The curse of industrialization

Why doesn't all maple syrup taste the same?

"My children like maple syrup on their pancakes, but I am not fond of it." I often hear comments like this. When people sample Vermont Maple, that changes. 

People pause for a moment, noticing the flavors unfolding over their palate. Maple and caramel begin strong and then vanilla and melted butter rise with flourishes of honey and smoke and if they have a good palate, notes of hazelnut and clove. Some batches of maple syrup have hints of coconut and tree fruit like peaches and apples. 

I like watching people's facial expressions as they taste Vermont Maple. I see this change come over them as they are paying attention to what they are tasting. In that moment, they are more aware, and sort of realer and more alive.  

Then they ask, "Why? Why does this taste so good? Where does the flavor come from? Do you add anything? If all maple syrup in the world is just concentrated sap from maple trees, why does this taste so good and syrup in the big stores taste so... different or/boring/flat/bad?"

It is true. All maple syrup is made from just one ingredient -- the sap of maple trees. The two big differences: fermentation and concentration. As soon as sap comes out of the tree, it is exposed to naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts in the environment. They start to transform the sap like microscopic factories.

For example, vanilla flavor comes from the molecule vanillin. Vanillin is made from lignin, which is biomass from the maple tree, transported in the sap. Lignin degrades at ambient temperatures through oxygenation into vanillin. Dissolved oxygen is essential to turn lignin into vanillin. 

My grandfather Howard, his father John, grandfather Ruben, and great grandfather Amos collected sap in buckets. Each drip from the tree into the bucket oxygenated the sap. Dumping the bucket into a vat on a sled hauled by horses oxygenated the sap. The sled being pulled through the sugarbush sloshed the sap, oxygenating it more. Dumping the sap into a tank near the sugarhouse added even more oxygen. Today's advanced collection systems use tubing, sometimes from the trees directly to the storage tanks. Less splashing and less oxygenation means less vanilla flavor. 

Grampa Howard wrote a short history of sugaring going back to 1840. It is a history of innovation largely to decrease the amount of work required to make maple syrup. It takes 42 liters of sap to make 1 liter of syrup. That is a lot of work, not just to collect it, but to concentrate it. Add in cutting, splitting, hauling, and stacking firewood. Without any fancy technology, it takes roughly 1 cord of wood to make 25 gallons of syrup (3.6 m2 to make 113 liters).  Innovations in the collection systems and technology to concentrate maple sap have made it possible for one person to do the work of a team. There has been a cost to a 100 years focus on increasing efficiency -- flavor has suffered. 

Industrial-scale maple syrup, even though it is 100% pure, can have little or no vanilla flavor and worse -- no maple flavor. It doesn't have any of chemical compounds that we experience as smoke, honey, hazelnuts, clove, apple, peach, coconut, malt, rose, peach, cream, marshmallow, or popcorn. Just imagine hot buttered maple popcorn! We get syrup like that one or two batches per season. It is a real treat. 

As an artisanal producer, flavor is most important. Efficiency also matters, but never at the cost of flavor. To make the best flavor, we bring  the craft of ours grandfathers together with science. In 2021, we had molecular analysis (mass spectrometry and gas chromatography) done of our Amber and Dark maple syrup by a Belgian company. Then knowing which aromatic compounds are in our syrup, I read over 50 scientific papers and scoured the web to find out the origin of each. Does a compound come out of the tree, is it created during fermentation, does it happen during boiling? What choices can we make as sugarmakers to produce maple syrup with unexpected flavors that delight the senses? 

Vermont Maple tastes better because of curiosity, tradition, innovation and respect for the people who enjoy our maple syrup.  

I wanted thank you so much for the maple syrup! It's been extremely appreciated, not only by my kids on their French toasts and pancakes, but also by me. Usually, I'm not fond of it, but the quality of this one is way above anything else I've ever tasted in the past. I finally appreciated maple syrup with gentle sweetness and incredible flavor and smoothness. Wonderful! 
 Antonio, London UK
dans FAQ
Does taking sap hurt the trees?
In a word, no.