Tasting Maple Syrup with Christopher Kimball

Introduction to Tasting Maple Syrup with Christopher Kimball

Maple syrup holds a special place in the hearts and on the breakfast tables of many people. This iconic condiment has a rich history intertwined with the founding and growth of America. Christopher Kimball, founder of America’s Test Kitchen, Milk Street Magazine, and more, has done extensive research into the history, production methods, grades, and tasting nuances of maple syrup. Join us on a journey into the world of maple syrup guided by the expertise of Christopher Kimball. We’ll cover everything from the agricultural and production side to tasting techniques for appreciating maple syrup in all its forms. Whether you’re a lifelong maple syrup fan or looking to gain a deeper appreciation of this classic ingredient, read on to enhance your knowledge and tasting skills when it comes to maple syrup.

A Brief History of Maple Sugaring and Syrup in America

Before European settlers arrived, indigenous peoples were making maple syrup by collecting and evaporating sap over a fire. This practice has continued for hundreds of years, making maple sugaring one of the oldest food traditions in America.

Early colonists learned the practice from Native Americans. As settlements grew in the 1700s, maple sugaring increased throughout the colonies, with the sap generally used to make sugar rather than syrup. This locally produced maple sugar helped supplement imported cane sugar from the West Indies.

Over time, maple syrup production grew into a thriving commercial industry in the 1800s. Technology advanced from collecting sap in buckets to a network of tubing and tanks. Larger sugar shacks evolved to aid in efficiently boiling down huge quantities of sap into sweet syrup.

Vermont emerged as the leading maple syrup producing state by the late 1800s. The maple industry continued growing through the 1900s, with backyard syrup making a tradition for many rural families. Associations formed to promote and protect maple syrup production.

Today, maple sugaring remains an iconic cottage industry in places like Vermont and New Hampshire. Advancements make the process more efficient, but traditional small operations still thrive, especially for premium artisanal syrup. Maple syrup production has also increased across the northern U.S. and even into some southern states.

How Maple Syrup Gets from Tree to Table: The Production Process

Maple syrup production is a time-honored process that transforms the clear, mildly sweet sap from maple trees into richly flavored syrup. Let’s walk through the steps:

Tapping the Trees

The first step in maple syrup production happens in late winter when producers tap maple trees by drilling holes and inserting a spout or tube to extract the sap. They hang a bucket from the spout or connect tubing that runs from tree to tree. The sap flows thanks to pressure changes within the tree as conditions warm during brief thaws.

The sap is a translucent, slightly sweet liquid composed mostly of water and some natural sugars. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Only sucrose-rich sap from maple species like sugar maple and black maple can become syrup.

Collecting and Storing the Sap

Producers collect sap daily whenever flows run. They empty the individual buckets into holding tanks if using a tubing system. Screening removes debris before temporarily storing the sap in tanks or reservoirs until there is enough accumulated to boil down.

Keeping the sap chilled to 40°F or lower helps prohibit microbial growth and premature spoilage during storage. Some producers use reverse osmosis to remove excess water from the sap before boiling. This reduces energy requirements for evaporation.

Boiling Down and Evaporating Excess Water

To transform the sap into syrup, producers boil it down to evaporate almost all the water, creating an amber-colored, viscous liquid rich with maple flavor.

Evaporation removes approximately 25 to 50 gallons of water from every 40 gallons of sap. Lecithin, a natural fat, gets added at the end of the boil to help any sugar crystals dissolve so the syrup pours smoothly.

As sap boils, its sugar concentration rises, resulting in characteristic flavor and color changes. The longer syrup boils, the darker it becomes, creating various grade designations. Exact boiling times and temperatures used depend on producers’ preferences.

Filtering and Grading

After boiling sufficiently, producers filter the syrup through cloth or paper to remove sugar sand or minerals called sugar grit that precipitate during evaporation. Filtering results in smooth, clear maple syrup ready for grading and packaging.

Syrup grades range from light to dark:

  • Grade A Light Amber: Delicate flavor. Evaporated to slightly above syrup density.
  • Grade A Medium Amber: Richer than light, but not as strong as dark. Popular all-purpose grade.
  • Grade A Dark Amber: Robust maple flavor. Boiled longer so slightly thicker.
  • Grade A Very Dark Amber: Very intense maple taste. Strongest flavor.
  • Grade B: Dark with very bold maple taste. May have slight mineral taste from sugar sand that gets filtered out of other grades.

Packaging and Purchasing

After grading, maple syrup gets packaged for retail or bulk sale. Consumers can buy pure maple syrup in containers from large cans to small glass jugs. Maple syrup should be stored sealed in a cool, dark place for maximum quality retention. Once open, keep refrigerated and use within 6 months to 1 year.

When purchasing maple syrup, check for a grading seal to guarantee 100% pure maple. Prices typically increase with darker grades due to more extensive boiling required to produce richer flavor.

FAQ: Answering Common Questions on Maple Syrup

Maple syrup raises many questions for those wanting to enhance their knowledge. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

What makes maple syrup such a unique sweetener?

Maple syrup offers a one-of-a-kind flavor unlike any other sweetener. It comes straight from the sap of maple trees with no additives or artificial processes. The aroma, taste, and texture stand apart from honey, molasses, simple syrups, and artificial pancake syrups.

Why does real maple syrup cost more than pancake syrup?

Authentic maple syrup comes from nature and requires significant manual labor to produce compared to commercial alternatives made from corn syrup with artificial flavors. It takes effort to tap trees, boil sap for hours, and bottle small batches. The limited annual yield and high quality result in maple syrup’s higher cost.

Is maple syrup healthy?

Maple syrup contains beneficial minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. It has antioxidants with potential health benefits. Maple syrup offers vitamins and more nutrients than plain sugar or corn syrup. But it is still high in natural sugar calories, so moderation is key.

How should maple syrup be stored?

Unopened maple syrup will keep several years stored in a cool, dark place. Avoid temperature fluctuations. Refrigerating after opening helps maple syrup retain maximum quality for 6 months to 1 year. Keep it tightly sealed. If mold forms, discard the syrup.

What does Grade B mean compared to Grade A?

Grade B indicates a darker, stronger flavored syrup. It may have slightly more mineral taste since filtering is minimized. Grade A has variations from light to dark but all are filtered to remove minerals/sediment. Grade A is the norm for table syrup. Grade B suits baking or folks who enjoy a robust maple bite.

What are common ways to use maple syrup beyond pancakes?

Maple syrup’s uses are endless! It’s wonderful in dressings, glazes, marinades, baked goods, yogurt, oatmeal, tea or coffee, cocktails, candies, granola, roasted vegetables, desserts like maple creme brulee, and more. Let your imagination run wild with maple syrup incorporated into both sweet and savory recipes.

Tasting Maple Syrup Like a Pro with Christopher Kimball

Now, let’s dive into how to truly taste and appreciate maple syrup with guidance from syrup connoisseur Christopher Kimball.

Components of Flavor

Kimball notes maple syrup encompasses a complex flavor composed of several elements that intermix and fluctuate in prominence depending on grade and production variables. Sweetness hits first. Look for accents of caramel and vanilla. Notice woody, earthy notes along with cocoa and coffee undertones that increase with darker syrups.

The flavor and aroma should express a balanced harmony. Mapleiness will come through, hard to define but you know it when you detect that subtle, signature taste. Distinctive minerality derived from soil and wood plays a role. Pay attention to the interplay of these flavors.


Visually inspecting maple syrup color provides clues to its grade and corresponding flavor. Lighter versions will appear luminous, pale amber. As you move darker, color progresses through golden tones to reddish-brown. Color intensity has direct correlation with flavor. The darker the shade, darker the maple taste.


Maple syrup should appear clear and translucent, not cloudy or opaque. Exceptions include specialty artisanal batches intentionally processed less to retain a rustic, wood-aged profile. Filtering to remove sediment produces clarity while minimizing minerality. In clear syrup, sugars should fully dissolve with no crystallization.


Consistently smooth and silky viscosity indicates quality processing. Syrup shouldn’t be watery thin but also shouldn’t have a noticeable sugary grittiness. It should pour evenly and feel thick and velvety on the tongue. Maple flavor comes through most strongly when the syrup has sufficient body and texture.


Before tasting, lift your glass to your nose and inhale the syrup’s aroma. The scent will give you a preview of the flavor. Seek out subtle layers of vanilla, caramel, earthiness, spice, coffee, and maple essence.


The intensity of sweetness depends on the batch, with darker syrups tending to taste less overtly sugary. Sweetness should intertwine in balance with maple flavors rather than overpowering them. Minimal use of additives means maple offers an inherently purer sweetness than many alternatives.


Trace hints of minerals from the sap express the regional soils where the syrup was made. This “terroir” similarity to wine adds unique character. A faint minerality on the finish can accent other flavor notes without overwhelming them. Filtering reduces the mineral profile.


Consider how the syrup feels on your tongue as you slowly savor it. Maple syrup at proper texture should lightly coat your mouth with viscosity that carries the flavor. Without being heavy or cloying, it provides sufficient body and a light cling.


Lingering maple notes mixed with traces of minerals and woodsiness make up the aftertaste or finish. Different grades and batches will vary. See what nuances you can detect once you swallow the syrup. The finish ties together the entire tasting experience.

How to Host a Maple Syrup Tasting Party

Want to share the joy of maple syrup with friends and family? Host a tasting party to sample various grades and styles of syrup while enhancing your flavor appreciation skills. Use these tips to make it fun and educational for all:

  • Obtain different maple syrups: Try to have 3-5 distinct types to compare. Include light, medium and dark Grade A options plus Grade B for more diversity.
  • Supply tasting strips: These allow syrup sampling without waste. Provide strips of plain bread, biscuits, scones, pancakes, waffles, etc. for syrup dipping.
  • Make simple baked goods: Offer basic treats like pound cake, doughnuts, or muffins to complement without competing with the maple syrup.
  • Provide tasting sheets: Print out sheets with aspects to evaluate like color, clarity, aroma, flavor, etc. Leave room for tasters to record comments.
  • Taste systematically: Encourage participants to look at, smell and finally taste each syrup. Have them note impressions between different types.
  • Discuss as a group: After tasting individually, have everyone compare experiences. What stood out about each syrup? What characteristics were most noticeable?
  • Sweeten up beverages: Allow guests to add syrups to coffee, tea, milk or cocktail recipes to see how they perform in different roles.
  • Send home samples: Provide mini take-home bottles so people can re-taste and use their favorites creatively at home.


Maple syrup stands out among natural sweeteners for its unique flavor, history, lore, and production process. Gaining a deeper understanding of this special ingredient provides richer enjoyment whether drizzled over pancakes or used to add a touch of magic in both sweet and savory dishes. Learning optimal ways to taste maple syrup helps you fully experience the subtle nuances that make it a treasured tradition for Christopher Kimball and syrup lovers worldwide. Let maple syrup evoke nostalgia while creating new sensory memories to savor for a lifetime.