Foodie Influence on the Culinary Meanings of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup production, a craft activity and important marker of identity in New England and eastern Canada, has undergone serious changes as the culinary landscape has expanded and evolved over the past thirty years. Some of these changes have cut right to the heart of sugaring’s traditional process, while others have impacted the culinary meanings of sugaring and maple syrup. Interestingly, the changes in traditional process have been met with much wider acceptance among sugarmakers, while changes in the culinary meaning have been much more cautiously approached, and in some cases, rejected.

Traditional sugaring in Vermont is understood to involve hanging metal buckets on trees to collect the sap, and boiling that sap over a wood fire to reduce it down to syrup. The unique flavor that results has been prized for generations in the region, but is in increasing demand across the continent and around the globe. The expansion of markets and increase in demand for syrup have coincided with the rise of foodie culture in North America and other parts of the globe. In this note, I want to explore a bit some of the effects of this timing, to see how the culinary meanings of maple have reacted to, and been forced to change by, the palates of the new markets it has encountered.

My theoretical approach is basically epistemological. I view all aspects of culture as cultural only in the sense that they are assigned meaning by a group of people, using an indigenous system of meaning making. Once a meaning is assigned to an aspect of culture, that aspect can be used to derive other cultural meanings, and it is in this layered meanings made upon meanings made that a cultural identity is formed, maintained, communicated, and perpetuated.

Historically, sugarmakers in Vermont have been the arbiter of what constituted the best maple syrup, in terms of flavor and quality. Culinary authority rested with the producers. But, one of the most powerful and attractive aspects of being a foodie is the claiming (validly or not) of a greater share of the authority to decide what constitutes “best” and “tastiest.” So, as the maple horizon broadened, and greater distance, both geographic and cultural, was possible between maple syrup consumers and maple syrup production, the foodie culture was less able and less willing to grant authority over quality and flavor to producers. Foodie identity claims a worldliness and cosmopolitanism, but it is in reality a very self-centered epistemology. From the individuality of the celebrity chef to the narcissism of the food blogger, foodie culture supports the making of meaning by the self and for the self, while those meanings are communicated loudly and broadly to others. Appeals to various forms of authority are made, usually involving some sense of authenticity (Johnston and Baumann 2010, especially chapter two), but the ultimate determinant of “best” is the individual palate.

Such a self-centered epistemology runs directly counter to the sugaring tradition of Vermont, where quality was not a thing made by the consumer, but a thing received by the consumer from the sugarmaker. Sugarmakers decided what constituted the best quality syrup according to the production process itself. The lightest grade of syrup according to color, called Fancy in Vermont, was the hardest to make for generations of sugarmakers. Darker syrups result from various uncontrollable factors, such as the individuality of the trees tapped, the time of year, the weather, and many more. However, there are several factors that can affect the final color of the syrup that are within the control of the sugarmaker, such as the cleanliness of their systems, how quickly sap goes from tree to boil, the efficiency and speed with which the sap is boiled, and the geometry of the evaporator itself. Because some of these factors are under the control of the sugarmaker, sugaring was understood to involve a large amount of skill, and making Fancy syrup has long been a marker of skill at sugaring. Fancy was the goal for a long time, and Fancy became the benchmark for the highest quality syrup.

“Light-colored syrup has traditionally been considered the highest quality among the maple-syrup-producing community. This bias dates back to the times when it was more difficult to produce light syrup and only the best sugarmakers were capable of producing it. Back then darker syrups were much more prevalent and could contain serious off-flavors” (Farrell 2013:118).

While the color and flavor of maple syrup do not have any direct, determinative relationship, there is a strong tendency for lighter color and lighter flavor to occur together, and darker color to appear with stronger, more intense flavor. The different grades are determined solely on color, or to be more precise, on opacity, by gauging how much light penetration the syrup allows, but the general norm is that lighter colored syrup has a lighter, more delicate flavor. Because Fancy, the lightest colored syrup, has historically been the most difficult to make and was therefore prized, lighter flavored syrup was given the meaning of “best” and “highest quality.” The palate of the consumer was shaped as a result, with Fancy being seen as premium and more valuable. But that process only applies when the authority for determining best remains with the sugarmakers. Foodies have given more meaning of high quality and greater desirability to darker syrups, again in direct contrast to the epistemological meanings made and used by the producers of the syrup.

The pursuit of the stronger, more hard to access flavors that is a mark of the foodie’s motivation has caused changes in the way many foods are produced, presented, and consumed across the board. Foodie culture tends to like something that is rare, hard to obtain, hard to like, or closer to an extreme end of some flavor spectrum. There is an appeal to difficulty, which creates an exclusive club of those who are “in the know.” A food that has broad appeal is a harder sell to the foodie mentality, so things with lighter, easier to access flavors hold less interest. In the case of maple syrup, the same product has both lighter, easier versions and darker, more difficult versions. As a taste for the difficult becomes more prominent, the darker versions are going to be more sought, especially when the exact same product is available in an easier version that other, less adventurous or less savvy eaters can have.

Sugarmakers themselves are prone to the same appeal of the difficult and the rare, but in their case the equation is between sugaring skill and quality of syrup. Fancy is more rare because it is harder to make, therefore it is more prized. For the producers, difficulty is of course going to reside in the production process. For an increasing circle of consumers who are far removed from the production process, difficulty is to be found in the flavor. It has to reside there because for more and more people who are acquiring maple syrup, their first interaction with maple is on a store shelf. It is only a product, or at most, it is first and foremost a product. As a food item, the flavor is going to be easiest and best source of the difficulty that results in the meaning of “best” being applied.

In a culinary sense, Fancy’s light, delicate flavor was most prized by old Vermonters as straight eating syrup, while the other, darker grades were more for cooking or selling to tourists. An insider/outsider set of meanings were very much in play. As such, Fancy syrup commanded a higher price in the bottle. However, as the foodie culture has gained more influence on the marketing of food items, and more influence on the palates (and/or wallets) of consumers, the desire for stronger, harsher, more difficult to access flavors means that darker syrups are increasingly in demand. There is still an insider/outsider dichotomy, but the insiders are not people close to sugaring, but people who “know” that darker syrups have more difficult to access flavors. Farrell continues, “Although sugarmakers may pride themselves on making light syrup and prefer the flavor of it, it is important to realize what consumers like and market our syrup accordingly” (2013:118).

To put it briefly, delicacy has fallen out of favor. The title of a 2008 article from an online magazine is but one example of many that demonstrate the value placed on the more intense flavor of darker syrups in the foodie world: “Maple Syrup Grades: Sometimes B Stands for ‘Better’” (Callaway 2008). This shift has meant that now, all grades of syrup usually sell for the same price on the shelf. Some Vermont sugarmakers still prize the lighter grades for themselves, and a few bemoan the loss of the premium that their Fancy used to command, although generally the price of darker grades came up, rather than the price of lighter syrup dropping much. While Fancy does not bring the premium it once did, the prices of all grades in Vermont leveled off together, closer to the high end than the low, following the changing tastes of the consumer:

“We sell all of our syrup, same price across the board. Our best seller is A Medium, and second best is A Dark, and our third is Fancy, or the light. And then we sell some cooking, the B grade, which is cooking. So if they’re just allowed to just, with no pressure from me, taste it, lots of them choose the medium, and then the dark is the second best” (9 June 2011).

Consumers, who do not carry the traditional bias of Vermont sugarmakers toward the lighter flavor of Fancy grade syrup, and perhaps influenced by foodie trends of seeking out and preferring stronger flavors, now buy more Medium and Dark syrup from this sugarmaker. As a result, he sells all his syrup for the same price regardless of grade.

As I asked this man to explain why tastes have drifted, he put some of the cause on the growth of maple’s popularity outside its home region, “The lighter is more of a local, connoisseur type flavor, but for the general population, A Medium at least, or darker, is probably what suits their palate” (9 June 2011). The lighter syrup still holds the place of respect it long has among locals, which in the case is probably code for sugarmakers, while those less “in the know” have palates that want stronger tastes. Even those people who live nearby but seek the exotic in the local tend toward darker syrup, so this man’s use of “local” to describe a preference for Fancy has little to do with geography. Being local in this sense is not being close to where the syrup was made, but close to the knowledge of what he defines as good sugaring. Close to the center of the identity of the sugarmaker.

The center of sugaring’s identity is being changed, though, with the coming of a new grading system in 2014-2015. This new system, which is designed to align more closely with international maple grading norms, replaces the Vermont terminology of five grades (Fancy, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, B, and C) with four new categories (Golden with Delicate Taste, Amber with Rich Taste, Dark with Robust Taste, and Very Dark with Strong Taste). Under the old system, Grade C was for commercial use only, and could not be bought by the individual consumer retail. Of course, you could get some if you were an insider, but the rule was that C was not to be sold retail. It is important to note that the old system’s labels were descriptive of color only, while the new system’s labels describe both color and intensity of flavor. Culinary meaning is explicitly made with the new grading system.

One sugarmaker I visited very shortly after the new system came into existence talked to me about the culinary change that it was causing. After the usual chat about his boiling rig and his sugar woods, I indicated that I wanted to buy a quart of syrup. Because I have a fairly dull palate and tend to need stronger flavors in my ingredients, I tend to like the darker syrups, so I asked him for “Dark Amber or B,” using terminology from the old grading scale. He had started using new labels with the terminology of the new grade system, so my request for Dark Amber or B had to be translated into that new set of meanings. He had syrup that under the old system would have been classified as Dark Amber, B, and C, but in the new system was all either Dark with Robust Taste or Very Dark with Strong Taste. While I had known about the new grades for some time, this was my first encounter with the new system as a consumer, so I genuinely did not know which one I wanted. Unfortunately, the sugarmaker was not able to be of much help either, as the changed terminology was new to him as well. Neither of us knew how to make a coherent culinary meaning with the new grading system yet, which put us at a bit of an impasse in this situation.

The sugarmaker was no great fan of the new system, which he thought was both unnecessarily confusing and promoted skewed values. He worked with the traditional Vermont sugaring epistemology that had Fancy as the best, and the new system, in his mind, was setting the darker syrups on too high a pedestal. In his reckoning, he was bottling syrup for the consumer that previously he would have discarded or sold only to secondary food producers (Grade C, which was for commercial use as a flavoring or ingredient only), and this was a problem. He showed open disdain for the Very Dark with Strong Taste syrup he had bottled, to the point that he suggested I buy a quart of the Dark and Robust. I did so, only to have him throw in another quart of the Very Dark and Strong for free. He had produced just a handful of bottles of it, and he did not expect a large market. Further, he did not want to make money from a syrup he did not feel represented well his sugaring operation (or his skills, in all likelihood). In essence, for this sugarmaker, the Very Dark and Robust syrup was a bad representation of his syrup and Vermont maple in general. I got the impression he was as happy to have it out of his house as anything else, and he only requested that I let him know what I thought about the flavor once I cracked it open at home. The tone of his request was less eager anticipation, and more curious sympathy for what I was going to taste.

The new system, which explicitly and prominently incorporates taste as part of its description, is at least in part a nod to the changing food culture of the maple consumer. Again, as more people who live farther geographically and further culturally from sugaring become consumers of maple, the palate is not guided by the sugarmakers’ understandings of the difficulty and skill of making lighter syrup. So, color as a sole determiner of quality has less resonance, less meaning for that broader consumer base. For those who encounter maple primarily as a product on a shelf, divorced from the process that makes it, flavor profile and intensity becomes more meaningful. When that shift is combined with the foodie culture’s desire for stronger, more difficult flavors, the darker grades of syrup get elevated. The new grade system, with its emphasis on flavor as well as color, and without the implied hierarchy of Bs and Cs, is designed to put all the grades on an equal footing, and to let the consumer choose among equals according to her or his own palate. Again, the self-centered epistemology of the foodie has had an effect on sugaring. Not only are darker syrups more sought, but even the terminology used to communicate the grade of syrup has been changed.

Different sugarmakers have different opinions on the new grading system. Most accept it, some readily, others grudgingly, as a part of the shifting economics of maple. But I have yet to meet a sugarmaker whose personal tastes have changed, and all those who expressed a preference to me still want to eat Fancy. They still want to make Fancy as well, even though in most circumstances, there is not economic benefit to doing so. Regardless, as producers, it still carries a cachet of skill and expertise if they can say that they made a lot of Fancy. They don’t call it Golden and Delicate yet, either.

References Cited
  • Anonymous. Interview with author. June 9, 2011.
  • Callaway, Nina. 2008. Maple Syrup Grades: Sometimes B Stands for Better. (accessed Jan 14, 2015).
  • Farrell, Michael. 2013. The Sugarmaker’s Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch, and Walnut Trees. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Johnston, Josée, and Shyon Baumann. 2010. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Food Landscape. New York: Routledge.