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Why Maple Syrup isn't like Toilet Paper

We had such a great reaction from last week's post about why maple syrup is different from broccoli (check it out here) that we thought we'd tackle another common misconception.  Not surprisingly,  there are some pretty significant reasons that maple syrup isn't like toilet paper- and it’s not just that you don't want to put toilet paper on your pancakes or maple syrup on your... *ahem*... never mind.

You see, when most of us buy toilet paper, we're looking for just one thing- how to get the most number of sheets for the least amount of money.  The shopping experience is really nothing but a math exercise- sometimes made a little more difficult because there are no standards for roll sizes or number of sheets per roll, but still just a matter of figuring out what is cheapest.

A lot of people buy maple syrup the same way; they take the cost and divide it by the number of ounces and figure out which syrup is cheapest.  Unfortunately, this often results in some pretty poor experiences for the consumers.

When looking to buy maple syrup, here are some things to consider:

  • More than once we've had someone come to our booth at a market and tell us about a negative experience they had with some extremely cheap syrup.  Usually what has happened is they purchased a gallon, often without much information on it about the grade, production lot, or producer, and found that it was moldy.  This happens because of improper bottling, improper syrup density, or improper canning temperature.  If the syrup isn't boiled to a high enough temperature, there will be too much water in the syrup, which means that bacteria and mold is more likely to grow.  Experts agree that syrup should be bottled above 180 degrees Fahrenheit.  This temperature prevents mold by allowing the hot syrup to sterilize the inside of the jugs as they are filled. If syrup is allowed to cool below this temperature, mold can grow inside the jug.
  • Even if there aren't contamination issues, we've often had consumers remark that the syrup they bought at (insert big box store or massive online retailer) doesn't taste as good as what they bought directly from a producer.  This is also a result of cost cutting measures taken by the large packers.  Syrup is sold to most large retailers at extremely low prices, and in order to be profitable, the packing houses must buy syrup in bulk from hundreds or thousands of producers. This syrup is stored in drums for periods sometimes lasting over a year before it is reheated in blending silos and packed.  Because of the long storage times, multiple reheatings, and the fact that many small producers will only sell their poorer-tasting syrup to the packers, this system is almost always guaranteed to result in a less flavorful product than you could get buying directly from the farmer who made the syrup.

At Sterling Valley Maple, we personally test each batch of syrup to ensure quality, and if there is a question about quality or taste, that syrup is stored separately and sold (usually to the large packing houses that then mix it with other syrup before it goes to a big box store-see the results of that in the above paragraph).

So, how do you avoid buying "toilet paper" syrup?  It’s simple: 

  • If you are a consumer, we encourage you to buy directly from the sugarmaker (and let’s be honest here, we hope you choose Sterling Valley Maple!).  If you don't choose to buy from us, buy from someone who doesn't mind taking a few minutes to tell you about their operation.  Ask them a few questions- “How do you know your syrup is finished boiling?” (they should talk about both the temperature as measured by a thermometer and the density as measured by a hydrometer) and “How do you know your syrup is hot enough to package?” (the temperature should be above 180 degrees). 
  • Buying certified organic syrup is a great idea because you know a third party has inspected the operation and can confirm that proper practices are being followed. Don’t get us wrong, there are also many producers who make high-quality syrup yet choose not to pursue organic certification because of the cost of inspections or the burden of the record-keeping and paperwork. That being said, buying organic DOES give you an absolute guarantee that proper food handling procedures and records are being kept.

If you're a wholesale purchaser, you have to decide:

  •  Is "any" maple syrup good enough for your customers, or do you want to provide them with an artisan product focusing on exceptional taste and quality? To find these gourmet products in a crowded field of suppliers, there are a few simple questions to ask.  First, ask your supplier "Who made this syrup?"  The best answer, or course, is if the supplier made it themselves.  However, many smaller producers can't fulfill large wholesale orders by themselves and may have made agreements with other quality producers to work together to fill these orders.  The important distinction here is that they are still working with quality producers who they know and trust.  If their answer to "who made this syrup?" is a list of dozens or hundreds of sources, you know that it’s impossible for them to have visited that many operations or verified the quality of the syrup. 
  • Ask the same questions individual buyers ask: “How do you measure when syrup is done boiling?” and “At what temperature do you package your syrup?” These questions also help ensure quality.
  • Is certified organic syrup important to you and your consumers? If it is, make finding a certified organic maple syrup producer a priority. Remember, syrup is not “organic” unless it is certified!

So, now you know why maple syrup isn’t like toilet paper. Besides the obvious (*ahem*), syrup taste and quality DO MATTER. Where the syrup comes from and how it is made IS IMPORTANT. And most importantly, establishing a relationship with your sugar maker so that you can ask these questions and find out what you need to know will ensure that you get the best product for the best price.

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