Pass the Sweet Stuff

Maple syrup gets a face-lift

Oct 7, 2014
Outside Magazine
Maple Syrup athletes

Line of Maple Syrup Buckets    Photo: nanjan/Thinkstock

While you were busy flipping flapjacks, the maple-syrup business has been going through a major upheaval. Scientists have developed a new harvesting technique that will transform the industry, and this winter a new grading system will debut. Don’t panic—we’re here to walk you through everything you need to know.

Advances in Science

Modern producers tap vast groves of adult sugar maples. The method requires patience and a lot of land: the maples take 
30 years to mature, and an acre of trees produces only about 40 gallons of syrup per season. Which is why the premium stuff, like Shady Maple Farms, can cost $35 a quart. Change is afoot, however. A project at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center found that mature trees aren’t necessary. Scientists cut the crowns from two-inch-thick saplings, sealed the cuts with plastic bags, and used vacuum pressure to draw out the sap. The younger trees don’t produce as much, but because they can be densely planted, yields have reached as high as 300 gallons per acre.

So should producers start cutting their trees? Not just yet, says plant biologist Abby van den Berg, who helped pioneer the technique. The University of Vermont is still patenting the necessary equipment. But the method could expand the industry and increase output in the face of climate change, which is already shortening the season. 

New Classification System

Most people assume that Grade A syrup is better than Grade B, but Grade A just means lighter in color, and some prefer the flavor of Grade B. As it happens, the grades will be replaced this winter. Dave Chapeskie, executive director of the International Maple Syrup Institute in Ontario, says the new system will use four designations, similar to the way cheddars are rated from mild to extra sharp.

Golden: Thin, delicate taste; try mixing it into a cocktail.
Amber: Ample and rich; enough body to hold up on pancakes.
Dark: Hearty, robust; aficionados love its deep maple complexity.
Very Dark: Bold, strong taste; good for baking.

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