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The Ineffable Flavors of Maple Trees, Mapped The University of Vermont's Map of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is more flavors than just maple and sugar, and researchers have mapped out the sensory profile of North America's iconic wild sugar.

In the early spring, an incredible dendrological phenomena takes place across the Northeastern United States and Southern Canada. Warm days and cold nights causes sugar maple (Acer saccharum) sap to descend the trees' xylem. Drilling a hole or slashing through the bark creates a stream of crystal clear sap. A single hole can yield about 10 gallons of watery, almost flavorless, sap, which, when evaporated and concentrated, forms an intense, complex quart of sugary maple syrup.

In Vermont, a team of researchers from the University of Vermont Nutrition and Food Science department, sugarmakers, and sensory panelists collected samples from across the state to “map” out the natural sweetener’s unique sensory qualities. As part of the ongoing Taste of Place project, they recently create a prototype of the map of maple.

Much like Ann Noble's popular wine aroma wheel, the graphic representation codifies the prominent flavors (maple and sucrose) as well as hinting at some of the more subtle notes that come from evaporating maple sap. For consumers, it's intended to create a framework for thinking about the quality of maple syrup—a counterpoint to the quantitative thinking you'll find on nutrition labels—and depict how those flavors might be rooted in a particular place.

"We found all these flavors from Vermont and the tool definitely reflects that taste of Vermont," Amy Trubek, the author of Taste of Place and one of the project's researchers, told me. “But you can’t be too reductive. It’s not simply about geology—even with wine, it’s about 17 different factors.”

An incredible diversity of environmental conditions—where a tree grows, the composition of bedrock underneath sugarbush, the seasonal or long-term climatic changes—influences maple syrup's terroir. Rather than exploring these influences, the codified guide serves as a language and, possibly, a map for finding additional connections between taste and place.

Moreover, the project demonstrates how sensory science can move beyond its longstanding role in developing uniform commodity foods to foster an awareness about seasonal, place-based foods.

Sensory map ©University of Vermont, used with permission. The project was developed by the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at University of Vermont and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets, including Amy Trubek, Montserrat Almena-Aliste, Henry Marckres, and Allison Hamlin. Graphic design by Louise Ma.

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