A guide to choosing the right maple syrup

Different colour variatons of maple syrup made by a backyard hobbyist in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Photo by Cindy Creighton/Shutterstock

Of all of life’s decisions, choosing a topping for your pancakes shouldn’t be a hard one — particularly with an ample supply of Canadian maple syrup at the ready.

Yet, one of the most common questions that Tracy Wheeler, a second-generation maple syrup producer, gets asked is “which is best?”

That’s why the family-owned Wheelers Maple Syrup in Ontario’s Lanark Highlands started offering syrup tasting tours three years ago. As a group, visitors learn how maple syrup is made and the conditions that create each type of syrup. Not unlike a whisky tour, they also get to sample a flight of different kinds of syrup.

“It allows the customer to answer this question for themselves,” says Wheeler. “All colours of maple syrup are beautiful in their own way and the tour showcases the differences in flavour.”

We spoke with Wheeler to find out what you need to know in order to select the perfect accompaniment for your Sunday morning brunch.

There are only two grades of maple syrup.

While guests on Wheelers’ tour taste four types of syrup, there are actually only two different grades: Grade A and Processing Grade.

Processing Grade isn’t available for retail sale, so it’s Grade A maple syrup that you’ll find on tabletops, of which there are four types or colour classes: Golden (Delicate Taste), Amber (Rich Taste), Dark (Robust Taste) and Very Dark (Strong Taste).

All four colours of maple syrup start in the same way.

Much like any other kind of farming, the weather dictates the sugar bush harvest — and it also affects the end product.

“All types of maple syrup are produced in the exact same way. In large part, it’s the weather — the temperature outside and how quickly the sap is running — that determines the colour class,” says Wheeler.

Generally speaking, the lightest of the four colour grades (Golden) is harvested early in the season during cooler weather, while the darkest (Very Dark) is harvested last during warmer spring days.

The only variation other than the colour is the end flavour.

The later in the season the sap is harvested, the stronger the flavour. Wheeler says that this means that while all syrups may start in the same way, certain colour classes may be better suited to certain uses.

For example, Very Dark syrup is often used in commercial baking due to its intense flavour. Meanwhile, Amber syrup is the most popular type; it’s the most versatile and what you’re most likely to pour over your waffles. Wheeler’s favourite, though, is the delicately-flavoured Golden, which she eats by the spoonful.

The weather isn’t the only factor that dictates maple syrup’s flavour.

Canada may be renowned as a whole for its maple syrup, but production is surprisingly regional. Different processes and environments (such as minerals in the ground) are responsible for the differences in flavour that you’ll find from farm-to-farm or region-to-region.

“It’s fun to try maple syrup from different farms,” says Wheeler. “Find one that you love and treasure the liquid gold.”

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