Making the Grade: Why the Cheapest Maple Syrup Tastes Best

As our sense of American identity has evolved, the labels on our syrup, long a symbol of American authenticity, have not always kept up


The market for maple syrup offers an odd inversion. The thin, pale fluid labeled Fancy or Grade A Light Amber commands the highest prices. It is the white bread of condiments, an inoffensive accompaniment to more flavorful fare. The robust, thick syrup marked Grade B fairly bursts with maple flavor, but sells at a significant discount. So why does the nominally inferior grade offer decidedly superior flavor? The answer lies in the history of maple syrup, a product that has long served as a symbol of American authenticity. As our sense of American identity has evolved, our syrup labels have not always kept pace.

Shelves filled with syrup cut with glucose, sorghum, or corn; some purveyors added decoctions of maple wood, hickory, or even of corn cobs.

Early European settlers learned the art of sugaring from the native peoples of North America, who first tapped the maple trees, boiling their sap down to make a sweetener. The sap that runs at the beginning of the season, with the spring thaw, is sweet and clear. Twenty or thirty gallons, boiled down, will yield a gallon of light amber syrup. As the season extends, the sap thins out and grows watery. More of it must be boiled down to yield a syrup of equal sweetness. The last of the sap may yield only a sixtieth of its weight in syrup. Concentrating the sugar also concentrates all the other substances in the sap, making late-season syrup  also darker, thicker, and more flavorful.

The colonists, though, were less interested in liquid syrup than in granular sugar. The pure, white, crystallized product of sugar cane was still an expensive luxury, imported from plantations in the West Indies. Maple sugar offered an accessible and affordable substitute. These colonists, out on the imperial periphery, wanted to demonstrate that their fledgling society was just as sophisticated and elegant as that of the metropole. They took the concentrated maple sap and poured it into conical molds, refining it into white sugar-loaves like those produced in Britain from cane syrup. Maple sugar, a distinctively American product, was touted as the equal of the sugar served in the most elegant Old World salons. The clearest syrups and whitest sugars, which betrayed the least hint of their rustic origins, commanded premium prices.

After the Revolution, Americans looked at the maple tree in a new light. To the eminent Philadelphia patriot and physician Benjamin Rush, maple sugar seemed perfectly tailored to the new republic. Here was a commodity that could compete in a global market, bolstering the independence of yeoman farmers, and demonstrating the superiority of free labor. It tapped an abundant resource, required only a small amount of labor, and used supplies most farmers already owned. Best of all, it would destroy the market for Caribbean sugar cane, produced by slaves laboring in horrifying conditions. Rush set down his reflections in the form of a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, which he presented publicly in 1791, concluding:

I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration, for I have persuaded myself, to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren, in the sugar islands as unnecessary, as it has always been inhuman and unjust.

A minor maple sugar bubble ensued, mixing frontier land speculation with fervent abolitionism. One Pennsylvania Quaker, enthralled by the idea of deriving profit from virtue, organized an association for the purpose, dispatching a sample to the president. Washington expressed his thanks for the sugar, which he was "much pleased to find of so good a quality." William Cooper hitched his fledgling town to the enterprise. Dutch investors organized a consortium.

All of these efforts failed commercially. Rush had praised maple sap for its ability to produce refined sugar of "superior purity," offering sweetness without any flavor. But as a refined commodity, competing on cost alone, maple sugar simply could not match the low-priced products of the cane plantations. The late-season sap, with its strong flavor, certainly offered a distinctive product, but not one capable of attracting consumers who had access to more refined alternatives. Rush speculated that it might find some commercial outlet, anyway, if it could be processed into something more desirable. "It affords a most agreeable molasses," he wrote, suggesting that it "might compose the basis of a pleasant summer beer." It was at least as well suited for rum, but Rush piously expressed his hope that "this precious juice will never be prostituted by our citizens to this ignoble purpose."

It was, of course, but not often. Most maple syrup continued to be turned into sugar by frugal farm families for use as a homely sweetener, with any surplus bringing in a small amount of cash. And as a symbol of freedom, it remained potent. Adherents of the Free Produce movement shunned the products of slave labor, and sought out maple sugar. "So long as the maple forests stand," urged a Vermont almanac in 1844, "suffer not your cup to be sweetened by the blood of slaves."

The artist Eastman Johnson met the outbreak of the Civil War with a series of paintings depicting maple sugaring operations, blending their abolitionist virtues with nostalgia for a simpler age. Those who left their farms for burgeoning cities, or moved west after the war, brought with them a similar wistfulness for the taste of the maple tree. Sugar was relatively cheap and abundant; it was the flavor of the syrup, which their forebears had never quite succeeded in eliminating, that these migrants came to crave. Vermont Maple Syrup became a valuable brand. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Department of Agriculture scorned the idea of refining maple sap into white sugar, noting that maple sugar and syrup were "prized for their peculiar flavor, and are luxuries rather than staple articles of the daily diet."

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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