Today (March 11, 2012), we held a maple syrup tasting at the Pittsfield Grange, and it was a lot of fun! Maple syrup is one of the great examples of terroir – the way the conditions of a specific location affect the flavor of particular foods. Over 30 people came to try a slew of syrups, dipping pieces of pancakes as saucers of sweet goodness were passed around the table.

Trio of syrups...and a few pancake crumbs

Trio of Michigan syrups...and a few pancake crumbs

We tasted 11 different syrups: nine from Michigan, two from Canada, and one from Indiana.  Since this year’s batches of syrups are still being made, most of these were actually made in 2011 – only one was from this year’s batch. There were light syrups and dark. Some were created by boiling over wood fires and others that began by removing some of the water by reverse osmosis.  Some came from huge commercial sugarbushes, some from small mom-and-pop operations, and one came from an individual’s back yard and cooked on the stove.  We also tried hickory syrup, made near Adrian.  (This is made from the bark, water, and sugar – not sap.)

Folks found they all had different likes and dislikes.  Some preferred lighter flavors; others preferred a more robust flavor.  The people who like really strong, complex flavors also tended to like the hickory syrup more than folks who like the lighter syrups.  Most folks agreed that the syrups that were predominantly sweet, with little complexity, were just plain boring.  And the only people who liked the super-cheap syrup bought at Sam’s Club (which was super-sweet and thick, and so stridently maple-y that many folks thought it had artificial flavor) were under the age of 12.

There were several syrups that elicited uniformly positive responses.  We didn’t come up with an all-over crowd favorite, but here were some of the top contenders:

  • Appleschram.  This orchard in mid-Michigan is more generally known for its cider and pastured pork, but their maple syrup was a crowd favorite.  A fairly dark syrup, the group described it as tasting “a bit like caramel, almost smoky, with a strong finish.” We found it at the Ann Arbor Food Co-op.
  • Shady Maple Organic.  This medium-dark syrup is from Quebec – home of 75% of the world’s maple syrup production.  Not quite as popular as the Appleschram and Kelly’s (below), it still had its devotees, especially among the light-syrup aficionados.  Despite being lighter in flavor, it was fairly rich and complex, with smoky undertones.  This is a fairly easy syrup to find; we got ours an the Ann Arbor Food Co-op.
  • The most resounding and uniform praise came for a pair of syrups from The Kelly’s in Dexter. Literally a mom-and-pop syrup operation, the Kelly’s tap their trees with tubing and boil it over a wood fire.  We tried both light and dark syrups from 2011, and most people loved one or both.  The flavors were noticeably more complex than most of the other syrups.  The dark syrup (from the end of the season – early-season sap yields lighter syrup) had an almost molasses-like flavor.  Neither came across as being overly sweet, which was preferred by most tasters.  Do yourself a favor and seek them out at the Dexter and Saline farmers’ markets – it’s really a treat!

Overall, it was hard to discern hard-and-fast trends to finding a really good syrup.  More people preferred darker syrups (often marked grade B) than light ones (grade A).  More of the small sugarbushes had lots of fans, compared to the big commercial sugarbushes – but two of the small varieties were considered “boring” and one of the big ones was liked quite a bit.  Even production type wasn’t necessarily a deciding factor – some of the wood-fired ones were great, and some were so-so, and reverse osmosis wasn’t a “big bad,” either.