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.

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."

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.