As a kid, pancakes weren't pancakes without the good stuff. And by the good stuff, I mean real maple syrup — not that artificially flavored, corn syrup-laden imposter. We'd pick up a big jug in the spring and it would last us through the year, for special weekend breakfasts and early morning oatmeal.
Now, as an adult, my pantry isn't fully stocked unless there's a bottle of maple syrup in it. But lately I've discovered that just one bottle won't cut it. That's because maple syrup is not just maple syrup — there's a whole rainbow to discover.
Why New Maple Syrup Grades?
While there have always been grades for maple syrup, the USDA overhauled them last year to make the system more streamlined. Producers often found consumers to be confused by Grade A vs. B vs. C. Was A superior just based on it being the first letter of the alphabet?
Now in the place of that old system are four variations of Grade A, all with titles that describe the color and flavor. This was done to help simplify the product and at the same time provide more information to consumers when faced with which one to buy. Does calling all four grades "A" simplify things? Hard to say, but it's helpful to have more descriptive language around all four colors of the maple syrup rainbow.
The Terroir of Maple
Beyond the grades, there are variations in maple syrup depending on where it was tapped. Just like wine, where the place the grapes are grown affects the wine itself, where maple trees are grown affects the maple syrup.
"There is a terroir, or taste of place, as it relates to maple syrup. There is a difference based on where the syrup comes from and this is affected by elevation, soil, and sun. It takes about 40 years for a maple tree to be old enough to tap, and they grow for hundreds of years, so the soil has a significant effect on the taste of the syrup," says Dori Ross, owner of Tonewood Maple in Mad River Valley, VT.
The 4 Grades of the Maple Syrup Rainbow
But looking at the grades is a good place to start your maple syrup exploration. Try a few to discover what you like and then branch out by sampling different bottles within the grades to see just how varied they can be. Yes, it might involve making a little extra room in your pantry, but I'd say it's worth it.
Grade A: Golden Color & Delicate Taste
The palest of the bunch, this is the syrup that's tapped first during the maple syrup harvest, usually around the end of February. It has the most delicate flavor and is best enjoyed on lighter dishes where it can shine. That means this syrup is perfect drizzled over ice cream, yogurt, oatmeal, and fresh fruit.
Grade A: Amber Color & Rich Taste
This is maple syrup in its most classic form — a bit dark in hue, but still golden. It's the second syrup to be tapped from the trees and its flavor is slightly richer and more rounded, with a pronounced caramel tone. The most obvious choice for using it is drizzling over pancakes, waffles, and French toast, but it's also a solid contender in baked goods. Or try it on a cheese board alongside salty varieties like cheddar and Parmesan.
Get a recipe: Maple Pecan Blondies with Maple Butter Glaze
Grade A: Dark Color & Robust Taste
The third syrup to be tapped, consider this the new Grade B. It's auburn in color, with a flavor that is deep, nutty, and reminiscent of brown sugar. Try it in a marinade or a glaze for meat or vegetables. It's also a perfect sweetener in whiskey cocktails.
Get a recipe: Grilled Beer & Maple-Marinated Bratwurst
Grade A: Very Dark & Strong Taste
The color of this syrup is so dark, you may almost confuse it for molasses. This is the last syrup to be tapped, at the end of harvest season in the spring. The intense, rich flavor is less sweet and more maple-packed, allowing it to shine through any dish, particularly stronger-flavored ones, be it pot roast or hearty buckwheat pancakes. This one's currently my favorite — to me, it's the maple-lover's maple syrup.
Get a recipe: Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes
I love the wide range of colors and flavors — hard to choose! Which one do you keep in your refrigerator?