100% Pure Pennsylvania Maple Syrup: A Great Tasting Treat!

Posted: February 18, 2015

Spring is coming. Longer days will soon mean warmer temperatures and for pancake lovers everywhere this means maple syrup!

To be sure, Pennsylvania has had a spate of cold weather this February. Although, if you watch the sky, it is pretty obvious days are lengthening and that means spring is on its way. Longer days will, eventually, mean moderating temperatures. For pancake lovers everywhere that suggests maple syrup season is nearly here.

Maple sugar is truly a North American product. While we generally think of maple syrup, Native Americans boiled maple sap to make sugar, likely a very important food source high in energy and easy to carry. Early North American settlers learned how to make maple sugar from the native people and soon developed methods of their own. Maple sugar remained the most popular product until the early 1900s when cane sugar became more common; sugar makers then began to make more syrup to grace pancakes.

For many woodlot owners today, making maple syrup in the early spring is an important activity. For some, it is a major cash crop from their woodlands. It is a unique crop as it is often produced, processed, and sold entirely on the farm.

The Canadian Province of Quebec leads North America in maple syrup production. Pennsylvania generally ranks 6th or 7th in syrup production. Other states producing syrup include Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine, and others where maple trees grow and spring conditions are just right.

Common species most often tapped for syrup production are sugar, red and, the much less common black maple. Sugar maple is preferred. Tapping generally does little harm to the tree if correct guidelines are followed. Trees ten- to eighteen-inches in diameter (at 4 1/2 feet above the ground) can have one tap. Trees larger than eighteen-inches can have two taps. Tap holes, 5/16 inch in diameter, are bored at a slight upward angle into the tree to a depth of one to two inches into the sapwood. A spout or spile is gently tapped into the hole until it fits snugly. A stainless steel bucket, special plastic bag or a tubing system attached to the tap collects the sap.

The amount of sap needed to make a gallon of syrup varies with the amount of sugar in the sap. Sap sugar content varies from tree to tree, day to day, and season to season, from less than 1% to rarely 10%. The normal is about 1.5% to 3%. Approximately 40 gallons of sap with 2% sugar content will produce one gallon of syrup

In the sugarhouse producers use evaporators to remove water and concentrate the sugars. In this process the sap darkens in color from light amber to vary dark brown. . Syrup has a minimum concentration of 66% sugar solids and this occurs when the boiling sap is 7.5 degrees F above the boiling point of water (varies by altitude and barometric pressure). When the sugar concentration is less than 66% the syrup may ferment and spoil, while syrup with sugar concentrations greater than 69% sugar will often crystalize.

Syrup color often relates to the time of the season the sap is collected and boiled. Early season syrup is generally lighter in color than sap collected and boiled later in the season. The lightest amber syrup is often used to make secondary products such as candy, cream, and crumb sugar. Medium and dark amber syrups, with a stronger maple flavor than light amber, were the standard table grades. Grade B, which is darker than dark amber and often off flavored, is used in cooking and mixing with other grades or sold to companies making syrups (not pure maple syrup) using other sugars.

Up until this year, 2015, syrup was graded as light amber (a very light golden color with a delicate flavor), medium amber (an amber color), and dark amber (a darker amber color). Syrup darker than dark amber was graded as commercial (Grade B).

For several years the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) and the North American Maple Syrup Council (NAMSC) have been developing a new grading system. This year, the new grades were adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture. These grades are: Golden - delicate taste which was the light amber grade; Amber - rich taste, which includes the former medium amber and lighter shades of previous dark amber; Dark - robust taste which includes former dark amber and grade B; and Very Dark - strong taste, which consists of darker than grade B (known as commercial in some states). The belief is that the new system will concentrate on the most important descriptor of syrup grades and that is how it tastes! As the new grading system is adopted in Pennsylvania you may see syrups labeled with the previous grades, the new grades, or a combination of both. But the quality of Pure Pennsylvania maple syrup will remain the same!

If you see steam rising from a sugarhouse you will know that maple season has arrived. Producers will welcome you to their sugarhouse to watch them make this special product. If you visit the PA Maple Association website and click on tours, you can find dates when regional maple associations host maple weekends.