Maple syrup grades are based on color and flavor. The sugar content is always the same in the finished product; however, changes in the sugars during processing are what affects the color.
The sugar in the sap starts as sucrose. During the latter part of the season, naturally occurring bacteria break that sucrose down into glucose, which is a simpler sugar. During the boiling process, the glucose tends to brown, or caramelize, more than the sucrose. That is what creates the darker colors later in the season.
There are four types of Grade A maple syrup, but the first three are the grades typically sold for use in the home kitchen. The Very Dark & Strong is usually sent for more industrial food applications like an ingredient in a commercially made sauce.
- Golden & Delicate (also known as Fancy)
- Amber & Rich
- Dark & Robust
- Very Dark & Strong (formerly known as Grade C)
The year's weather conditions make it a little bit of a mystery as to what grade will be made. There's always that bit of excitement when the first syrup comes off the evaporator, and we get to find out the color of that first syrup. In general, the lighter syrups are made at the beginning of the season; the darker syrups are made later in the season.
Color is the primary factor when grading syrup, and the grade is determined by the percent light transmission:
- 'Golden' syrup has a light transmission 75% or above
- 'Amber' syrup has a light transmission of between 50% and 74.9%
- 'Dark' syrup has a light transmission of between 25% and 49.9%
- 'Very Dark' syrup has a light transmission of less than 25%
The flavor is the second factor in determining the grade. While it's possible for light colored syrup to have strong flavors, the intensity of the flavor generally increases as the color darkens. The delicate syrups are great for when you don't want an overpowering maple flavor - perhaps in an Old Fashioned or over vanilla ice cream. The robust flavored syrups are great when you need that extra punch, like in a marinade or baked goods.
The strongest grades are generally considered lower quality and are sold to commercial food operations. The maple flavor in those is different than what you typically use in the kitchen. See if you can taste the difference the next time you have some mass produced food that has maple syrup as a primary ingredient.
Each grade is unique and we like to have all available for our different cooking needs. Try one of each and see what your favorite is!