At the Deep Mountain Maple stand at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, there are certain customers whose love of maple syrup borders on obsessive. Not only are they faithful buyers who turn up regularly at the stand, they consider themselves to be syrup evangelists, eager to guide others through the various shades and flavor grades on Deep Mountain’s table.
¨The ones who will stand there and tell people what to buy are almost always men,” notes Stephan Cantor, who with her husband Howie Cantor (full disclosure: Howie Cantor is my brother), have been selling syrup from their West Glover, Vermont sugarbush at New York’s markets for the past 27 years.
In that time, maple syrup has gone from a breakfast treat and baking secret to an all- purpose sweetener coveted, apart from its taste, for its natural origins and nutritional value. Over the past decade in particular, the widespread raising of organic consciousness has led people away from those Mammy-shaped bottles at the grocery store in search of the real thing.
Maple syrup lovers generally are opinionated when it comes to choosing their grade of syrup, debating the superior flavor and nutritional value of dark or light, delicate tasting or full bodied just as passionately as wine connoisseurs. So which is the best? The difference in maple syrup color depends quite simply on when in the spring sugaring season the syrup is produced. All pure syrup is made the same way, by boiling tree sap, never refining it. (Lighter syrup is NOT more refined, so forget it when a syrup geek you may encounter at your local farmers’ market makes that claim.) All maple syrup is good for you, in fact more so than previously known. A recent University of Rhode Island study funded by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers found that maple syrup contained 13 previously unknown compounds beneficial to health, including phenolics, which are believed to combat cancer.
So which maple syrup is the best?
“What I always tell people is don’t buy one grade or the other because you think it´s better for you; it’s not.” says Stephan Cantor. “Just buy what tastes best to you.” Last month, just as Deep Mountain and other maple producers were selling the first bottles from this year’s crop, she gave me the basics on Vermont maple syrup grades. (Though the names of maple syrup grades in Canada vary slightly, there is the same variance from light to dark).
Almost clear like ginger ale in color and lightest tasting. Fancy syrup is made from the sap that runs from the trees just as winter thaws. You may note a vanilla note in the flavor of this syrup, a vintage generally prized by maple farmers themselves.
Grade A Medium Amber
A good starter syrup, it has a lighter but distinctly maple flavor. This is likely what you’ll get when buying a non-graded pure maple syrup at the grocery store.
Grade A Dark Amber
Don’t let the dark color steer you away. Perhaps not as pretty as the jewel-like lighter grades, but perfect as your everyday breakfast syrup and for general sweetening, even in coffee.
The darkest syrup from the end of the sugaring season, and traditionally, syrup for use in cooking and baking. B has gained popularity as an all-purpose syrup in large part because of its use in the detoxification regimen “The Master Cleanse,” also known as “The Maple Syrup Diet.” Proponents of the diet often claim that Grade B has more nutrients, but it doesn’t. It does have a stronger taste, and according to Stephan Cantor, B is the syrup that those opinionated male customers will aggressively push to less educated syrup buyers. And accordingly, with its darker color and strong flavor, it could be perceived as the most macho maple syrup.
What's your favorite maple syrup? Talk about it in the comments.