Tapping for Taste

Maple syrup producers discover a range of flavors—and “a taste of place”

John Elder
John Elder

Written By

Helen Labun Jordan
Helen Labun

Written on

March 01 , 2011

There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

The one thing that can be universally said is that we in Vermont take our maple flavor seriously. And yet, how much do we really know about that flavor? Maple enthusiasts are moving beyond the basics to explore nuances in taste that can help bring even more appreciation to our state’s famous export.

Let’s start with the basics. The first goal is to prevent “off flavors.” Off flavors can develop for any number of reasons, from production problems to changes in the trees themselves (for example, if sap is taken while the trees are budding). Maple researchers in Quebec publish a flavoring wheel that categorizes tastes we don’t want, including “soiled mop,” “rancid grease,” “mushroom,” and “plastic wrapping.” In Vermont, stringent producer-set standards for quality management are supported by inspection by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which keeps any hint of “silage” off our pancakes. Still, syrup picks up off flavors very quickly. Try storing some in a jar that once held pickles or peanut butter and after a week you will easily detect the lingering taste of that former ingredient.

Maple flavors also need to match their syrup grade. Grading containers that sort syrup by color are a common sight, but color is just one part of the criteria, which also include clarity, density and taste. Henry Marckres, chief maple inspector for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, explains that flavor should parallel color: the lightest colored syrup, Fancy, should have the lightest maple flavor, moving through to “robust” and then “pronounced” maple flavor for the darkest Grade B. There are infinite and subtle taste variations, and practice is the only way to pick up on them. Henry, who may have tasted more syrup than anyone in Vermont, once sipped 932 samples (approximately half a gallon of syrup) in a single unpleasant day on the job.

Just as all producers taste carefully for any deviation from maple standards, some are now beginning to taste for nuances that we do want. While it’s bad to have a hint of “cardboard,” what about a hint of “caramel”? Quebec’s flavor wheel also includes a range of positive variations that sugar maples create naturally: shades of vanilla, toffee, chicory, hazelnut, and baked apple. Maple producers and food enthusiasts are finding that distinct sugar bushes often yield distinct syrups—and you don’t have to be a syrup sommelier to detect the differences. Amy Trubek, who teaches in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, specializes in the “taste of place”—or flavors that reflect the unique regions where an item is produced, such as the Champagne region of France. During the past several years she has been considering the distinct flavors of Vermont’s maple syrup and encouraging others to explore the complexity of maple taste that goes far beyond differences in grade.

“You don’t know what you don’t know…you can start fantastic new conversations with your customers by introducing them to the vanilla, floral, and earthy notes in your syrup,” is what Amy tells producers.

Starksboro sugarmaker and nature writer John Elder, author of a book on sugaring in Vermont called The Frog Run, is an enthusiastic syrup taster who has been inspired by Amy’s work. He says his syrup is “…a rich, creamy flavor, marked with vanilla…sometimes the Fancy has a more floral quality to it.” He encourages visitors to his own sugarhouse to make comparisons of two syrups side by side and to describe what they’re tasting. By naming what makes a producer’s syrup distinctive, visitors are stating a reason to be loyal customers of his products year after year.

Sometimes differences in sugar bushes on a single property can create different product lines for a sugarmaker. Each spring, Tig Tillinghast ofTillinghast Maple in Thetford takes full advantage of differences his land can create: he separates out the sap from a particular stand of trees on an eastern ridge that gives a red-colored syrup with a vanilla taste. He gets a scant 50 gallons from that sap, but it all goes into glass bottles to retail as a premium product. (The “premium” comes from being different, not necessarily superior; distinctions in taste aren’t meant to pit one quality Vermont syrup against another, but to point out the nuances within a high quality-product.) Tig particularly enjoys syrup from a producer a few miles away that is “put-hair-on-your-chest maple…not a subtle maple.”

Vermont is already adept at making the connection between maple syrup and tourism. Marketing different syrups from different regions builds on this connection, giving people a reason to explore more locations and to buy more syrup from more producers. For his part, John Elder imagines how theVermont Maple Open House Weekend can become like the tours of Scotch distilleries in Scotland, during which visitors learn the distinctions between each brand. Discovering differences in flavor also gives new reason for Vermonters to get out and re-explore the syrups of their own region.

Of course, while we may taste for comparisons, most of us don’t treat maple syrup as a sipping drink but as a recipe ingredient. Will we be able to taste the subtleties once the bottles get home? John is adamant that exploring the distinctive tastes of maple is key to recognizing its best uses in cooking. In his house, maple syrup isn’t only poured on pancakes, “it’s [also] a seasoning you add…to activate or release the flavors of a dish.” Adding strong ingredients to “finish” a dish is a common trick of kitchen cooks, who may keep vinegars or cream on hand to brighten sauces, soups, or dressings. Maple syrup acts in the same way as those common flavor-enhancing ingredients.

Using the language of wine country to talk about a syrup’s bouquet or the influences of different growing regions on flavor sounds odd to many of us who stand by the simple equation of “Vermont = maple.” But in reality, Vermonters are already used to making distinctions in flavor. We use Grade B’s pronounced qualities for strongly flavored dishes such as baked beans, and a light grade for drizzling syrup over vanilla ice cream. We know that the taste of a maple creemee is not as complex as the unadorned syrup, and we can spot fake syrup at 50 yards. It may not be such a great leap to now taste for shades of anise, peach, or cloves in our neighbors’ syrups. In the heart of maple country, we are still distinguishing new tastes in our most distinguished product.

Helen Labun Jordan lives in Montpelier and works for the
Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Photo of John Elder by Angela Evancie

About the Author

Helen Labun Jordan

Helen Labun Jordan

Helen Labun Jordan lives in Montpelier, where she works for Bear Pond Books. Read more of her work at her website, discoveringflavor.com.

Helen Labun

Helen Labun

Helen Labun runs Hel’s Kitchen takeout restaurant in Montpelier (helskitchenvt.com). She also coordinates events (and reviews many cookbooks) for Bear Pond Books, also in Montpelier.

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