Making the Grade: Why the Cheapest Maple Syrup Tastes Best

The continuing emphasis on a light, delicate flavor, though, made the product particularly susceptible to adulteration. Shelves filled with syrup cut with glucose, sorghum, or corn; some purveyors added decoctions of maple wood, hickory, or even of corn cobs. Others relied on appearance alone, boiling brown sugar.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, one reforming scientist estimated the amount of Vermont Maple Syrup sold every year at ten times the actual production; another cracked that a dense maple forest must stretch from the east coast to Chicago, just to supply the necessary sap.

So maple syrup became a crucial symbol in a new crusade, this time to secure the authenticity of the food supply. Consumers were incensed by the notion that they might be paying premium prices for brown sugar water. Their outrage at the violation of this iconic American product helped rally support for the Pure Food and Drug Act. The law was passed in 1906, and the USDA's Bureau of Chemistry set about cleaning up the nation's grocery shelves.

The pure food and drug laws restored truth to labeling, but they couldn't keep consumers from seeking out cheaper alternatives. Most of these ersatz syrups took pains to replicate the light color and mild flavor of premium syrup, associating themselves with the old notion of refinement. Mapleine, a flavoring launched in 1905, emphasized its ability to reproduce "the delicate elusive tang of the Maple Sap," reminding consumers that "if it isn't delicate, it isn't delicious."

Pancake syrups proliferated, redefining themselves as thoroughly modern improvements on an outdated favorite. Brands like Log Cabin, which began in 1887 as an adulterated maple syrup, pitched themselves to progressive consumers by stressing the science and research that had gone into their production. "Towle's Log Cabin Syrup has all the delicious, delicate flavor of old time Vermont Maple Syrup, but improved -- made more mild, mellower, smoother, sweeter," boasted one ad. Another explained that "the Towle process scientifically refines and clarifies the Sugar of Maple ... blended with the Sugar of Cane." The big boom came after the Second World War, with the introduction of brands backed with corporate heft, like Quaker Oats' Aunt Jemima and Unilever's Mrs. Butterworth, and which included only trace amounts of actual maple syrup. The old Jeffersonian dream of the maple replacing the sugar cane had been reversed; the sugary syrups now threatened to push the maple off of American shelves.

Production declined steadily from the beginning of the century into the 1970s. Then it began to level off, and in recent decades, rebound. Technological advances increased the efficiency of production. Small producers boosted their efforts to market their wares directly to consumers, instead of selling to industrial-scale operations. And many others felt the call back to the land, inspired in part by Helen and Scott Nearing's Maple Sugar Book, equal parts manual and manifesto.

For most contemporary producers, sugaring is still a seasonal sideline, a way to earn a little cash. But it also fills a crucial cultural role, drawing together families, connecting them to their past, and affirming their rural identity. As an ode and an explanation, Noel Perrin's Amateur Sugar Maker remains unsurpassed. Sugaring, Perrin observed, "is not really a commercial operation. It is that happiest of combinations, a commercial affair which is also an annual rite, even an act of love."

Today, maple producers emphasize that authenticity. The catalog for my favorite brand sports a photo of two draft horses in front of a wooden sugar shack, steam billowing up through its roof. The syrup itself is actually produced in a corrugated-steel warehouse in a Vermont office park, but it is the raw and rural that sells.

And, as a result, grade inflation has come to the world of maple syrup. The industry has proposed that all syrup sold at retail be relabeled Grade A, and then sorted into four colors: Golden, Amber, Dark, and Very Dark. No longer will the weakest syrup be assigned a higher mark for approaching the perfect purity of utter blandness, or the most intensely flavorful syrup get graded down for daring to taste like maple.

The new system, the leading trade group explains, will eliminate "the current discrimination against darker syrup." By 2013, the new international standard should be fully adopted, and consumers given the clear choice of syrups with as much, or as little, flavor as they desire. So if you happen to relish the taste of maple syrup, you may want to find a bottle of Grade B while you still can. Once the inferior grade is removed from the label, the rarest, most flavorful syrup will likely command at least as dear a price as its blander and more abundant cousins.

Americans today embrace the distinctive legacies of our particular origins, no longer seeking to refine ourselves into bland conformity. Our syrup bottles are finally catching up.

Image: pick/Shutterstock.

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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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