Winemakers have bombarded (and perhaps confused) consumers with talk of their product. They talk “terroir” or “gout de terroir” – the unique taste and aroma of an area’s wine that is attributed to the growing environment of the grapes.
The same can be said, more simply, of maple syrup. Whether Vitis spp. (grapes) or Acer saccharum (sugar maple), where a product is produced makes a difference on the tongue.
While real differences abound, and there is much pride of place among producers in all syrup-producing regions, few comments would be considered fightin’ words. The simple fact is that terroir is real and sophisticated palates can detect flavor differences. Nuances in maple syrup flavor arise for a variety of reasons. Soil and water can greatly influence the final product produced at a sugar house. Other factors count, too.
“Something may have to do with the cooking, too,” said Jim Fadden, president of the New Hampshire Maple Syrup Producers Association. “I like to take a little credit for that.”
“There is a wide variety of subtle differences in maple syrups,” said Gary Bilek, president of the Pennsylvania Maple Producers Council. Triple Creek Maple Products is in the northwestern part of the state in Cranesville – an area better known for wine than syrup.
“It’s the same for us as with the wine people,” Bilek said. “Most people will not notice the subtle differences.”
“The maple syrup taste is different with every sugar orchard,” Fadden said. He includes operations in neighboring towns. He should know – he has been making syrup for 50 years outside Woodstock, New Hampshire, and sells all of the 2,500 to 3,000 gallons produced at a general store that has been in the family since his great-grandfather started it in 1896.
Most of the product produced by Fadden is quality medium and light amber syrup. “It is all sold directly at the general store,” he said proudly.
Others talk taste, too. “Flavor overtones are based on the area’s geology and the number of old trees and young trees,” said Helen Thomas of Maxon Family Farm, Wyoming County, New York.
She said a producer is more apt to recognize the differences in taste than the typical consumer. “It is a lot more subtle than it is with wine,” she said.
Water and soil
Fadden gave a lot of credit for the local terroir of his syrup to the water his trees consume. He noted that the area had a now-defunct paper mill that claimed to produce the best bond paper in the world. The mill credited the quality of their Franconia Bond paper to the quality and composition of the water.
Fadden said the water in the area around Woodstock is a major factor in the syrup’s quality there.
The soil at many sugar bushes is thin, hillside soil. Throughout much of New England it is glacial till. Get farther south or west and the soils change.
Thomas said that there are differences even within a state or region. “Here in Western New York, we are on a clay soil that is pretty welcoming to maple production,” she said. By contrast, the Adirondack region is on that glacial till.
At the Maxon operation, a 1910 dairy barn was converted to a sugar house. The Maxon and the Burnison families have been lifelong neighbors and cohorts in syrup production.
Length of season matters, too. Producers in the Hudson Valley have a major challenge with production since their season is so short.
Wherever the syrup is produced, Bilek said it is very important to sample syrup and syrup products. “People don’t know much about maple. It is up to the producer to educate the consumer,” he said.
Much depends on the way sap is processed. “Sap produced today is finished before we go to bed tonight,” Fadden said. “There is no holdover.”
Even the most unsophisticated palate can recognize the difference between early- and late-season syrup. Early-season production tends to be lighter and more delicate. Later in the season, the taste is more robust and the syrup itself is darker and heavier.
“We finish our maple syrup to an average of 67 percent sugar content, making it substantially thicker and sweeter then Pennsylvania law requires,” Bilek said. Increasing the percentage of sugar, by boiling the syrup longer, makes the syrup thicker and, he said, more desirable.
While 67 percent is only 1 percent higher than the required sugar, Bilek said the boost changes viscosity. “When the viscosity changes, it changes what the syrup feels like in your mouth,” he said. “That is a big part of taste.”
This process sometimes results in excess sugar crystals forming in the bottom of the container. This is especially true of syrup stored in the refrigerator. These sugar crystals are simply a sign of a quality, thick syrup, he said.
Perhaps the most important factor is the kind of equipment and cleanliness of the equipment used. “We wash all the tanks and all the equipment between every run,” Fadden said.
His grandfather taught him syrup production in a King-style sectional evaporator. “It had five or six sections,” he said. Today, he uses a Revolution model evaporator. He has a drop flue so the sap is all at the same level. They use nothing but food-grade plastic or stainless steel in the system.
Thomas agreed. “A lot of the difference is in the customer’s perception of the grower,” she said. For that reason, things like cleanliness and presentation make a difference.
A pile of construction debris next to the sugar house might give a potential customer bad vibes about the cleanliness of the whole operation, Bilek said.
“You need to put on a good show and be aware of what strangers coming onto your property might see,” he said. “Aesthetics is a big part of the perception of what you are doing. Consumers want a good feeling.”
Pride of place
That good feeling almost always is conveyed by the owner or workers at a sugar bush. Each operation has its own flavor and value-added products, like maple butter or candy, that they offer. And, not surprisingly, each feels the home place’s quality and flavor – the local terroir – is great.
“Of course, the answer is that we make the best maple syrup here in New York,” Thomas said. Then again, what else do you expect her to say? She serves as executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association, Syracuse.
“The reality,” Bilek said, “is the best taste is what the consumer likes. We tell them to find a producer they like and stick with them.”