Raising the Bar on Syrup Quality

Maple grading and syrup quality are major topics at just about every maple winter meeting. Why has this topic taken on a heightened sense of importance? What is driving this interest? As the popularity of maple syrup products continues to grow, we are introducing more new customers to pure maple syrup. As interest grows, so does the number of questions about content, grading and nutritional value.  Consumers are curious!

What is the difference between pure maple syrup and table syrup?

Is pure maple syrup truly a superior product?

Is pure maple syrup worth the higher price?  

In most stores, you can find maple syrup right above the pancake flour. Shelf space is minimal and is often shared with Log Cabin, Mrs. Butterworth, and other corn syrup derivatives. The first thing consumers notice is that pure maple syrup is substantially more expensive. They may also take time to read the labels. The lower priced competition has a multitude of ingredients. Many ingredients are difficult to pronounce and not something a savvy customer wants to consume. So, they gravitate to the pure maple syrup which contains only one ingredient, Pure Maple Syrup. Many assume that because they are paying a premium price it must be a premium product. Consumers today assume a direct relationship between price and quality, and for the most part, do not mind paying a premium price for something they truly enjoy.

You only have one opportunity to make a good first impression!

There is variability in pure maple syrup sold across the country. There are USDA Standards for color and density. Density is straight forward, at least 66.0 or 66.9, depending on where you live. But grading standards by color can be confusing. To add even more mud to the water, many states do not require grading; color grading is voluntary. Remember, much of the syrup marketed in the US, especially outside the maple producing regions, is sold in box stores.

Most of the time, syrup sold in a box store is good syrup. It is sweet and with an excellent maple flavor, but occasionally there is a surprise. Until a bottle of syrup is opened and tasted, a bad bottle of syrup often looks exactly like good syrup; although, there is a tendency for poor quality syrup to wear a more generic label. You might compare buying a generic bottle of syrup to buying a box of “Cracker Jacks”, you are wondering what sort of prize will be inside. Customers can avoid bad surprises by buying from local producers who confidently and proudly attach the name of their operation to the label.

The flavor of our maple products is the single most important aspect of maple grading. Flavor more than anything else sells the product; however, grading for flavor is also one of the least understood aspects of quality syrup production. Syrup flavor varies for a multitude of reasons. Some would say it is subjective, but it is not. Each grade has its own identifiable and unique flavor profile. Because each grade is unique and prized for its own reasons, blending grades is discouraged and should be avoided. However, blending syrup grades is not restricted and it does happen. So, what exactly happens to flavor when two grades of pure maple syrup are combined to achieve a more desirable color? To put it simply, colors blend but flavor does not. Blended syrup might look attractive, but the flavor is just off. While the average consumer may not detect the difference, a discerning palate will.

If the following principle is true, for every effect there is a cause, off-flavored syrup can often be traced back to mistakes made by the producer. No one who has ever run an evaporator will deny that. Ten minutes too long on the evaporator, poor sanitation or running too late in the season, can all result in off flavors and sub-standard syrup. Mistakes happen, and in most cases, they are not intentional. That syrup should be allowed to enter the on-the-shelf marketplace. To salvage the syrup, these mistakes often end up in a barrel sold on the bulk market for whatever price the producer can get. This is what everyone does, right?!

Overall, the industry does a good job of grading density and color and is gradually placing more emphasis on quality. However, it is the responsibility of everyone involved to know when something has gone wrong. Because we are selling a food product, we need to know where to draw the line. We need to encourage producers who want to learn more about the process of making quality maple syrup to attend local or regional maple grading and quality workshops. While state regulations may enforce a bare minimum, a state’s producers should strive for better than just barely passing. Raising the bar on maple syrup quality can only be achieved through mutual cooperation and education at all levels of the industry.

 

Footnote: Substandard syrup quality and grading errors aren’t just a brick-and-mortar problem.  Check out this article from The Maple News, courtesy of research done out of University of Vermont, that examined online syrup sales and these exact same issues.

New OSU Maple Syrup SHOP

We are excited to have a new maple shop up and running on the Woodland Stewards website.  The new shop gives us a few new features to track orders and supplies a bit better.  The 2021 syrup run is all bottled and waiting on your orders as the Holiday season approaches.  We have 1/2 pint glass bottles available in addition to pint, quart, half gallon, and gallon (gallons by request only) available in jugs.

I am happy to report that syrup sales placed 2 part-time students and a full-time recent graduate in the field throughout last winter’s sugaring season.  From both a production standpoint (how the maple syrup is produced and hands-on learning of that process) and research standpoint (how to ask good research questions and how to set up experiments to get answers), each student had an incredible enriching experience thanks to your support of the program.

10/9 Fall into Maple Tour Stop at Ohio State Mansfield

The 2021 International Fall into Maple Tour is scheduled for October 8-17.  On Saturday, October 9th, you have a great chance to visit with members of the Ohio State Maple team at Ohio State Mansfield between 10 AM-6 PM.  Visitors will be able to tour the research sugarbush, purchase OSU maple syrup, and see some new maple educational materials that we are excited to debut.  From 10 AM-noon, we will be serving a pancake breakfast to tailgate for the Ohio State versus Maryland football game that starts at noon.  Look for the event tent in the Ohio State Mansfield parking lot #8 and come see us.

Maple Story Map – Students Are Key to Maple Success

Given that Ohio State is a university and has well over 60,000 students enrolled, making the statement – “students were involved” – seems like a needless statement of the obvious.  But in the case of the Mansfield Maple program and larger Ecolab initiative, the fact needs to be explicitly stated.  Students have been heavily involved.

The maple program itself is the fruition of a student report inventorying the Mansfield campus’ forest resources back in 2013.  A simple charge to “explore potential of the mature forest for a maple sugarbush” and subsequent student effort to do the project scoping have led to a whole host of tangible outcomes, not the least of which is a re-invigoration of the School of Environment and Natural Resources’ (SENR) commitment to non-timber forest products.

And student involvement has continued to this very day.  Ecolab student interns assisted in the Mansfield sugarbush installation and have participated annually in tapping and other system maintenance tasks.  Students have performed invasive species management in the maple stand and catalogued each individual tapped tree throughout the sugarbush.  A student research team helped establish the complimentary crop tree release demonstration area that targets sap-producing maples as one of the focal stand management objectives.  And last year, a Capstone group of SENR seniors explored new ways to assess and management for sugarbush tree health and vigor.  The deliverable outcome of their project was a well-crafted Story-Map linked here.  We encourage you to view the high-quality work of our Forestry and Wildlife seniors and learn about crop tree management, the threat of invasive plant species to our native biodiversity, and the potential effects of climate change on future sugarbush resilience.

Students have been an integral part of making OSU Maple a success.  By purchasing maple syrup and showing your support of the program, you can make sure student support remains a centerpiece of the initiative moving forward.  We are proud of our students and are thrilled to know that Ohio’s maples will be in safe hands for future generations.

Author: Gabe Karns

Ohio State Maple Syrup AVAILABLE

Maple syrup from The Ohio State University-Mansfield campus is available for purchase.  Produced from sap of the research and demonstration sugarbush, the maple syrup is bottled in 1/2 pint (glass bottles), pint, quart, and half gallon containers (rest are jugs).  As an extra bonus, the 2020 run of syrup, which is currently available, carries the 150th sesquicentennial logo for OSU’s important anniversary.

Importantly, OSU syrup sale proceeds contribute to maintenance of the sugarbush, seed money for research, funding maple-related student internships and research opportunities, and more.  To place an order, visit Ohio State’s Woodland Stewards website.  We can ship syrup to your door or you can request a pick-up in Columbus or in Mansfield.

For those already shopping for holiday gifts, a case of 20, 1/2 pint glass bottles is available at a good discount.  Email karns.36@osu.edu for discount details.

Click on the Mansfield Maple tab for more information about the sugarbush at OSU-Mansfield!