December 21, 2017

Specialty Coffee & Artisanal Maple: More Similar Than You Realize


A carefully harvested, small-batch product full of complex flavor notes – many of which are the result of terroir and processing. I could be writing about specialty coffee. But actually, I’m referring to artisanal maple syrup.

Of course, coffee will still make an appearance in today’s article: in the relatively uncharted world of artisanal maple lies amazing pairings for the third wave café.

So let me introduce you to this delicious produce, from how it’s made and its unique flavor profiles to tips for working it into a coffee shop menu.

SEE ALSO: A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles

maple syrup

Bottles of maple syrup. Credit: Zoar Tapatree Co., LP

A Quick Introduction to Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is made entirely from the sap of varieties of maple trees, most commonly Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and Acer rubrum (red maple). The trees are tapped to collect the sap, which is then boiled until much of the water content evaporates – leaving behind the precious maple syrup.

Widely attributed to have its origins in Native American culinary traditions, the process of creating maple syrup has changed dramatically over time. In the past, producers would put heated rocks in sap when reducing it to syrup or sugar. But today, thanks to rapid production and high consumption in North America, commercial production has generally become extremely efficient. Reverse osmosis and high-pressure filtration shorten boil times and remove mineral drop to clarify the end product.

While this is more economical, it’s also less interesting if you want to taste the impact of the terroir, with all of its complexity and flavor. Enter the artists.

maple syrup

Tasting maple syrup. Credit: Zoar Tapatree Co.

Terroir: The Key to Delicious Maple Syrup

Terroir is a well-known friend in the specialty coffee sector and it is equally present in the world of maple – and to an extreme degree. (Which makes it fun. Really fun.)

SEE ALSO: How to Roast Coffee From Different Origins

First things first: sap, the foundation material of all maple syrup, is the lifeblood of the tree. For the purposes of making syrup, it flows when the temperatures vacillate between freezing and thawing. These cycles are most common in the fall and the spring, with spring being the principal “sugaring” season.

Understanding what occurs during these periods is important – because there’s a lot going on and it all affects your syrup. The tree sap is heavily influenced by the soils it is situated in. Limestone? Granite? A loose alluvial mix?

The tree sap also responds to what the tree itself is doing. Every day that the sap flows, it is in response to local temperatures, the time of year, and the biologic stage of the tree (whether it’s preparing for and developing buds or shutting down for the winter). Although sap is the lifeblood of the tree, it isn’t a static or homogeneous substance. It is an environmentally responsive cocktail that the tree creates on a daily basis.

maple syrup

Different maple syrups, ready for tasting. Credit: Zoar Tapatree Co., LP

Commodity vs Artisanal Processing

Another thing coffee and maple syrup share is the importance of processing. And in maple syrup, there’s a world of possibilities.

Earlier I said that we’ve gone from hot rocks to reverse osmosis and high-pressure filtration. Artisanal production, however, lies somewhere between these two extremes. It’s focused on small-batch, minimally processed syrups that show a great deal of promise. It also wants to catch all the micronutrients that are reflected in the flavor of the final product: sap is a very dynamic substance, full of minerals, antioxidants, volatile compounds, sugars, and other micronutrients.

SEE ALSO:Coffee Science: Breaking Down Where Flavor Comes From

Just like in specialty coffee, every step counts for the best-quality maple syrup. How quickly the sap gets from the tree to processing matters. Equally important is what happens to the sap once the processing begins.

Is the sap run through reverse osmosis, which strips out the water and a percentage of micro-constituents? If so, how many times? This is perhaps the largest change in processing over the last ten years. It dramatically changing the sap foundation of the syrup to speed up production and reduce energy consumption. And an estimated 90% of the syrups on the commercial market has undergone this.

Artisanal production, however, is going the other way. We’re talking about the use of whole saps, minimal filtration to maximize micronutrients, and micro-batch processing to capture unique fluctuations in flavor. You can experience the impact of daily climactic terroir, such as seasonal blasts of unusual temperatures.

And these methods are yielding results. By utilizing whole sap and artisanal processing – some producers have begun processing sap that comes from small collections of trees, just like specialty coffee’s micro and nano lots – a whole new world of flavor has been unlocked. Notes such as vanilla, fig, peach, clove, molasses, dark chocolate, citrus, and many, many others are beginning to express themselves, batch by batch.   

SEE ALSO: How to Cup Coffee & Improve Your Palate

maple syrup

Maple syrup and coffee. Credit: Zoar Tapatree Co.

Pairing Maple Syrup & Specialty Coffee

So with all these amazing flavors, could artisanal maple be the perfect bandmate to your specialty roast?

While many of us love our coffees black, craft maple syrup is an excellent alternative to sugary flavored syrups – especially if you’re creating a coffee cocktail or seasonal offering for customers.

Artisanal syrups are just starting to emerge in a field crowded by commodity options. Consequently, locating a whole syrup artisanal craftsperson may be a short-term challenge. It is worth the effort, however. As a specialty coffee house, you’ll be able to offer consumers a distinctly unique, authentic pairing to complement your third wave roasts.

Perhaps you have a fruity Ethiopian on the menu: you could try lifting that profile with a small-batch syrup with notes of golden raisin or peach, for example. Alternatively, an early syrup that expresses tones of vanilla could add a new layer to your coffee cocktails.

And for a darker, more robust flavor? A maple syrup with a complementary tone of dark chocolate or citrus could really make the coffee sing. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

It’s time to do what baristas do best: uncover and enhance the artistry already present in exceptional specialty produce.

Perfect Daily Grind

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