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.
The start of maple sugaring season varies each year depending upon two important variables: weather and location.
The season typically runs from January to April, and sap can run for several periods during these four months. In the 2017 season, warmer weather here in Connecticut started the season off early in January and ran through March. We had above average temps by the third week of February which resulted in a crazy sap flow – more than we could keep up with!
By mid-March the weather warmed up so quickly that the buds on the maple trees started to sprout, and that marked the end of the sap collection for us. Even though temperatures dropped again for a few weeks in April causing sap flow, it was not collectable because the buds had already sprouted.
Once the buds sprout, the tree begins to produce nutrients that spur leaf growth – yet it can be tasted in the sap and is not pleasant. It’s nature’s way of letting us know the season is over. We refer to that as the sap tasting “buddy”.
It’s pretty common in recent years here in Connecticut to have an early start to the season, so we have been tapping in mid-January due to warm weather patterns. However, January 2018 started out with historically cold temperatures below zero, and the thaw did not come until later towards the end of the month. Timing when to tap your trees is a balance of looking at your current week of temperatures, while looking closely at the 10-day forecast in your area.
If you’re located further North such as up state New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine or in the Midwest such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa where weather and temperatures are typically colder, your tapping may not begin until February. The season lasts well into April up north in states like Vermont and New Hampshire as it stays colder much later into April.
States located farther South such as Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, New Jersey and Kentucky may find that their season starts earlier and ends earlier than those of us located in New England. It would not be uncommon for people tapping in those states to end their season in mid to late March as the weather warms up and stays warm.
To read more on when to tap your maple trees, see our other posts here.
Ah yes, the age old question of how many taps per maple tree is upon us once more. At this point in your maple sugaring adventure you have your maple tapping kit ready to go, and you’re looking at the best trees on your property to tap. You wonder, “exactly how many spouts can I put into my big sugar maple out back – and how many in the small tree next to it?”
Tree diameter determines the number of spouts
Older, large diameter trees can support more spouts than younger, smaller diameter trees. While most trees will be fine with just one spout, sometimes you may want to put in two spouts to maximize your sap production from a very large tree. Generally speaking I would not recommend installing more than two spouts in even the largest trees. As stewards of the land, sustainability and tree health must be our priority.
Measuring a tree’s circumference and calculating the diameter
You’ll need a measuring tape and piece of string to measure the circumference of the tree.
- First, wrap the string around the the trunk at breast height – about 4.5 feet high and mark the string with a pen.
- Lay out the string and measure it’s length to determine the tree’s circumference.
- Divide the circumference number by 3.14 to calculate the diameter.
Let’s say, for example, the tree’s circumference is 38 inches around. Divide that number by 3.14 to get the actual diameter. In this case, 38 / 3.14 = 12.10 inch diameter. We can put only one spout in this sized tree.
Trees at least 12” in Diameter
Trees should have a diameter of at least 12” to be tapped. Some guides allow for 9-10 inch diameter trees to be tapped, but it is best if you leave those younger trees with more time to grow.
Trees from 18” to 24” in Diameter
Trees with a diameter from 18” to 24” should receive no more than two spouts or taps. While it may be tempting to add a third spout to these giants, don’t. Future generations of sugar makers will thank you!
Need more tree tapping information? Curious about how deep to drill maple taps? See our FAQ here for a comprehensive list of most frequently asked tree tapping questions.
Shop our maple tree tapping kits and equipment here.
How do I tap my trees? That’s a great question, and today on the blog we’ll show you exactly how to get started. The first thing you’ll need to do is identify what types of trees you have for tapping. Fall is the perfect time to identify the trees in your yard because the leaves have not completely fallen off of the trees yet. Next, you’ll need to pick up a maple tree tapping kit, available here with free two day shipping.
Step One – Identify Your Trees
Identify the trees in your yard and mark them with a ribbon so that you know which ones you’ll be tapping during the sugaring season. The shape and color of the leaves will help you identify what type of trees you have. See our maple tree identification guide here.
Step Two – Purchase Tree Tapping Supplies
Maple sugaring equipment can be purchased directly from our store on Amazon here. You’ll need a basic maple tapping kit which includes instructions, taps and food grade drop lines. It’s essential to purchase food grade equipment here so that your sap is not contaminated with any chemicals or other unwanted contamination.
Step Three – Tap My Trees
Once the sugaring season rolls around between January and March you can tap your trees! Figure out exactly when to tap your trees by reading our timing guide located here. You’ll need to drill a 5/16” tap hole in each tree, where you’ll insert your plastic tap into. Collect your sap into a food grade container such as a spring water jug with cap. Be sure to check the container twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Still have more questions about sugaring? Check out our FAQ page here full of frequently asked questions about making maple syrup at home.
Learn how to tap your maple tree, collect the sap and boil it down into syrup! We just tapped our trees a few days ago here in Connecticut, and have already collected several gallons of fresh, nutrient-rich organic maple sap. We boiled down the sap with a propane gas burner until the sap reached a wonderful golden amber color and stored it in a sterilized mason jar.
This buttery, light amber syrup pictured above is characteristic of the syrup produced very early in the sugaring season. As the season progresses, the syrup produced will become slightly darker in a medium amber color, eventually getting very dark and robust in flavor as we near the end of the season.
How to Tap a Maple Tree
After properly identifying your maple trees, you are now ready to begin tapping!
- Gather the tools for the job: drill (cordless preferred), hammer, food grade collection container, and a 5/16” drill bit.
- Locate the tree’s Southern exposure. The side facing South tends to produce sap earlier than other sides of the trees.
- Measure the height of the tap hole carefully before drilling. The tap height is based on the total height of your collection container and the length of tubing. Be careful not to drill too high up.
- Drill into the tree approximately 1” past the bark, into the white wood, at a very slight upward angle. Remember to use caution and wear eye protection while drilling.
- Insert the smooth end of the spout into the tree, while the barbed end inserts into your blue tubing. (Pro Tip: place the end of the tubing into hot water for 10 seconds to ease the attachment of the tube to the spout!)
- Firmly tap the spout into the tree, and be careful not to hammer the spout in too much or it will be difficult to remove. It’s better to have the spout slightly loose than to have it stuck in the tree.
- Connect your tubing to a food grade collection container. We suggest using a large, clean spring water jug or soda bottle. Be sure to check the collection container daily, up to twice a day (morning and night) as the flow of sap varies by tree and temperature.
- When you’re finished collection, the equipment can be cleaned and reused next year. (Pro Tip: to ease disassembly of the tube and spout, place in hot water again for 10 seconds to soften the tube.
Maple tapping season runs from January through April, and varies by region. Birch sap flow begins when maple season ends. The season’s length also varies by earth climate patterns year to year. Please research the season in your region before ordering!
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!