When buying maple syrup it can be tempting to reach for the cheaper ‘maple flavored’ substitutes.
But by understanding what you’re buying and how it’s made, you’ll get to know the value of the real deal.
Maple syrup is Canada’s life blood; it’s ingrained in its traditions and culture, not to mention one of the first things to spring to mind when one thinks of Canada. (That the maple leaf is on the national flag says it all.) It’s a precious and protected industry, one that contributes $800 million to the country’s GDP each year.
But for consumers it all comes down to bottles on a shelf that look exactly the same. Why pick the $7.99 bottle over the $3.99? Is there really much difference?
First, there’s no comparing maple syrup to imitations. Neither version is exactly a health product, but where maple is a natural sugar, faux versions are wholly synthetic, with a slew of ingredients designed to try and mimic that of the original product.
This list commonly includes the likes of high fructose corn syrup, a preservative and sweetener containing both glucose and fructose… artificial caramel coloring, flavoring and sweeteners… the thickening agent cellulose gum… and many other additives and preservatives, such as sodium benzoate and sulfur dioxide.
Packaging, too, can be confusing, because brands try hard to market themselves as more or less the same product. These days, under the Canadian food and drug regulations, the term, “maple syrup,” can only be used for the pure product, which is why most fake versions will be named ‘table syrup’, ‘pancake syrup’ or ‘maple-flavored syrup’.
Real maple syrup will only contain one ingredient: maple syrup.
If ever in doubt of what you’re buying, check the ingredients. Real maple syrup will only contain one ingredient: maple syrup. That’s it. It’s nothing more than tree sap boiled down to a concentrated liquid sugar.
Nonetheless, how it’s made is a surprisingly arduous journey. Sugaring season — the process of collecting maple sap — begins somewhere between the first and second week of March. During this period, daytime temperatures have started to warm up, but the nights are still bitterly cold. A thawing-and-freezing effect creates a pressure pump inside the maple trees, catalyzing the release of sap. Taps are hammered into the trunks of the sugar maple trees, ready for the first sap to flow.
The sap itself is actually a clear liquid — like water, albeit slightly sweet to taste. It’s not syrup until it’s been through the boiling process, where gallons of sap are thickened into a concentrate in large vats and diligently monitored to ensure a precise temperature is maintained. Too low, and the flavor will be bitter or sour; too high and it will start to crystallize.
If contaminated by any bacteria or foreign objects, an entire batch can be completely destroyed. It’s a big risk when you realize it takes between 30 and 50 gallons of sap to make just a single gallon of syrup.
The process of collecting the sap has remained largely the same over the decades. There are two main methods. The traditional method is used by home producers and smaller commercial farms; buckets are hung beneath the taps to collect the gently dripping sap, and checked by hand once or twice a day, each time emptied into vats and taken to the boiling shed.
Larger commercial farms utilize a more elaborate system of hoses that wind and snake their way through the forest, taking the sap straight from tree to shack, ready to boil. It’s a much quicker and more productive way to collect in large quantities, although purists will argue it’s not the same as working with nature.
But regardless of which method is used, nature still has ultimate control. The conditions required for maple syrup cannot be re-created artificially. The day the season begins, the day it ends, and how well the sap flows in between is entirely dependent on the weather.
While the official season begins between the 8th and 12th of March, this timeframe can fluctuate. Some believe climate change is having a noticeable effect on the consistency of the season. A standard season lasts only about six weeks. It’s a very small window, during which there is much outside of the producer’s control.
In Quebec, where the majority of Canada’s maple syrup is produced, the industry is protected by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. This government-sanctioned agency works pretty much like a cartel, controlling quantities through a system of quotas and reserves.
Whatever a producer makes above their quota gets taken and stored in a high-security bank: barrels of liquid gold stacked to the rafters, and used to fill the gap on any shortfalls in seasons to come. This system means the production and the price of Canadian maple syrup remains consistent.
When buying your maple syrup, you’ll often find four main categories:
- Golden (delicate)
- Amber (rich)
- Dark (robust)
- Very dark (strong)
As a guide, the darker, richly caramel versions are better for baking and cooking. If you’re drizzling it on your pancakes (as you should), golden and amber syrups tend to offer the perfect flavor balance.
Also, opt for glass bottles; those old-style tins might look quaint, but they have a much shorter shelf life (about 6-9 months). If left too long, you may find your syrup leaves a faint tinge of the metallic on your tongue.
Just like wine, maple syrup needs to be stored properly to keep it optimal. If not, then (again like wine) it’s at risk of fermenting.
Store it in a dark cupboard or a cellar and (unopened) it should last you for years. But note, unlike wine, maple syrup doesn’t get better with age, and the flavor will start to lose its depth over time.
But once opened, if you’re not going to get through it quickly, you can freeze it. Maple syrup can actually be frozen straight in the bottle as it doesn’t expand, and when you need to use it again, just warm through. The color might become cloudy, but the taste will be almost as sumptuous as when it was bottled.
Some imitation versions come close to replicating the real deal, and it can be easy to mistake one for the other. But unless you have a hankering for some sodium benzoates, why not invest in the original, natural, more sustainable option?
For that bottle of maple syrup to reach your table, a lot of factors have had to come into play – the climate, the time and labor, the skill of the maker and a hell of a lot of trees. There is no substitute for quality. And given it’s more valuable than oil in Canada, it’s actually a bargain.
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