Maple Syrup Grades Explained

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. 

Grade A Golden Color, Light Taste

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. 

Grade A Amber Color, Rich Taste

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.”

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.

From left to right: Golden, Medium, Dark

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.

Maple Tree Tapping Supplies

Where to buy Maple Tree Tapping Kits

So you want to tap your maple trees for the first time? Maybe you’re thinking of upgrading your current supplies? Well, you’ve found the right place! Kaito Ridge maple tree tapping kits include 5/16” blue food-grade tubing that blocks the sun’s powerful ultraviolet rays to prevent bacteria growth in the tubing all season long. 

The drop line tubing is specially formulated for sap collection, and is the same tubing used by professional maple sugaring operations around the country. The blue color also helps provide visibility in the woods, so you can see exactly where you’ve placed taps for fresh sap collection. This added benefit is always welcome after an early Spring snow storm!

You’ll also receive 5/16” tree saver spouts that are so sturdy, they’re practically indestructible. This diameter spout is the industry standard in sap collection; it allows sufficient sap flow for collection while allowing the tree tap hole to heal within the same year. Other suppliers may provide larger spouts that can be damaging to the overall health of the tree. We only provide 5/16” tree saver spouts as preservation of nature and long-term sustainability are our core values.

Tree Tapping Kit

Each tree tapping kit includes a maple sap filter which can be used both as a pre-filter for raw sap straight from the tree and as a hot maple syrup filter after your sap boil. Filtering syrup after boiling down your sap helps reduce the amount of natural sugar sand that’s often present in your final syrup product. The filters can be rinsed and reused.

As always, each kit includes a complete tree tapping instruction quick guide and our top-rated customer support for all of your maple sugaring needs and questions. For further reading and frequently asked questions, see some of our recent posts below:

When Does Maple Sugaring Season Start?

How Many Taps per Maple Tree?

How Do I Tap My Trees?

Our tree tapping supplies are now available on Amazon here, with fast and free 2-Day nationwide shipping.

When Should I Tap My Maple Trees?

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.

drillingtreestaps

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!