Making the Grade: How We Classify Maple Syrup On New York’s Adirondack Coast

As it turns out, maple syrup and wine are pretty similar. And, by that, I mean they attract similarly dedicated enthusiasts who appreciate them as art forms.

If you don’t feel confident classifying yourself as a wine or syrup enthusiast, you’re probably an average Jane, like myself, who takes one look at those uniquely shaped bottles and thinks, “Wow, how fancy.” Then, after sampling what’s inside the bottles, you exclaim, “How is this sweet, sweet nectar of the gods manufactured!?”

Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic. And maybe you haven’t given much thought to how syrup and wine are made. Whether you knew it or not, both processes really are complex. Once you realize this, you might become anxious at the thought of tasting something besides Mrs. Butterworth’s.

We get it. Gourmet sweeteners are intimidating. From one novice to another: just smile and nod – we’ll get the hang of it. With any luck, it won’t be as painful as the first time we realized pink boxed wine is actually frowned upon in polite society.

What I’m getting at is: now is the time to graduate from IHOP’s butter-pecan-flavored pancake sauce, because New York State’s Maple Weekends are just around the corner on March 19th and 20th and April 2nd and 3rd. We at the Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau can’t claim to walk you through the maple-making process, but we can point you in the right direction. Get ready for your crash course in New York Maple Syrup.

First thing’s first: maple season is in the spring and not the fall. If you want to be a true maple hipster, this is very important. Right now is when all the tree-tapping is happening.

Moving on -- let’s keep going with this wine analogy, shall we? Just like there’s red and white wine, there’s light and dark syrup. These two categories used to be called grade A and grade B, respectively – but that caused some confusion.

It makes sense you might think these classifications were based on quality, with “A” being better than “B”, when actually they were based on color and density (“A” being lighter, and “B” being darker). Queue drama throughout the maple-producing regions of New York, Canada, and Vermont.

I say that because different regions had, and to a somewhat lesser degree still have, uniquely different standards by which they categorize these sugary sweet syrups. What was called “fancy grade light” in Vermont was called “light amber” in New York and “extra light” in Canada. To make things even more complicated, the USDA was all, “If it tastes like ‘light amber’, we’re calling it ‘light amber’, no matter what color it is.” Oh, yeah -- this gets super intense. There are even conferences and schools dedicated to defining and understanding this grading system.

Luckily, the New York State Maple Association released this helpful graphic summarizing the new grading system, as of 2015, and comparing it to the old one – so you won’t have any trouble finding the specific syrup you’re looking for this season. This other graphic describes the four main syrup types, all of which are now considered "A-grade".

See? Not so painful. 

Want the really advanced details about maple tapping and sugaring? Visit one of the Adirondack Coast’s many sugar houses to speak with the experts yourself during Maple Weekend 2016.