Maple Syrup Profile

Overview

The U.S. production of maple syrup in 2017 totaled nearly 4.27 million gallons, up 2 percent from 2016. The average number of taps totaled 13.3 million across the United States. Yield per tap averaged .320 gallons, which was down 4% from the previous season (NASS).

Vermont led the nation again and produced 1980 gallons in 2017. New York and Maine followed Vermont. Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut also produced maple syrup. (NASS 2013)

The average maple syrup price in 2017 was $35. This is a decrease of $1.70 from the NASS reported 2015 average. The total value of U.S. maple syrup production in 2016, at $147 million, was up 17 percent from the previous season. (NASS)

Processing

The three major species of maples are the sugar maple, red maple and the silver maple. The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the major specie for sugar production.

Under the best conditions, sugar maple trees reach a tapping size in about 30 to 40 years. A carefully tapped tree will give from 5.8 pounds to 14.6 pounds on a warm spring day.

Maple sap is clear, slightly sweet and has the consistency of spring water. The distinctive maple taste develops through careful boiling. The sugar in the sap results from the production of starch during the months of May through August, which is stored in the tree roots. With the melting of the snow, starch turns into sugar (sucrose), which is then circulated through the tree in preparation for the growing season. As a result, the sap runs intermittently from early March to mid-April, during the thawing of the ground in spring, but before the buds open on the maple trees. Good maple sap production requires warm days and cool nights below the freezing point. 

As the trees are tapped, a 7/16-inch hole is drilled into the tree to a depth of about 1½ to 2½ inches. A “spout” is driven into this hole. These spouts are like modified pieces of pipe from which a bucket is hung or a pipeline is run. A cover keeps dirt and rain water out of the buckets until collection; a pipeline carries the sap directly from the tree to the storage tank.

To make top quality maple products, the sap must be fresh and cold, which means it must be gathered and boiled often. In some sugar orchards, small plastic tubing is attached directly to the spouts. The sap then flows through the small plastic tubes to larger pipes and directly to the storage tanks, reducing the labor of gathering the sap. Other sugarmakers use large gathering tanks that are pulled by tractors or horses through the woods. The sap, which has dripped from the spouts, is dumped from the sap bucket into the gathering pail, which is then carried to the sled. The sap is next dumped through strainers into the “gathering tank.”  When the tank is full, it is hauled to the sugar house and emptied into an elevated storage tank to await boiling.

From the storage tank, the sap flows to the evaporator. Evaporators are large pans, varying in size according to the size of the operation. A popular size is five feet wide and 16 feet long. Most evaporators have two pans: the flue pan and the syrup pan. The sap flows first to the flue pan, which has a bottom made of flues to provide a greater heating surface, and then to the flat-bottomed syrup pan. The pans are divided by partitions, which create a continual but very slow movement of sap from the point where it enters the evaporator around the many partitions and finally out of the evaporator as syrup.

To evaporate the tremendous amount of water in the sap, a large quantity of fuel must be burned. Some producers use oil; however, most sugarmakers use wood cut from their own woodlots as fuel. Today some maple farms have equipment that concentrates the sugar content of the sap to save on heating costs and produce a lighter colored syrup. This process is called reverse osmosis.

It takes a long time for 2 percent sap to be condensed by the evaporation process to the exact density of maple syrup. If cooked too thick, the resulting syrup will crystallize. If cooked too thin, the syrup will likely ferment. Sugarmakers use a hydrometer to check the density. When the hydrometer settles in the liquid syrup to a mark designating the correct density, the syrup is drawn from the pan. It is then filtered again to remove the nitre (or sugar sand) that has developed in the boiling process.

From the filtering tank, the maple syrup flows into small retail containers or into 35- and 50-gallon drums to be packed later. The syrup is packed hot and each can must be sealed according to state law. In Vermont, the grade of syrup and the packer’s name and address are marked on the can.

Grades and Their Characteristics

Pure maple syrup is graded according to USDA regulations and is based on both color and flavor. The USDA grades are as follows: U.S. Grade A Light Amber, U.S. Grade A Medium Amber, U.S. Grade A Dark Amber and U.S. Grade B. Some states use a slightly different terminology, as does Canada, but the legal requirements for each grade are the same, regardless of what they are called. For example, Grade A Light Amber syrup is sometimes called Fancy Grade, and in Canada it is called No. 1 Extra Light.

Grade A Light Amber is very light and has a mild, more delicate maple flavor. It is usually made earlier in the season when the weather is colder. This is the best grade for making maple candy and maple cream.

Grade A Medium Amber is a bit darker and has a bit more maple flavor. It is the most popular grade of table syrup and is usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, about mid-season.

Grade A Dark Amber is darker yet, with a stronger maple flavor. It is usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.

Grade B, sometimes called Cooking Syrup, is made late in the season. It is very dark, with a very strong maple flavor, as well as some caramel flavor. Many people use this for table syrup, but because of its strong flavor, it is often used for cooking, baking and flavoring in special foods.
 
While USDA has established legal grades for maple syrup, each state can adjust its statues, within certain boundaries, to accomplish its own goals.

Prices

The average U.S. price per gallon for maple syrup in 2017 was $35, down $1.70 from 2016. The average price per gallon in Vermont was $30, and 80 percent of the sales were bulk. In contrast, the average price per gallon in Connecticut was $69.50, and 49 percent of the sales were retail. (NASS 2012) The average retail price of domestic maple syrup remained at nearly $35 per gallon (ERS).

Competition

Maple products are in a unique class, but they have to compete with other less expensive sugar products such as sugar cane, honey and other sweeteners. In the past, maple products were often sold for use by consumers as is, without any transformation or any other form of utilization or refined presentation. More recently, the industry is looking to expand their product in the gift market and ingredient market. Examples of this include more elaborate packaging, infused maple syrup products, more frequent uses as a topping on other food products such as popcorn, peanuts and so on, or blended with other products such as cereals and yogurts.

Opportunities and Challenges

Increased quality control at the producer level will be needed to maintain and ensure uniformity and quality of maple products. In 1993, the Food and Drug Administration changed its standard of identity for maple syrup "to require the listing of the common or usual names of all ingredients." As a result, the term "Vermont maple syrup" may appear in the list of ingredients on various maple products, including those produced in other states. In 1994, Congress amended the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to clarify that states may override federal standards and establish their own standards for maple syrup. For instance, states may exclude the use of salt and chemical preservatives in maple syrup, while the federal standard permits such ingredients.

As a way to impose quality standards on maple products, the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI), a voluntary nonprofit organization of Canadian and American producers and processors, developed a certification process. To be certified, maple syrup products must first meet the stringent requirements; they must be 100 percent maple syrup, with no additives such as sugar, syrup, coloring or flavoring. By meeting these standards, processors earn the right to display the seal of approval on their product labels. Most companies that have had their maple syrup products certified are production, purchasing and processing firms.

More than 50 percent of the world's maple product industry can already bear the seal of quality. Many producers follow standards such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) or other self-imposed standards and produce high-quality maple products. Promotion activities in combination with these improved quality standards are contributing to the maintenance and development of new products around the world.
 
Maple products are considered high-value products and are subject to stiff competition from other sweeteners. The industry is promoting the nutritional value and the “pure and natural” virtues of the maple products.

Many producers have developed extensive markets for maple products, such as maple sugar, maple taffy and molded maple sugar, which is one of the most popular confections, and offer a wide variety of packaging. Gift and corporate packs are becoming increasingly popular.

Sources

Maple Syrup, Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.

Maple Syrup 2012, New England Agricultural Statistics Service, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.

Links checked September 2017.