Midwest Modern Moments- Maple Syrup in the 21st century
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
Maple Syrup has not changed much over time. Sap is collected and boiled down to syrup. That's it. The equipment and gathering methods have modernized but collecting and boiling sap is all there is to it. Really, any idiot can do it. I know this because I've done it ;)
We have 3 sugar maples and most years collect enough sap to get enough syrup to last us all year. It's time consuming and we are altering out boiling set up so we didn't make maple syrup this year. We boil it in shallow pans over a wood fire but without a proper chimney for the smoke, our syrup was getting "tainted" by the smoke. Some batches tasted ok, some did not. Rethinking our set up for next year...
Even though we didn't make maple syrup ourselves this year, that didn't stop me from inviting my friend Nate to a make a maple syrup adult beverage contest(keep scrolling for drink recipes) and discussing the midwestern ties to all things maple syrup with him...Our chat was super fun despite a huge bummer of a technical difficulty. But I think the fact that the intro is the two of us giggling was totally worth it.
I LOVE maple syrup and all things maple flavored. Michigan is #7 on the list of states that produce the most maple syrup. When I was a kid, we always had real maple syrup. None of that lady shaped bottle fake syrup! As a child, both of my grandmothers lived in Vermontville, Michigan. Vermontville hosts a yearly Maple Syrup Festival and it was definitely always one of the highlights of my year. Maple products of all kinds (first place I've ever had maple sugar cotton candy!), carnival rides, music, crafts, and yard sales. It doesn't get much more small town Midwest than the Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival.
Brief History of Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is only produced in a small region of northeastern North America. So of course it was the Native Americans who first started making syrup. But I love believing that it was a squirrel that tipped off the Native Americans to maple sap's sweet secret:
Iroquois Legend has it that, long, long ago, before the settlers ever reached American shores, a young Native American boy watched a squirrel run up the trunk of a maple tree. The squirrel then proceeded to viciously bite the limbs of the tree in several places, deep enough to cause sap to run out. The curious boy watched the squirrel over the next few days and saw that it returned and licked off the crystallized syrup that had run out of the tree...bensmaplesyrup.com
Of course it was squirrels! As my son once said, "squirrels are fuzzy little geniuses!". Agreed, son. Agreed.
Local Maple Syrup Production- H&H Sugarbush
You don't have to drive very far in most parts of Michigan and you'll see one of these signs:
These are typically small family operations. Most of them will have open houses at some point and invite people in to see the syrup in production. And most of them are more than happy to answer any questions you might have.
I made a visit to H&H Sugarbush and talked with Kirk Hedding about his operation. He and his wife have been doing this for 14 years so he knows what's up. He was kind enough to answer all my questions and let me take some photos. I hadn't been to a sugar house since I was a kid but, as I mentioned before, not much has changed. Collection, boiling, & bottling- it all happens on site.
When I started thinking about maple syrup in contemporary terms, I thought about how great it would be to have a small scale sugar house instead of trying to boil in open pans in our driveway. With the resurgence in popularity of canning, gardening, and other food production and preservation methods that have faded with mass production, I thought some kind of single home sugar house would be awesome! While smaller sugar houses and evaporators are available, the smallest ones are still a bit more of an undertaking than I'd hoped. And, as Kirk informed me, the best thing for home production is what we were already doing. There are several tutorials for home production to be found with a quick Google search
Maple Syrup Label Design
Which leads me to, what I consider, the most interesting issue with maple syrup in contemporary times: the packaging. Almost all locally produced syrup is packaged in these classic plastic jugs, which have a couple standard designs in each state and the only differential between makers is the address label slapped on the container somewhere as mandated by food laws.
If you are adhering to food laws, you can package however you want. Most local syrup producers don't do this full time so investment into packaging is probably not worth it for them.
I have to admit, I love the old plastic jugs. I don't have to see a label and I automatically know it's maple syrup. So I'm definitely drawn to maple syrup label designs that use the classic plastic jug.
These are actually porcelain jugs, but you get the idea. Modern labels on that nostalgic plastic jug would be so cool.
Here's some perfect looking maple syrup labels. Classic plastic jug with simple color coding denoting the different grades.
This design is actually for a vodka but how perfect would this be for maple syrup??! Uncork a log and pour- love it! You could even have the cap be squirrel shaped so that you pull a squirrel off the tree to get to the syrup. The second photo is my photoshopped suggestion. It's clearly genius.
This packaging is so elegant and refers to the "old" grading system of syrup. I have to admit, syrup grading was always confusing to me. In summary, all syrups are Grade A, the A,B,C of "old" refers to the color and taste. There is a handy grade guide here because honestly it's still sort of confusing and no locally made syrups are graded this way because they are all just Grade A.
This design is just a concept but it's a damn good one!
Andrée Rouette created this awesome concept in a packaging design class. The design consists of aluminum canisters laminated with slightly different shades of maple to and printed with a large letter to specify the sugar purity of the syrup.
Before the plastic jugs there were the tin cans. Canada dominates in maple syrup production (they provide 90% of the world's maple syrup!) so it's no surprise they have some pretty cool maple syrup label designs
This one is a corporate gift, again Canadian. How fun: 3 different grades of maple syrup; tall, dark, and handsome.
I have to say, there a lot of maple syrup labels and packaging out there that are going for the whiskey/bourbon look. And there are syrups out there that are barrel aged, smoked, etc. It makes sense to me if their packaging leans to the bourbon vibe. This one has that bourbon vibe but is so much more clean than most. Plus, who can resist that line art deer with his maple leaf nose. We can thank our neighbors to the north again for this design.
As much as I love this maple syrup label design, I wish the color changing depicting the grades were consistent. I wish the "ESCUMINAC" and the maple leaf on the deer's nose were the same color for each grade and all the wax seals were just one color. For instance, I want the deer's nose to be red if the ESCUMINAC is red, and green if it's green. And all the wax seals to be white.
I like this one a lot. It's simple and the branch outlines are exactly the state of the tree branches when the sap starts to run.
As much as I love sweets, I wanted to try do a slightly more savory cocktail with maple syrup. I just had a bunch of flavors floating around in my head that I like with maple syrup and threw them all together. It's a little bit sweet, a little bit of heat, a little bit sour- I'm calling it a Maple Mule. Besides being tasty, it looks really cool in front of our old sugar maple.
The Maple Mule has an apple shrub in it so I garnished with some apple slices with a maple leaf cutout. It's also pretty good with a peppered rim. Dip the glass in some maple syrup and then some cracked pepper.
Maple Mule recipe:
We talked about our cocktails in this episode of Midwest Modern Moments but due to some technical difficulties, that part didn't get recorded (Ugh!!!). Anyways, Nate's drink was a Maple Old Fashioned. He's a fan of cocktail recipes that don't have crazy ingredients so he kept it classic and simple. I'm not a fan of bourbon but this drink was good. The quality maraschino cherries are key.
And of course the orange peel is the perfect garnish. The syrup gives it an extra bit of sweetness without being too much. We came to the conclusion that a barrel aged syrup would be really good with this as well.
Maple Old Fashioned recipe:
I hope you've enjoyed this little Midwest Moment. Cheers!- Angie