Tim Perkins, director of UVM's Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill Center, has decided to find out. This week, he and his staff will start boiling sap at a new research building to test exactly what effect new technologies have on the chemistry, flavor and quality of maple syrup.
"This is the only such facility in the world," Perkins says. "Nobody since the 1940s has done these kinds of experiments, and the industry has changed a lot since then."
And maple syrup science really is a nose -- and mouth -- science. The technical term is organoleptic. "Which means you put it in your mouth and taste it," says Perkins, smiling. "We get people who know the flavor of maple syrup, and off-flavors, and they try each one." Laboratory tests using gas chromatography provide a breakdown of the many compounds in the syrup, which supplements the tastebud approach. "These air injectors appear to make the syrup lighter," Perkins says. "The real question is: how do they impact the flavor?"
Maple syrup is a natural product, but it is not simple. The interplay of seasonal tree biology, boiling temperature, microorganisms, sugar chemistry, storage time, final container -- and a long list of other subtleties -- makes each glinting amber-to-chocolate bottle nearly as distinct as varieties of wine. "Syrup is not just concentrated sap," Perkins says, describing how the sugar in the water is broken from sucrose into glucose and fructose, darkened by bacteria, and carmelized by heat.