Last weekend, Amy I set off through Venango, Crawford, and Erie counties in Western Pennsylvania for the Northwest Pennsylvania's 7th Annual taste 7 Tour Weekend. Our goal was simple – to buy 3.4 Fluid Ounces of Maple Syrup at a dozen or so of the syrup producers on the route and then bring them back home for a syrup tasting with friends.
Immediately we ran into two roadblocks – we weren’t 100% sure that we had friends who would agree to spend an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon sniffing, slurping and noting the differences in local syrups and we quickly found out that the majority of the producers were much more interested in selling us a $50 gallon of syrup than a $5 three ounce bottle.
Undaunted, we enjoyed the trip itself, especially since I’ve become so much of social hermit that a trip to the porch to get the mail qualifies as a Grand Tour. The sugar shacks ranged from the ridiculous (Yatzor's Maple Products where we felt as if we had crashed a private party and my wife’s Obama button brought a hateful stare) to the sublime (Hurry Hill Farm where we were giddy with excitement after casually being asked, “Do you want to hold a Newbery medal?” The Farm was the setting for the 1957 Newbery Award winning book Miracles on Maple Hill). Most of the stops were lovely, the people friendly, if a bit harried (this was a bumper year for both sap and tourists apparently). We finished the day with a small stash of the sweet stuff for sampling.
This year, my father isn’t sugaring because of other pressing concerns, but, the process, at its base is simple enough that I’ve done it:
Maple Syrup is made from sap collected from maple trees during the sugaring season which starts around mid-February. Early season maple syrup tend to be clear and light in taste. As the season advanced, it becomes darker and more caramelized.
According to the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, the maple sap is composed of water, minerals, various sugars as well as organic acids, nitrogen compounds and, similarly to red wine, phenolic compounds and flavonoids. Hence, my belief that we might be able to taste some differences within the Northwestern Pennsylvania micro-climate. The composition of the maple saps changes during the sugaring season, throughout the years and varies from tree to tree and region to region. This is the reason why some regions are considered the paradise of maple syrup and tend to produce maple syrup with a more rounded and elaborate bouquet (One sugarer told us with disdain, “Yeah, Quebec makes a lot of syrup, but a Canadian will put a tap into anything with leaves…).
The sugars present in the maple sap play a crucial role in initiating the caramelization reaction and the Maillard reaction as the water is evaporating. The caramelization is the oxidation of sugar; a process used extensively in cooking which result in a nutty flavor and brown color.
Our Tasting Notes:
#1 Dark Amber from How Sweet It Is (Laura Dengler & Bob Kent 814-763-2777 19868 Greenleaf Drive, Saegertown, PA 16433 firstname.lastname@example.org) How Sweet It Is uses a 3' x 8' wood fired evaporator with reverse osmosis and tap around 1100 taps.
Tasting Notes: Carmel and burnt marshmallow in the front with a creamy mouthfeel followed with a grassy, hazelnut after. This was Amy's favorite
Tasting Notes: Really spicy with notes of cinnamon and clove. This one had a thinner mouthfeel than #1 and was almost scentless. We pegged this one as the one for pancakes.
#3 Light Amber from How Sweet It Is
Tasting Notes: Light consistency and super sweet. Amy notes a lemon component to the nose and an astringency on the tongue; whereas I noticed a herbal flavor. Both of us felt there wasn't much maple flavor to this syrup at all.
Tasting Notes: A bit of burnt smell on the nose, but an even balance of spice and sweet. A semi-creamy mouthfeel pegged this one as my favorite.
#5 Ungraded Our Little Sugar House (2010) We threw one in from last year's tour to see if we could notice any difference. We could.
Tasting Notes: This was our least favorite with an oily mouthfeel and an overwhelming, almost fake maple taste and a flat mouthfeel. It's interesting to note that Our Little Sugar House is using completely new equipment this year (a 2x6 raised flue, wood fired evaporator. )