Does Your Maple Syrup Taste Like Brioche? Hay? Soy Sauce?

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 15 2013 5:45 AM

Far From the Tree

Why Vermont wants you to use wine descriptors to talk about maple syrup.

The next time you take a bite of syrup-soaked pancake, ask yourself: What does that maple syrup really taste like? Do you detect a hint of spiced meat? Perhaps a whisper of mango? Or is that je ne sais quoi the flavor of oats?

If you think maple syrup always tastes like, well, maple, think again. This humble sweetener, born in backwoods cabins, has entered the highbrow world of gourmet food. Its flavor has been dissected like that of a fine wine, marketed as Vermont’s countryside in a bottle, and puzzled over by scientists trying to unravel the chemical complexities of taste.

It’s all part of a new campaign in Vermont to hitch maple syrup to the terroir movement that has people paying top dollar for coffee from a particular plantation in El Salvador or wine that captures the essence of the Loire Valley. The idea originated with University of Vermont anthropologist Amy Trubek, author of The Taste of Place, a book about terroir in America. Using a $45,000 grant from the U.S. Agriculture Department, she convened a group that included wine and cheese experts, a sensory scientist, maple producers, the state government’s Maple Specialist, and a Middlebury College chemist. In tasting sessions, meetings, and chemistry labs, they tried to pin down the flavors of maple syrup, and how it might connect to the Vermont landscape. The end result was a free guide the state’s agriculture department now gives sugar-makers, coaching them, essentially, to think more like wine snobs. It offers tips on tasting syrup, along with a thesaurus’ worth of adjectives to describe its flavors, ranging from “fresh butter” to “leather.”

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The question of terroir isn’t purely academic; it’s economic, too. If someone will pay $42 for 12 ounces of coffee beans, what could Vermont producers get for a pint of private reserve syrup? The guides were meant to show sugar-makers a new way of talking about their product. If they thought more like connoisseurs, maybe they could persuade customers to pay more, and catch the attention of folks who hadn’t considered syrup a gourmet item.

Earlier this spring, as the see-saw of freezing nights and daytime thaws got sap pumping through maple trees, my 7-year-old son and I ventured down a muddy path to a wooden hut 10 miles south of the Canadian border. I had come to wrap my tongue around two questions: How different could different maple syrups really taste? And could they ever taste different enough to make me want to pay a premium for something I pour on my pancakes?

Seth Wolcott-MacCausland was my guide. His family owns 170 acres of woods where they’ve made maple syrup for three decades. (He’s also a friend of a friend, and I’d once hired him to do some carpentry work on my house. Vermont is a very small world.) The Wolcott-MacCauslands sell their organic, single-source Green Wind Farms syrup mostly through gourmet shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. By coincidence, my son and I were joined that day by two Brooklynites, Tom O’Connor and Matt Pugliese, who had come to see the source of the syrup they sell on their specialty food website. O’Connor was charmed.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said as Julie Wolcott, Wolcott-MacCausland’s mother, drove a small, horse-drawn wagon through a maple grove, pausing to fill a tank on the wagon with sap from metal pails hung from the trees. “It’s still very connected to the land.”

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Wolcott emptied the sap from the tank into a system of pipes leading to the sugarhouse. That’s where the sap’s hint of sugar is concentrated into syrup’s jolt of sweetness. A sugar-maker filters and boils roughly 40 gallons of watery sap to make a single gallon of syrup. Inside the building, as plumes of steam rose from the boiling sap nearby, Wolcott-MacCausland lined up 11 jars of the family syrup, each a different hue of brown.

I had an anxious feeling reminiscent of final exams. I am not a supertaster. While I can usually tell a syrah from a pinot noir, that’s about where my tongue’s discerning ability ends. When people start opining about wine, I’m always reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit where three pretentious oenophiles muse over their glasses:

“Oh, she is ambitious. Is anyone getting a bit of aftershave lotion?”

“Perhaps. And maybe a hint of snow, and electronics?”

But I had my cheat sheet: the plastic guide paid for with the federal grant, with its syrup-tasting tips and 43 adjectives. Among the suggested descriptors were baked apple, brioche, condensed milk, caramel, mushroom, hay, and soy sauce.