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Why the cheapest maple syrup is the best (theatlantic.com)
164 points by vwoolf on Nov 6, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

I grew up on the good stuff. But in my childhood it was always grade a maple syrup. When I'd taste fake pancake syrup it would always taste gross. About 6 months ago I learned that grade b was richer and more flavorful. It's phenomenal. cheaper than grade a too.

I'm glad they are making the change to better labeling. As I've gotten older I've gotten more particular about quality of food. Which partly means finding food hacks. Like buying goji berries in Chinatown rather than whole foods or grade b maple syrup. There are a ton of these hacks out there and if you care enough to find them, you'll enjoy food more. I'd recommend "cooking for geeks" by Jeff potter. I think that's where I learned about grade b syrup.

I've enjoyed Grade B since 2005, oddly enough from a Boxer's Fast recipe.

But just to sanity check so I don't get my supply cut off: the 2013 international standard is relabeling Grade B as "Dark" and "Very Dark", yes?

Here's a great cheap online resource for goji berries:


G11 - Gou Qi Zi (high) Price:$6.99

If only all articles would go such great lengths in finding sources and then linking directly to them. This is how articles should be written, no matter the subject.

No artificial splitting over pages, links to offsite sources instead of only linking in-site, real links, no "click here" in the link text.

Amazing work.

He'a an historian. It's what they do.

The maple syrup I have from Trader Joe's says "100% Pure Vermont Maple Syrup Grade A Dark Amber"

I'm not sure the article is correct. It's common for people to say Grade B has more flavor. But is more flavor better flavor? I usually like very strong flavors, like Double IPAs, but does that mean IPAs are better than more subtly flavored Belgian Ales? I've been under the impression that Grade B has more flavor, but not better flavor. That Grade A has a less over-powering, cleaner flavor.

I haven't done a taste test, but it would be fun to line up shot glasses of different Grade A and B to test. Mmm, like beer tasting but with maple syrup. Other than the flavor thing, the article was very interesting.

The grades are based purely on color, which aligns pretty directly with flavor. If you like the maple flavor, Grade B is definitely the best; Grade C is too dark, and is only for industrial use (it needs to be cut with sugar-water to be palatable.)

Grade A is not more subtle; it is merely more neutrally sweet (i.e., has less flavor.)

Thank you for the clarification.

The article gave me the impression that Grade A was from early in the season, and it is boiled less. Later in the season the sap has less sugar naturally so it is boiled more to concentrate the sugar, which also concentrates the other flavors. That later season sap makes Grade B. Is that the case? In that way grading makes sense, Grade A being more naturally pure, but knowing that it is only based on color throws out the whole point to me. I definitely have had maple syrup I felt had too harsh a flavor, maybe it was Grade B as I'm used to Grade A.

Well, in Vermont, at least, the "season" lasts for a couple of weeks at most, so it is only the larger producers who would separate the early sap from the late sap; I had a small stand of trees, and just collected everything for the season, and then boiled at the end. While I wasn't able, therefore, to notice any differences between early sap and late sap, I did notice that the best quantity of sap came on days when it was freezing at night, and significantly above freezing during the day.

Generally speaking, you boil until you reach the right viscosity (specific gravity), which is tied to the sugar content. I used to count on boiling 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup, but this can vary a bit.

Question I've always had that you might be able to answer: how do you know how much sap you can take? Is there some point at which you're doing damage to the tree?

If you like a robust maple flavor, the best tradeoffs are usually around Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B. These will pair well with a typical breakfast. The lighter grades are useful for some deserts, but they're easily overwhelmed. Grade C is for cooking.

The new labeling system makes sense: Grade B should really be something like Grade A Dark. Sadly, this means I'll have to pay more for the good stuff.

My great-great step-grandfather invented Log Cabin syrup. I grew up surrounded by a ton of old Log Cabin memorabilia. It was actually the first mass produced "maple" syrup.

I can't ever remember us eating it though (it was sold to GF a long time ago and no longer bears the family name).

A very thorough writeup. Who knew maple syrup had such a rich political and socially-relevant history?

Labor concerns, market speculation & the markets failure to self-regulate. Sounds rather familiar...

I agree! It's interesting to see that our country suffered from the issue of competing with cheap labor at the beginning of its life.

WAit til you here about salt.

Someone in the comments of the parent article mentions sortilège, it's a liqueur made from very light maple syrup and Canadian whisky. It's readily available in places like Quebec and worthwhile as an apertif.

Thank you for reminding me to continue my quest to find a source for this. My uncle brought a bottle home from a fishing trip to Labrador once, and it was fantastic.

If you're not in the Provinces, you should be able to order it readily, for example: http://www.iselectwines.com/?iVar=86371

Grade B is definitely superior. You can get some pretty good stuff at your local Trader Joe's. About the only place I consistently find Grade B maple syrup, w/o going specialty.

The syrup comes from the motion of the fluid in the tree - when it gets cold at night the sap goes into the roots, when its warm during the day the sap rises. so to get a good flow you need cold nights and warm days.

during the flow the sap picks up the maple taste from other bits of stuff in the tree - grade b is actually the first sap produced in the season and has the most of this 'stuff'. As the season goes on theres less and less of this stuff so then you start making grade a and fancy.

If anyone is interested, from someone that uses maple syrup instead of sugar, Shady Maple Farms organic maple syrup grade B is the best. The other brands, even when organic and pure, just don't have the same type of clear taste for grade B.

You can find it at any organic/health shop.

If you can't wait, here is a non-affiliated Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Shady-Maple-Farms-Organic-32-Ounce/dp/...

In contrast to the article, the grade B at that amazon link is more expensive than the grade A of the same brand. Where is grade B actually cheaper?

That was all interesting... but did I miss the part where the author explains how it came to be that "the nominally inferior grade offer[s] decidedly superior flavor" and yet "sells at a significant discount"?

The story seems to suggest that the milder (diluted or perhaps similar to diluted alternatives?) product would have been disfavored by the regime set up by the Pure Food and Drug Act, and thus assigned a lower 'grade'. But somehow the clearer/milder syrup got the higher 'grade'. Why? And what 'evolution' of "our sense of American identity" has outraced the labeling? (Was the Grade-A/Grade-B labeling ever aligned with preferences? Do people only now like the darker syrup more, and if so, when did that preference change?)

I don't mind the story, but the opening paragraph poses questions and promises answers that aren't delivered.

It's really not that complicated.

Maple syrup was originally a locally grown (American) sugar substitute. As such, what was valued was a neutral flavor, i.e., something that tasted as little like maple as possible, and as much like sweet liquid. Thus, Grade A (and Grade A Fancy, etc.) went to the lightest, mildest syrup, and Grade B (and Grade C, which is for industrial use) went to the darker syrup with a stronger maple flavor.

(As an aside: the grading is done by color. There is a small kit producers buy which has small samples of colored liquid for each grade, and the grade is assigned based on which liquid your syrup's color matches most closely.)

The change in preferences came when cane sugar became a cheaper commodity; there was no longer any reason to use maple syrup (or maple sugar) if you weren't looking for the maple flavor.

I used to make my own maple syrup, back when I lived in the US-- it was a lot of work, but a lot of fun.

Thanks, that's much clearer than the article.

(The article talked about how people always craved the maple flavor, and were concerned about milder plain-sugar substitutes, as its lead-in to the 'truth in labeling'/authenticity-crusade era. That seemed to suggest tht even in 1906, an opposite grading emphasizing 'mapleness' could have taken root. Perhaps the regulators simply made the mistake of using the word 'grade' – implying a quality rank – when really their assessment was only of categories without any inherent preference ordering.)

Maple syrup seems to be endemic for North America. Not sure about the rest of the Europe, but I don't think it can be found in shops over here in Balkans (and maple tree itself is not uncommon).

European maple trees won't help you, either; it is only the "sugar maple", native to North America, which is capable of producing syrup. Unfortunately, even in the US, the sugar maple is getting squeezed out of its ecological niche by the (imported) Norway maple...

I have never seen it in italy or hungary either (places where I lived for >1 year), in normal shops.

It can be found at some american chains where they serve northamerican-style pancakes, but in that case it's 99% sugar+colouring+flavouring.

As for maples, there are plenty all over the world, but the cultivar from which they make syrup is in fact northamerican, those we have in the old continent would not be good for syrup extraction AFAICT

I've only ever found it in Booths, which is a fancy Whole Foods-style supermarket local to me in northern England. It's labelled with the Canadian flag and "100% pure Canadian maple syrup," but no grade. I love it on my pancakes, but now I'm worried that what I've been eating all these years isn't actually real!

Decent Maple syrup is pretty easy to come by in the UK from decent supermarkets and health food shops. It's recently gotten super expensive though - about USD $2 for 100ml. All the syrup here is graded by colour and is almost always Canadian, I didn't even think it was produced in the US.

Fascinating article.

Maple syrup is great, but in the midwest, at least, most people don't eat it; instead, they put corn syrup with maple flavoring on their pancakes. Ugh.

You can get it in almost every supermarket in Germany.

That's true, although in Germany I find it ridiculously expensive, like 7 EUR for a small bottle which lasts only so many pancakes. Although I like the flavor a lot, I can't afford to buy it regularly. Perhaps if I can find larger quantities and B-grade...

Found easily in France, too. However in US based chains like Haagen-Dasz, etc they use coloured and flavoured corn syrup most of the time.

I'm not sure this really explains how the price came to be that way?

I've explained this at more length elsewhere in this thread, but the short version is that maple syrup (and maple sugar) were originally a substitute for sugar (which was more expensive, and could not be grown locally in North America), so the "better" grade was that which was most neutral, and had the least "maple" flavor. Once sugar became cheap enough, maple syrup began to be used only when one wanted the maple flavor, but by then the grading was well-established.

What sounds better, grade A or grade B? If you know nothing else about the two products, which one are you going to buy? Which one would you expect to be cheaper?

I was almost taken aback by the comments about maple syrup being a "symbol of American authenticity", being Canadian. But considering the value of this article, it's a feeling that quickly dissipated. It's a shame that I have only seen Grade A around here. I don`t recall ever seeing Grade B syrup anywhere. Plus we only have light and medium, I've never see Dark Amber either!

Jealous of American Maple Syrup? Blasphemy! :|

Eating Maple syrup at a Main Maple syrup cookery is one of my most happy memories from when I was living in the states. Homemade vanilla ice cream with hot newly made syrup (yum). The B grade stuff is the best. Super powerful :) To bad you can only find it once in a while here in Spain and then usually the mass produced mixed stuff.

This is a weird article. For starters, it's hard to read overall. The payoff seems pretty minimal. It barely supports the headline. Non grade B syrup actually appears to be quite a bit cheaper. And no mention of Canada, whose production far exceeds the US?

In contrast, the cheapest honey is mutagenic toxic corn syrup:


It's pretty obvious, though, just by looking at it side by side (let alone tasting it). Grade B just looks darker and more maple-y.

Grade B is also what you use when you want to flavor beer.

Trader Joes sells B in wine bottles that do the job well.

What sort of beers do you recommend doing this with?

I always wondered why Trader Joe's and Whole Foods sold a "Grade B" product. Now I know why.

The B stands for "better" :)

"Note:  Looks like we are trending in Hacker News. We would like to offer a TP2 for the best comment in HN. We learned a lot from the HN community over the years - It is the least we can do."

I think you accidentally posted that in the wrong thread. The notice refers to this item:


Is there a tl;dr on this? Can't they just cut to the chase?We eat whatever tastes the best. That'w what we buy.

Oh, got it here: buy grade B syrup - forget grade A:

"So if you happen to relish the taste of maple syrup, you may want to find a bottle of Grade B while you still can. Once the inferior grade is removed from the label, the rarest, most flavorful syrup will likely command at least as dear a price as its blander and more abundant cousins."

That's a great alternative to the headline you fixated on. But the article is actually about the history of maple syrup, so I think you missed the point.

I can't eat history: it is of no use to me, especially in an article about maple syrup.

The title "Why the cheapest maple syrup is the best" asks a question and the article refuses to answer it quickly. I ddn't miss the point - I merely took the title at face value.

I still don't know any more than I did before about the history of maple syrup and that's good - less of my mind wasted on irrelevant information. But I _do_ know that grade B tastes better - something infinitely more useful. And I don't need the history as a referent, since the syrups themselves are the referents (though I shall be loathe to buy any grade A as a referent - perhaps you can do that and we shall taste).

The article was a poor example of bait-and-switch journalism.

I don't know why fools bother to downvote someone because he finds a meandering plotless plodding article to be uninteresting!

Maybe they downvoted you because you are parading your lack of attention span (or perhaps your lack of comprehension). To use terms like "fools" or "bait and switch" when you really meant "tl;dr" or "why aren't there more pictures" is more a comment on you than on the article.

For one, you're being needlessly insulting.

And come on, get used to headlines. If it asks a question that can be answered in a sentence or two and yet there is a full article attached you shouldn't get confused. It's not bait-and-switch; the entire article is about the syrup.

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