Most sparkling wine is not Champagne, and most “pancake syrup” is not maple syrup. Maple syrup comes only from the sap of sugar maple trees, and like kangaroos or gorillas, Mother Nature saw fit to make these endemic solely to one part of one continent, northeastern North America, most famously Vermont but also the rest of New England, New York and Quebec, with some overflow into the Midwest and mid-Atlantic.
It takes 40 years for maple trees to mature into commercial sap producers, and unlike sticky tree substances, sugar maple sap is clear and thin, like water. It takes 40-45 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup. This is done by boiling sap in shallow pans until most water has evaporated. Nothing is added, and the entire process is devoted to reducing the purely natural product to its best and most essential ingredients. By law, maple syrup is just that, but be wary of plays on words like “maple flavored” or “100 percent natural maple product.”
Confusion arises over the range of colors and grades. All real maple syrup is high quality and has nearly the same density, clarity and sugar content (66.9-68.9 percent). It is graded solely by its color, which depends on when the syrup is made. Most production occurs in late winter and early spring, but as trees warm up the syrup becomes darker. A taste difference occurs, and like many red wines, flavor becomes stronger, richer or “bigger” as the color darkens. For years, the industry confused buyers with an arcane four-tiered grading system from Fancy to Grade A Medium Amber to Grade A Dark Amber and finally Grade B, but this suggests an inherent difference in quality, which simply is not the case. To simplify matters, Vermont, the best-known syrup producer, relabeled its grades into four more understandable levels: Golden Color with Delicate Flavor; Amber Color with Rich Flavor; Dark Color with Robust Flavor; and Very Dark with Strong Flavor. In 2015 the USDA generally adopted Vermont’s standards for the entire nation, defining all four grades as Grade A by color: Golden, Amber, Dark and Very Dark. You may still see products labeled with a parenthetical: (formerly known as…).
Generally, lighter syrup is ideal for delicate foods, like ice cream or yogurt, the darkest is good for cooking and sauces or as a molasses substitute, while the middle grades are perfect for maple syrup’s best-known use, over pancakes and waffles.
In another wrinkle, gourmet producers are now making high-quality flavored variants with real maple syrup. The best-known is Vermont’s Runamok Maple, which taps only certified organic trees—they have 81,000 on the slopes of the state’s highest peak Mount Mansfield. They make “regular” syrup and a collection of smoked, infused and barrel-aged products, so distinctive Oprah Winfrey named a mixed selection one of her “favorite things of 2016.” Runamok produces nearly a dozen varieties, including Bourbon, Rum and Rye Barrel-Aged, Pecan Wood Smoked, Hibiscus Flower or Cardamom Infused, and the wildly popular Cinnamon + Vanilla Infused.