a social, neighborhood-centric lifestyle which often involved ending my days with dinner, wine and conversation with my fellow rural expats (expats here describing, loosely, a socially-isolated [by choice] yet socially-inclined group of persons with time for dinner and solving the large and small troubles of the world). It was on one of these evenings, deep in the dark and snowy nights of February, where my neighbor, Paul, suggestively noted that between our farms there were approximately 10,000-sugar maple trees…wouldn’t it be grand to make syrup? Why yes! was my unconsidered reply, whereupon life quickly devolved into a sticky sweet amalgam of sugar, spice, and everything nice. More precisely, it became an obsession soaking up any non-day job moments, but in a good way. Syrup is sticky like that.
What the ensuing exploration revealed was that syrup was as complex as wine from a grapevine or a coffee bean, yet not nearly as considered. Yes, some scientific analysis has been completed, and yes, there even exist some passing nods to flavor variations; but the principal dialect of syrup assessment has been binomial: color and intensity. In our dining room analysis, this was a sacrilege akin to describing all wine as either “white” or “red” and leaving it at that. Obviously, there was so much more to experience.
This pocket guide is a blunt instrument. It will equip you and your friends with block-and-chisel syrup analytic tools sufficient to pry a pancake away from your thought process, yet refined enough to give you questions to ask and spark your creative juices. Head out there! Ask questions! Analyze! Utilize! We only live once that we know of, and we want you to taste all that trees have to offer.
Chapter 1 Origins
Any self-respecting field guide needs to remind you from whence it came, and what a cool origin story there is with maple syrup.
Maple syrup is a distinctly North American creation, and has its roots in the agricultural/silvicultural practices of indigenous North Americans. More on this shortly. Maple syrup is also distinctly North American because the region perfectly combines the trees, acer saccharum and acer rubrum (Sugar Maple and Red Maple, respectively), and the climate, with agreeable freeze/thaw cycles. It is generally accepted that the first utilization of maple sap as food was by the indigenous North American people. Since this population is not known to have metal cookware, it is surmised that they concentrated collected sap by adding fire-heated rocks to cause evaporation and hence, concentration. Another possibility appears to be that the sap was concentrated by leaving it exposed to freezing temperatures each night overnight, then removing the surface ice, thereby concentrating the sap to a more stable density. No doubt it was a valued commodity being utilized as both a beverage as well as a foodstuff in some format.
Interestingly, these early uses and processing methods provide clues into modern processing possibilities. These indigenous roots, however, establish maple syrup as one of the most distinctive non-European agricultural traditions of North America. It is unlikely that the delicate saps could have been processed quickly enough or thoroughly enough to sustain a year-long supply, but this is not necessarily the case.
With the addition of metal technology, maple production changed rapidly (and processing times decreased dramatically) with the advent of taps, sap buckets, and metal flat bottomed evaporation pans heated over a blazing fire or arch. For colonial Americans, maple sap was processed into granulated sugar as well as syrup for daily use. Records from 1860 indicate that U.S. sugar makers reported production of 6,613,000 gallons, reflecting twice as much maple processed when compared to 2013. As reported in Farming Magazine, syrup consumption averaged 27-ounces per person in 1860, and a mere 1-ounce per person by 1970, thanks in great part to the large scale arrival of white granulated sugar and corn syrup. Current consumption rates are right around 2.5-ounces per person annually (except for in our neighborhood where it’s more like 2.5 gallons per person).
In the early years of colonial American syrup making, it was all about getting it done, and the processing was down-and-dirty, firing the evaporators with anything available and making as much syrup as possible. De-foaming agents were often any greasy substance available, whether that be a sausage or a hotdog floating in the boiling sap. Older neighbors of ours recount throwing discarded rubber tires in the arch fire, which served double duty: a long-burning, hot fire, and one less old tire for the farm dump. Courtships blossomed during syrup season, as young adults tended the overnight boils. This was—and remains—a season of “all hands on deck.”
Clearly, there has been a line-drive toward efficiency from the “early days” of sugaring to today. In that pursuit, the focus has always been on the prize: maple sugar. For contemplation, however, is what has been lost or bypassed along the way, and how might those impact the gustatory experience.
Chapter 2: COMMODITY SYRUP: From Hot Rocks to Reverse Osmosis and High-Pressured Filtration
American syruping operates with relatively few regulatory “controls”—thank you very much! The industry has worked cooperatively, however, to establish basic requirements pertaining to contamination, adulteration, color and flavor intensity. The number one consideration has been to get the sap to the specified concentration of sugar as quickly and as efficiently as possible. We’ve come a long way from hot rocks and floating ice. This can be a very swift process.
Bottomline, your commodity syrup is going to start as 100% tree sap, and it is going to be processed to a concentration of 66-Brix sugar. What happens in between—the collection and processing methods—is going to define “commodity syrup” for purposes of this field guide.
“Commodity” as defined by Merriam Webster is a many-nuanced thing, and it is not meant herein to be derogatory. There is an important role for commodity maple syrup. In our mass produced society, maple syrup-even on the commercial market-fiercely retains some of its individuality and advantages. Notwithstanding, it is important to understand some of what has typically occurred prior to market entry. (For a more comprehensive narrative on how the commodity syrup market operates, read The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest by Douglas Whynott, which discusses in some depth to conglomeration of maple syrup crops for filling orders and branding on the commodity market.)
Starting with collection, most large maple producers have converted to vacuum tube systems to collect sap by applying suction on the trees and deliver it to tanks or directly to a processing building (it seems to have outgrown the colloquial name of sugarhouse!). Utilization of vacuum on the tubing lines also permits producers to overcome a tree’s reticence to release sap on low pressure days (for example, when is it a little too cloudy, a little too warm, or a little too anything else as those of us who have watched a tree not flow can attest). Vacuum systems can dramatically improve (even double) collected sap yields over what a tree will release on its own.
In terms of processing, another important technical advance has been the creation of reverse osmosis (“RO”), now a part of even the smallest new syrup making operations. Reverse osmosis is technology which makes it more feasible to rapidly concentrate sap into syrup at large scale. It takes whole sap and presses it through membranes to strip away molecules of water which would otherwise have been lost in the evaporation process. The membranes are not, however, water molecule-specific, so it is acknowledged that the byproduct of RO contains water, but also a percentage of other small molecules such as certain minerals, volatile compounds, etc. Depending upon how many times the sap is run through RO will impact how much water, and how many of these other trace elements are stripped from the sap. Some estimate that as of 2013, 90% of the syrup sold commercially had been made with syrup stripped by reverse osmosis. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/us/maple-syrup-takes-turn-toward-technology.html.
Perhaps the third most important processing component of commodity syrup is the utilization of high-pressured filtration of the finished product, typically through diatomaceous earth and stacked paper filters. The purpose of this filtration is to clarify the syrup by removing the naturally occurring mineral load commonly referred to as “sugar sand” or “niter” so that the final product is very clear for commercial appeal.
Another consideration when looking at commodity syrup is provenance. Sadly, American labeling requirements do not require source attribution, preferring instead identification of manufacturer or distributor. Net result? Reading a label does not give the consumer actual, sugar bush-level source attribution of the product inside. This may be the more honest approach because in most instances, the product is an amalgam of syrups from many different locations which have been blended and bottled by a distributor. Nevertheless, beware the bottled syrup which obliquely notes a farm name, as that is not an assurance that the syrup is their own. Many such syrups are simply purchased on the bulk market (American and/or Canadian) and bottled for sellers like this.
But what about organic? What does that mean in the maple syrup commodity market? Good question. Organic often means you have the nice slow, regular growth that adds micronutrients to food, and we feel good about that. In syrup, the trees are generally not going to be treated with chemicals, so organic certification in this instance is more focussed on equipment and cleaning methods: all good, but really not focussed on overall syrup quality or the processing methods, per say.
Commodity syrup–all syrup–must be labeled to denote the color and the intensity of the (unspecified) flavor. Regulatory color/intensity designations are laid out as “golden” with “delicate” intensity, “amber” with “rich” intensity, “dark” with “robust” intensity, and “very dark” and “strong taste”. Frankly, these often have us scratching our head, since none of these are particularly descriptive, nor are they descriptive of the flavor itself. Some argue that there are predictable flavors fitting into the four general categories, yet prefer to keep things simple, assuming that maple is itself a flavor that consumers recognize. We beg to differ, but perhaps in the commodity market, due in large part to the processing methods, the flavors are more muted and the end result is a sweet but not particularly distinctive product. In the olden days, the lightest syrups were designated by some as “fancy” because they tended to have less complexity of flavor and more closely resembled refined white sugar–a delicacy at the time.
Commodity syrup is necessary on the marketplace, and can be purchased for reasonable prices. Further, it remains a natural product with some variability to sensory perception. Overall, however, it is increasingly a standardized product in every sense of the word. Taste it! Evaluate it! You will find differences and stories told in these bottles as well, although it may not be necessarily tied to place.
Chapter 3: Infused Syrups
The next category of syrups to consider are the infused syrups. And I am going to give these relatively little discussion, because, let’s face it, if you need to add a flavor to make something have a flavor, you pretty much don’t need to think about it too much. Yes, that’s right, syrup infused with flavors from other products (apparently more flavorful products), is what we’re talking about here. In this category, you’ll find syrups infused with vanilla, bourbon, peppers, coffee, and pretty much anything else. Without a doubt, these infused syrups start off with a commodity syrup of some unascertainable origin (foreign or domestic, since many “USA” made infused syrups start with a Canadian maple base [nothing against Canadian syrups, but the entire labeling scenario can be very confusing!]), and then flavor is added, typically by soaking the flavorful product in the syrup or vice versa.
Advantages to infused syrups, like other commodity syrups, is consistency and predictability. If you have a uniform base syrup and add a vanilla bean, you appreciate that the dominant tone will be that vanilla bean. If you soak a relatively neutral commodity syrup in a bourbon barrel, you’re going to end up with a sweet syrup which has a dominant tone of bourbon. This is rather self-explanatory, but in our opinion totally diminishes the amazingness of the syrup itself. It’s like mulled wine—yummy, but not so much about the quality of the wine. Evaluate and enjoy these syrups, but recognize that they are really something entirely different. ‘Nough said.
Chapter 4: Whole Syrups & Artisanal Processing
In specialty coffee, this sort of movement is described as Third Wave (and some say there is even now a Fourth Wave). What is this coffee waving, you inquire? Essentially it was initiated by enthusiasts who recognized that coffee beans were the product of place, just like wine. Terroir matters. Processing matters. And with this new focus, they have taken coffee beans from a standard which measured bean size, to open up a world of new sensory experiences.
We love it. And we love it in a “we, too” way, because maple is the same in that regard. The soils the trees grow in, the variabilities of an individual season, the changing climate all have an impact on the syrup. Processing has an impact on syrup. Gravitational pull of the moon impacts the syrup, drawing up significantly more minerals into the tree when the moon is full. Every single flow of the tree sap is an individual tree response to the environment at that moment in time, and you can taste it when you batch the syrups sequentially. So perhaps even more than coffee or wine (both of which we experience through the fruit), maple syrup as a flowing lifeblood of the tree is a uniquely delicious barometer of place.
This is exciting because it means that the connoisseur has the potential to taste through a season in an extraordinarily unique fashion. A chef can select the nuanced tones to perfectly accompany a roasted vegetable or soup. A pastry chef may discern the perfect complement to a confection. A barista may discriminately select a syrup to lift the flavors of a perfect roast, or chose to contrast the natural notes for an entirely new experience. Maple has so much more to offer than rehydrating a pancake (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
How “batchy” or minimally processed is where some of the art in “artisanal” comes into play, and this is a wide playing field.
The three basic parameters in artisanal processing are 1. sap; 2. temperature; and 3. filtering.
Sap. As discussed in commodity syrups, the sap itself it the starting point to tree syrups. How and where it is collected will influence the end product.
“Single source” is a phrased often used to denote saps collected from a single sugarbush or, perhaps region (this is a phrase of art, not legal definition, so ask questions!). In its purest form “single source” would be from a single tree—not very practical unless you are making syrup just for yourself at home (which you should do at least once!). The interesting part of “single source” is that each tree is literally planted and draws from the soils and the nutrients and the circumstances of that particular location. Soils on deep limestone versus soils predominated by granite, for example, will bring subtle regional variations in flavor. Flavor in syrup is derived from the trace minerals, volatile chemicals, and other micro-constituents contained in the sap. This handbook does not presume to be addressing the chemical constituencies of sap or finished syrups, but obviously there is a great deal of exploration which may be undertaken in this space.
Sap itself is, like blood, a biologic amalgam of fluid which will degrade rapidly if not properly managed. This, too, will have an impact on finished product, although the precise mechanism will undoubtedly change. So while we turn up our noses at spoiled milk, we pay good money for sour milk and yogurt. While we toss our moldy mozzarella shreds, we pay up for carefully cured Camembert. It is safe to presume that there is practically no research into how sap is maintained prior to boiling and the impact on sensory experience of the finished product. This is likely because we are trapped in a commodity syrup environment (very little artisanal exploration), and also because boiling the heck out of it removes any health hazard (no legal impetus because there isn’t a demonstrated public health concern).
Beyond location of sap collection and initial handling, sap batching is also a consideration. Sap does not flow from the trees like water from a faucet. Once tapped, a tree will release sap only in response to appropriate environmental conditions. When it does, it is termed a “flow.” Trees will release sap naturally when there is a variation of temperatures between freezing (typically at night) and thawing (typically in the daytime). Other considerations also come into play, for example barometric pressure. Warm, cloudy days are not as productive as sunny, blue sky days.
To take variability out of flow and to increase production, most commercial operations have moved to “vacuum” systems. This has eliminated some of the variabilities of natural flow by putting pressure on the trees and drawing sap which may have not “run” otherwise. Some artisanal producers rely on gravity feed techniques which largely defer to the trees’ inclination to share.
So what’s a batch? For the artisanal producer, it is separating sap by flow and processing it individually, because sap is not the same flow to flow. Traditionally, producers have roughly hit this concept with “good” then “buddy” syrup. “Buddy” syrup being the point when the leaves were beginning to push out, the quality of the sap changes to a cloudy color, and the complexity of flavor in the syrup is beyond what most users considered palatable. What was lost, however, was the recognition that each time the tree flows, it is in response to the needs of the trees on that day, and in response to the environmental conditions on that day. By batching the saps, the user can have a remarkable gustatory experience, exploring a point in time and place. Similarly, once batched, blending can occur to achieve particular results or highlight flavors and tones.
Bottomline: Questions to ask include the origin of the sap, features of the terroir, general sap handling procedures, and processing methods.
Chapter 5: A case study: Zoar Tapatree Company…Blazing a Trail Back to the Wilderness
Every unofficial field guide needs sponsors, so this is our shameless self-promotion part. You’ll love it. It’s short.
Recognizing the dramatic removal of whole sap syrups from the marketplace, Zoar Tapatree Co. went so far as to trademark the phrase “Whole Maple” to distinguish the Tapatree syrups as something unique. It’s not what we’re putting in, it’s what we’re not taking out. Make no mistake, this is not a high-volume approach! Our syrup maker, Paul, is going to great lengths to capture the freshest sap, boiled by batch then only minimally filtered with light, suspended filtration. Once the desired concentration is obtained, each batch is placed in glass settling jars to permit mineral load to naturally settled to the bottom over the course of several days. Once settling is complete, the syrup is decanted for bottling or placement in storage for later blending. The process of settling rather than utilizing high-pressured filtration maximizes the amount of mineral load left in suspension in the finished product. Beyond this basic processing, we have begun to explore unboiled syrups, and utilization of other tree saps, such as Northern Black Walnut. Although black walnut sap has been utilized for syrup making, Zoar Tapatree is taking full advantage of minimal processing and batches to drill down into the nuances which make it one of the most magical tree syrups.
After processing, each batch of Zoar Tapatree syrup also undergoes evaluation utilizing the Simplified Syrup Assessment developed in house to characterize the body, color, and flavor profile of the batch. This approach allows a dramatically more informed understanding of “what’s in the bottle,” and opens the door to a multitude of culinary uses.
And OH! there are so many amazing uses for whole maple syrup… Building on the natural synergy between specialty coffee and whole maple syrup, Tapatree can offer an all-around Whole Syrup for Coffee, or can pair individual batches with particular roast profiles to achieve the desired effect. The naturally occurring calcium in whole syrup offers a buffering effect to coffee acidity, smoothing a coffee when desired, and lifting the flavor profile of the coffee. The solubility of maple syrup makes it a wonderful addition to any liquid, virtually eliminating sugar drop out in hot or cold settings.
Sauces on meats, glazes on vegetables, salad dressings, drizzles over cheese, cocktails, mocktails, tea, or even on its own, whole maple can give your culinary experience a special little je ne sais quoi. And who doesn’t need a little more of that?
This Unofficial Field Guide is a work in progress. Check back for more information, photos (yeah, who is doing that part?!?), recipes, and other good stuff! We will be putting this in pocket format. Don’t worry, it will always fit in your pocket, no matter how small! Get tasting maple, y’all!
Deanna R. Nelson Copyright © 2018 All rights reserved.