Maple syrup is a viscous sweetener derived from maple tree sap. Many people use it in baking in place of sugar or other sweeteners, some use it in tea instead of honey, and it is frequently used as a topping for pancakes, waffles, and other breakfast foods. Since true maple syrup is rather expensive, a wide range of imitation syrups exist. This sweetener originated in the northeast region of North America, and it is in this region where the bulk of the world’s maple syrup is still produced. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and the eastern portion of Canada are all known for their fine syrups, each with slightly different flavor qualities.
This sweetener is produced by tapping maple trees to release and collect their sap. A tree’s sap is the fluid that, much like blood in animals, carries water and food to different parts of the tree to keep it nourished. A mature maple produces about ten gallons (40 liters) of sap in a given season, after which the tree will wall off the conduit that has been tapped, so that a new tap has to be drilled the next season. Maples are not tapped for syrup until they are at least 40 years old and have reached a certain size in diameter, to ensure that no harm comes to the tree through the tapping process.
An immense amount of sap is required to produce maple syrup, because the watery sap must be reduced to achieve the proper consistency and taste. Although the exact amount depends on the sweetness of the sap, in general it takes about 40 times as much maple sap to produce a portion of syrup. This may be further reduced to create thicker delicacies, such as maple butter, maple cream, and maple sugar.
Maple syrup is, by law, graded according to color in the United States and Canada — although the grading systems differ between the countries. In the US, there are Grade A and Grade B syrups, with three sub-divisions of Grade A: light amber, medium amber, and dark amber. Grade B is even darker than Grade A dark amber. Many people assume that the grading system is also indicative of quality, but in reality, it only helps to differentiate the color and taste of the syrup, which is a matter of personal preference. The tastes are different, but to say one is objectively “better” than another would be incorrect.
Imitation syrups, which are often labeled as pancake syrup or simply syrup in the United States, are sweet, viscous liquids that are usually colored to resemble darker maple syrup. This syrup rarely contains any actual maple-derived syrup — if it does, it is most often for marketing purposes, rather than taste — and is a very different taste experience than true maple syrup. In Canada, imitation syrups are often referred to as pole syrup or sirop de poteau, conveying that the syrup produced may as well have come from tapping a telephone pole rather than a maple tree.