Light, Medium and Dark Amber: Which is the Best?
Maple syrup is one of the most universally loved natural food products ever discovered. Long before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Colony in 1620 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, Native Americans were producing maple syrup from the land.
The standard grading system rules for maple syrup officially changed in 2015 with slightly different names announced by the USDA. The grading system describes how syrup’s flavor and color spectrum ranges from light to dark with several variations along the way. There are 5 different grades, however we will discuss the three most popular today.
Traditionally known as “Grade A Light Amber”, the new description for this syrup is “Grade A Golden Color, Light Taste”. This light, golden syrup is produced very early in the season when the sap flow first begins. As any maple tapper knows, the first sap flow of the year is eagerly anticipated as we come out of winter’s deep freeze. The early sap flow is easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to the weather patterns in your region.
This early sap flow that produces golden color syrup is very short, approximately the first two weeks or so of the season. This light, golden syrup is one of my favorites for several reasons. First, its delicate and subtle flavor is unmatched by the darker grades produced as the season progresses. It has a floral quality to it with wildflower notes and a very mild finish of caramelized sugar. Secondly, this golden color syrup is usually harder to find and produced in smaller quantities due to the nature of the season. The early sap flow required to make it is short, so it’s rare in that sense.
Golden color, light tasting syrup pairs well with blueberry waffles, Camembert cheese, or drizzled on top of your favorite organic fruit dish. Try using it in tea as a replacement for your usual sweetener.
As the maple season progresses, the syrup produced darkens slightly into the classic “Grade A Medium Amber” now called “Grade A Amber Color, Rich Taste” under the new USDA grading system guidelines.
This rich tasting amber syrup is the most classic flavor of maple that most people will think of when looking for maple syrup products. Its flavor is much stronger than the light grade, with a beautiful color of aged Scotch. This grade will be produced throughout the bulk of the harvest season and is most commonly found throughout the Spring and Summer until syrup producers sell out. Pair with anything and everything!
If you’re looking to give a gift of maple syrup, the amber color rich taste is the classic bottle to go with; it will be enjoyed by everyone.
Finally, as the maple sugaring season draws to an end late in the Spring, the syrup produced steadily darkens. Changes in the weather and the trees’ internal chemistry cause the sap to develop this way. The syrup produced during this time traditionally known as “Grade A Dark Amber” is now called “Grade A Dark Color, Robust Taste.”
This late-season grade has wonderful toasted caramel and brown sugar notes. The initial flavor on your palette is like melted browned butter, which is a joy to experience. The stronger flavors are perfect for holiday baking and use in all of your recipes, as the flavor comes through better after cooking than the lighter grades. Pairs well with robust Vermont and English Cheddar cheese or cooked down with Fall squash, sprouts, and pumpkin.
No matter which grade of maple syrup you prefer, there is no right or wrong choice! There is no best or worst rating system. Just like selecting wine, there is a syrup choice and pairing that’s right for each person and each culinary purpose. If you can’t decide, a tasting sampler is the best way to experience several grades with a fun little maple syrup tasting. Tasters usually come with three or four small bottles of syrup ranging from light to dark, an affordable way to try them all.
As a note, there are also two more grades not photographed in this article: “Grade A Very Dark Color, Strong Taste” and “Commercial Grade” or “Processing Grade” which is used in commercial food production.
One of the most rewarding outdoor activities during the spring season is to tap maple trees and get outside with nature! I tap my trees each year in early spring, which here in Connecticut is usually in February. Though unusual, sometimes the sugaring season comes early like it did in 2016 – where I tapped in January.
I love being outside during this time of year; the forest is calm as the sun begins to warm the earth. The smell of crisp spring air fills my lungs as I hike through the woods to collect ice cold maple sap. Snow melts from the daily thaw cycle, and the sound of spring birds singing and water dripping is all you can hear. Wether we’re here or not to observe its rhythm, mother nature carries on.
There is something enchanting about being out there in the sugar bush observing its beauty. To think that Native American tribes collected and processed maple and birch sap hundreds of years before us is amazing. Though the methods and technology have changed, we still collect sap for the same reasons people always have. We enjoy drinking maple sap, using sap to brew coffee, and boiling it down into maple syrup.
The best way to get started making maple syrup is to pick up one of our super affordable maple tree tapping kits. Each kit includes food grade drop lines, 5/16” tree spouts and a quick start guide explaining how to tap a tree. This is the same equipment used by professional sugaring operations all around the country today! Kits can be easily cleaned at the end of the sugaring season and reused year after year. It’s also a great way to teach kids about nature in both a school and at home setting.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and reconnect with the natural beauty that surrounds us!
We hear a lot of questions about how to tap trees, collect maple sap and make maple syrup. Today we will talk about some of the most frequently asked questions we see and answer them below. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, ask us in the comments below or connect with us over on Facebook!
What is the smallest tree I can tap?
The smallest tree you would want to tap would have a diameter of 10” or ten inches. Trees smaller than that should not be tapped.
Can I install more than one tap or spout in my maple tree?
Trees with a diameter of 10”to 17” can support one tap. Trees with a diameter of at least 18” can support two taps.
How much sap will I get from each maple tree?
Each tree should produce around ten to twenty gallons of sap each season. This varies depending upon the maple season and the health of the individual tree. For example, two identical trees located right next to each other can produce very different levels of sap.
How deep should I drill into the tree?
Drill into the tree approximately 1.5” past the bark and into the white wood. Total depth is approximately 2.5”.
Does maple tapping hurt or damage the tree?
Tapping does not hurt or damage the tree. Following proper care when tapping will avoid any damage to the tree. Only drill one tap hole with one spout for small trees to reduce stress on the tree. The maple is the only species that is self-healing, and the tap hole will heal and close up during the year.
When I’m done collecting sap, should I put anything into the tap hole to stop the flow of sap?
No. The maple tree will heal and close up the tap hole on its own. Never put any foreign objects or plugs into the maple tree.
What is in maple sap?
Maple sap is a complex natural blend of water, sugar, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
Is it safe to drink sap straight from the tree?
Generally speaking, sap is sterile before it leaves the maple tree. However, bacteria can enter the sap once it leaves the tree and is exposed to the environment or your collection container. It is similar to consuming raw cow’s milk; there are both risks and benefits to consuming raw vs. pasteurized beverages. To be safe, boil your maple sap first before drinking it.
How much sap does it take to make a gallon of finished maple syrup?
Sugar maples have the highest concentration of sugar in their sap, so they work best for making syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap boiled down to make one gallon of finished syrup.
Where can I buy a maple tree tapping kit and supplies?
Buy a complete tree tapping kit complete with guide sheet and instructions here on Amazon.
How do I tap a maple tree?
Watch our video guide on how to make maple syrup here!
How do I identify what kind of maple trees I have?
See our complete guide on identifying maple trees here.
This is one of the most popular questions we hear from customers who are getting started in the hobby. It is also one of the most difficult questions to answer, even for the veteran sugar maker. While it may sound cliche, tapping your trees at just the right time is both an art and a science. There is no golden rule or specific date each year that works for everyone, in every location, every year. However, there are a number of factors we can look at that will help us determine when to start tapping.
The typical maple sugaring season in North America occurs during the early spring months between January and April each year. Climate and your specific geographic location are the two major factors that will determine the beginning and end of your sugaring season.
Climate is the most important consideration, as it directly effects the biology of the maple tree itself. First, let’s discuss how sap flows from a tree so we can better understand the process.
Maple sap flows from your tree tap due to a fluctuation in the tree’s internal pressure, which is caused by environmental temperature changes that occur each spring. Freezing temperatures at night, and above freezing temperatures during the day are the catalyst for this internal process. Every spring, this special freeze-thaw cycle occurs as we move away from winter. The maple tree stores water and essential nutrients in its sap during the winter, which is pumped up from the ground through the trunk and to each individual branch.
Each year brings new climate change related challenges to those of us who make maple syrup. In the 2015 season, an unusually cold and harsh winter led to a very late start to the season for us here in New England and in the Midwest. When most of us would be collecting sap in February, the unusual arctic blasts pushed the sugaring season into March. At the time, we were worried about whether or not the warm weather would then come too quickly in March, causing the trees to sprout buds – effectively ending the season before much sap could be collected. Despite those fears, March turned out to be a very successful month for sugar makers in 2015.
This year, the 2016 season has its own climate related challenges to overcome thanks to El Niño. El Niño is a cyclical global warming event caused by warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. This warming pattern typically creates warmer, drier winters for New England, the Northern Mid-Western states, and the North Western states. So what does that mean for us this year?
While the exact effects of El Niño remain to be seen, scientists are predicting a milder winter here in New England. We anticipate tapping our maple trees this coming week here in Connecticut, Monday January 25, 2016. Here’s this week’s weather forecast, notice the above freezing temps during the day and freezing low temps. Sap will be flowing very nicely on those days where it warms into the 40’s.
That brings us to the next factor to consider, geographic location. Our customers are located all across the United States, so tapping times vary greatly depending upon your location. For example, here in Connecticut we usually tap quite a bit earlier than Vermont or New Hampshire, as their temperatures stay colder longer up North. That is balanced out by the fact that as we warm up here and buds sprout on trees in Connecticut, producers up North are still collecting sap a few weeks after we end. The same can be said as you travel further North into Canada where the season can extend into early April.
Our final tip to you as you embark on your first season, would be: reach out to local sugar makers in your area. Stop in to your local sugar shack or place a call; ask them if they’ve tapped their trees yet. We are a unique breed who enjoy creating a natural, delicious product from the land and often have a story to share with those who express curiosity in this ancient tradition.
Have more questions or want to chat? Join us on Twitter @KaitoRidge
Get a maple tree tapping kit here!
Autumn is here and the frosty winter air is rolling in quickly across New England this week! Now is the perfect time of year to identify your maple trees for the upcoming spring maple sugaring season before the leaves are completely gone from the branches. We’ll use a combination of clues from both the bark of the tree and its foliage to accurately identify each species of maple.
Some of the most common maple species found here in North America include: Sugar maple, Red maple and the Silver maple. We will also identify the Japanese maple which is commonly planted here for its beauty, though it is not native to North America.
Sugar maple, acer saccharum, is the most common species out of the group and also provides the best sap for producing maple syrup. It has the highest sugar content in its sap compared to the other species, and its leaf is featured on the Canadian flag. Its leaves usually have five lobes with smooth, u-shaped connections between each lobe and no serrated edges.
The sugar maple’s bark is medium to dark grey and smooth on young, small diameter trees. Mature trees of larger diameter have a distinct textured bark with vertical ridges or fissures that are brown to dark brown as pictured below.
Next we have the Red maple, acer rubrum, another common species known for its brilliant red fall foliage. The leaves have a distinct shape, with serrated edges and v-shaped spaces between the lobes.
The Red maple’s bark is very similar to that of the sugar maple, and can have robust ridges in the bark in mature trees as pictured below.
Silver maple, acer saccharinum, is one of our favorite species of maple and is also characterized by a very distinct leaf shape and bark type. The leaf of the silver maple has five lobes, with very deep notches between each long, slender lobe. The silver maple leaf is pictured below.
Silver maple tree bark is shaggy and rough similar to the sugar maple, but is distinctly more light grey or silver in appearance. It is very easy to spot silver maples in the woods amongst other species because of their bright, silver colored bark pictured below.
Japanese maple, acer palmatum, is native to Japan, Korea and parts of Russia. There are many variations of this species so it would be impossible to classify all of them under one set of identifiers. Generally speaking, its leaves are typically deeply cut and feathery in appearance with beautiful deep red hues, though some vary to deep dark purples.
Japanese maple’s bark is smoother and less textured than other species, as pictured below.
While there are many more species of maple trees along with sub-species, these are just a few of the most common trees in our area. This is a great time of year to identify the trees you want to tap on your property for the upcoming sugaring season, since we can use the foliage as our guide.
If you have a large property with a number of trees, you can always mark the trees you want to tap by tying a brightly colored ribbon loosely around the tree’s trunk. This will help make your first season of sugaring successful as you’ll take the guess work out of identifying your trees in early Spring when it comes time for tapping.