• Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Who doesn’t love the first signs of spring? As soon as we see the sap buckets being readied and hung on waiting maple trees, we know for sure that winter’s grip is beginning to ease. We also know that soon we’ll be making our yearly trek to the sugarhouse near us to witness the age-old rituals and to get a taste of that wonderful sweetness in all its variety, from fancy to dark amber. In this issue, you can learn about the subtle and not so subtle taste differences in maple syrup.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    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.

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  • The Art of Growing Food

    The Art of Growing Food

    Gardeners can always learn from other gardeners, and I’ll admit that some of my best ideas have come from visiting other gardens and drawing from the past. We all start with the same basic ingredients—seeds, soil, and plants—yet the art of growing food can be expressed by a kitchen garden that goes beyond the practical straight rows of a vegetable garden to include herbs, flowers, and vegetables planted with a creative eye to balance color and height and to create an ornamental edible landscape.

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  • Lambing Time

    Lambing Time

    It’s 5:20 a.m. and a pale glimmer of dawn shows in the sky above the Northfield Range. I can just make out the ghosts of the sheep’s breath in the open doorway of the shed, and their dark forms nestled in the deep straw. They hear me coming and rise, grunting, their girths almost impossibly huge this late in March. Two of my 23 pregnant ewes gave birth the day before and the new lambs—two sets of twins—are cuddled close to the warmth of their mother’s bodies.

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  • What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    In May of 2009, then-governor Douglas signed legislation that created the Vermont Farm to Plate Program. Over the following 18 months, hundreds of Vermonters came together at Farm to Plate Regional Food Summits to share ideas and strategies to support new farm and food enterprises and to strengthen local and regional markets for Vermont’s agricultural products. On January 12 of this year, in a packed room at the Vermont State House, the fruit of this excellent effort was presented in a comprehensive, 10-year strategic plan for new investments, programs, and legislation to support the continued development of Vermont’s local food system.

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  • Plant, Weed, Blog

    Plant, Weed, Blog

    When Vermonters think of local food, we tend to think of farmers’ markets, where each purchase comes with a personal exchange. Or we imagine a tour through Vermont’s characteristic working landscape. Or we recall fresh flavors and home-cooked dishes shared with friends.

    Or maybe we think of computers.

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  • The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    We usually think of “food” when we think of “farming,” but many agricultural crops are turned into products that humans can’t eat. Such products are manufactured throughout Vermont today using various crops and livestock, and are therefore, like food items, creating jobs for Vermonters, keeping farmland in active use, and leading our state toward greater self-sufficiency. What follows is a series of articles about nine inedible farm products.

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  • Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big suprise...

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  • Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Corn in Vermont fields is not uncommon, but wheat? In the 1800s wheat was a common sight on the rocky hillsides of the state, but as the country expanded westward, other land appeared to be more hospitable and profitable for the large production of wheat needed for a growing population. During the past decade, however, wheat in Vermont has had a rebirth of sorts. A small cadre of farmers have, individually and independently, decided to again give it a try by attempting to grow small quantity, high quality wheat—and they’ve been finding success.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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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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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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