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.