5 Things You Might Not Know About Maple Syrup

Syrup cans

[Photographs: Amy Cavanaugh]

It's a headline you'd expect to see referring to an art heist, but on December 19, 2012, the New York Times published a story entitled, "In $18 Million Theft, Victim Was a Canadian Maple Syrup Cartel." It turns out that maple syrup is an enormous business--Quebec has a stockpile of syrup that helps stabilize prices, and sometime in the last year, thieves absconded with 6 million pounds of that syrup.

That 6 million pounds is worth $18 million, making it the largest agricultural theft ever. Police have recovered much of the syrup, a large part of which made it to the U.S., but if this story is any indication, the world of maple syrup is a lot more interesting than you'd expect from something that's sold in quaint maple leaf-shaped jars or jugs with drawings of log cabins.

On a recent trip to Montreal, I visited the Maple Museum, located in the basement of the Canadian Maple Delights Bistro and Shoppe. There are a handful of these shops across Quebec (and one in Vancouver) that are dedicated to the sweet dark brown elixir. The museum chronicles the history and science of maple syrup and the shop sells a range of maple-related food products, such as maple salad dressings, maple salts, and maple butter. Leave it to Montreal to turn maple sap into maple taffy (squeezed over ice and twirled around a popsicle stick) or maple sugar pie (like the one I tried from Boulangerie Première Moisson). Here are five things to know about maple.

Back in the day...

1. Native Americans discovered maple syrup.

Native Americans used tomahawks to make v-shaped incisions in trees and reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into a bucket. Then they concentrated the sap by adding hot stones to the bucket or leaving it outside and removing the layer of ice that formed on top. They consumed it as a sweet drink or used it in cooking.

2. Maple grading systems are confusing.

Not only do Canadian and American maple syrup producers use different grades, but Vermont even has its own classifications.

Canada No. 1 Extra Light is the same as U.S. Grade A Light Amber.

Canada No. 1 Light is the same as U.S. Grade A Medium Amber.

Canada No. 1 Medium is the same as U.S. Grade A Dark Amber.

Canada No. 2 Amber is the same as U.S. Grade B.

Canada No. 3 Dark is the same as U.S. Grade C.

Grades are based on color and how much light passes through the syrup. Lighter syrup is made earlier in the season and darker syrup is made later in the season. The Extra Light/Light Amber syrup is the lightest and has a mild maple flavor. Flavor strength increases with color, and Grade B is darkest and has a strong maple flavor. It's great for baking, and it's my go-to syrup at home.

U.S. Grade C isn't commercially sold, since it has a tendency to be bitter. It's sold to restaurants, factories and candy shops to use as an ingredient, and it also happens to be used at Canadian Maple Delights. While there, I tried the syrup on its own and in frothy maple milk, and it's darker and has an even deeper maple flavor than Grade B.

Vermont requires a higher density for its syrups, but the state and other maple-producing states and provinces are considering switching to a single international grading system. Vermont currently calls its lightest syrup Vermont Fancy, which is a cute name, but doesn't really tell consumers anything about the product. The international classifications, all of which would be Grade A, would be:

Golden color, delicate taste Amber color, rich taste Dark color, robust taste Very dark color, strong taste

3. Benjamin Franklin wanted colonial Americans to use maple sugar as our main sweetener.

Benjamin Franklin wanted Americans to be self-sufficient and not import cane sugar. He thought we could use maple sugar instead.

4. Sap flow depends entirely on temperature.

Sap flows in maple trees because their wood fibers contain gas instead of water, like other trees do. When the temperature drops below freezing, the gas compresses and creates space for the sap to move from the soil to the branches. When the temperature rises above freezing, the gas expansion pushes the sap toward the taphole and increases the sap flow. This is why maple syrup producers need a combination of freezing nights and warmer days to produce sap.

Maple Sugar Pie

5. This is how you make maple products.

From pure maple sap, you can make a wide range of products simply by increasing the boiling temperature. The sap is boiled to evaporate the water and concentrate the sugar. When it comes out of the tree, the sap is thin, barely sweet, and colorless. Boiling the sap makes the color and maple flavor emerge. It also takes a lot of sap--one gallon of syrup is made from 40 gallons of sap.

Boil the sap to 219.2 degrees F and you get maple syrup. Boil the sap to 233.6 degrees F and you get maple butter. Boil the sap to 236.8 degrees F and you get maple taffy. Boil the sap to 255 degrees F and you get granulated sugar.

About the Author: Amy Cavanaugh writes about food, drink, and travel from her home base of Chicago.