Making the Grade: Why the Cheapest Maple Syrup Tastes Best

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

When I read the headline, Making the Grade: Why the Cheapest Maple Syrup Tastes Best, I assumed that high-grade syrup would have fewer “impurities” — and I was right.

What did surprise me was maple syrup’s long history in progressive politics:

After the Revolution, Americans looked at the maple tree in a new light. To the eminent Philadelphia patriot and physician Benjamin Rush, maple sugar seemed perfectly tailored to the new republic. Here was a commodity that could compete in a global market, bolstering the independence of yeoman farmers, and demonstrating the superiority of free labor. It tapped an abundant resource, required only a small amount of labor, and used supplies most farmers already owned. Best of all, it would destroy the market for Caribbean sugar cane, produced by slaves laboring in horrifying conditions. Rush set down his reflections in the form of a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, which he presented publicly in 1791, concluding:

I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration, for I have persuaded myself, to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren, in the sugar islands as unnecessary, as it has always been inhuman and unjust.

A minor maple sugar bubble ensued, mixing frontier land speculation with fervent abolitionism. One Pennsylvania Quaker, enthralled by the idea of deriving profit from virtue, organized an association for the purpose, dispatching a sample to the president. Washington expressed his thanks for the sugar, which he was “much pleased to find of so good a quality.” William Cooper hitched his fledgling town to the enterprise. Dutch investors organized a consortium.

All of these efforts failed commercially. Rush had praised maple sap for its ability to produce refined sugar of “superior purity,” offering sweetness without any flavor. But as a refined commodity, competing on cost alone, maple sugar simply could not match the low-priced products of the cane plantations. The late-season sap, with its strong flavor, certainly offered a distinctive product, but not one capable of attracting consumers who had access to more refined alternatives. Rush speculated that it might find some commercial outlet, anyway, if it could be processed into something more desirable. “It affords a most agreeable molasses,” he wrote, suggesting that it “might compose the basis of a pleasant summer beer.” It was at least as well suited for rum, but Rush piously expressed his hope that “this precious juice will never be prostituted by our citizens to this ignoble purpose.”

It was, of course, but not often. Most maple syrup continued to be turned into sugar by frugal farm families for use as a homely sweetener, with any surplus bringing in a small amount of cash. And as a symbol of freedom, it remained potent. Adherents of the Free Produce movement shunned the products of slave labor, and sought out maple sugar. “So long as the maple forests stand,” urged a Vermont almanac in 1844, “suffer not your cup to be sweetened by the blood of slaves.”

The artist Eastman Johnson met the outbreak of the Civil War with a series of paintings depicting maple sugaring operations, blending their abolitionist virtues with nostalgia for a simpler age. Those who left their farms for burgeoning cities, or moved west after the war, brought with them a similar wistfulness for the taste of the maple tree. Sugar was relatively cheap and abundant; it was the flavor of the syrup, which their forebears had never quite succeeded in eliminating, that these migrants came to crave. Vermont Maple Syrup became a valuable brand. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Department of Agriculture scorned the idea of refining maple sap into white sugar, noting that maple sugar and syrup were “prized for their peculiar flavor, and are luxuries rather than staple articles of the daily diet.”

The continuing emphasis on a light, delicate flavor, though, made the product particularly susceptible to adulteration. Shelves filled with syrup cut with glucose, sorghum, or corn; some purveyors added decoctions of maple wood, hickory, or even of corn cobs. Others relied on appearance alone, boiling brown sugar.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, one reforming scientist estimated the amount of Vermont Maple Syrup sold every year at ten times the actual production; another cracked that a dense maple forest must stretch from the east coast to Chicago, just to supply the necessary sap.

So maple syrup became a crucial symbol in a new crusade, this time to secure the authenticity of the food supply. Consumers were incensed by the notion that they might be paying premium prices for brown sugar water. Their outrage at the violation of this iconic American product helped rally support for the Pure Food and Drug Act. The law was passed in 1906, and the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry set about cleaning up the nation’s grocery shelves.

The pure food and drug laws restored truth to labeling, but they couldn’t keep consumers from seeking out cheaper alternatives. Most of these ersatz syrups took pains to replicate the light color and mild flavor of premium syrup, associating themselves with the old notion of refinement. Mapleine, a flavoring launched in 1905, emphasized its ability to reproduce “the delicate elusive tang of the Maple Sap,” reminding consumers that “if it isn’t delicate, it isn’t delicious.”

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