Six people. Eight syrups. Two plates of mini pancakes.
And two words: taste test.
Everyone's got an opinion about breakfast syrup and everyone, it seems, has a favorite. Sometimes it's a favorite because the bottle walked and talked on TV. Sometimes it's because we fondly remember pouring it over Dad's Sunday morning pancakes.
And sometimes it's a favorite just because we think it should be.
"I only buy the real stuff. I don't want the junk stuff anymore. You want something real," said Sun Journal education reporter Bonnie Washuk, referring to the difference between maple syrup made from maple sap and breakfast syrup, a less expensive substitute usually made from corn syrup and a combination of other ingredients.
But which syrup and which kind of syrup — authentic maple or mass produced breakfast syrup — would win in a blind taste test? We decided to find out.
The results may surprise you. They sure did us.
"I can't pick out the fake ones. I thought I could do it but I can't!" Washuk lamented after learning which syrup was her favorite in the blind taste test. "I would have had a different opinion if I'd known which it was."
The Sun Media judges:
— Bonnie Washuk, education reporter. As one of eight kids, she used to top her pancakes with whatever syrup was cheapest, usually breakfast syrup. As an adult, she buys only authentic maple syrup.
— Lindsey Montana, page designer for The Forecaster. Makes his own authentic maple syrup, but doesn't often use it. Recently became fond of a drink recipe that calls for vodka, half and half, and maple syrup.
— Daryn Slover, photographer. Buys only locally made authentic maple syrup, at an estimated one to two gallons a year.
— Anthony Ronzio, New Media director. Usually buys store brand breakfast syrup.
— Heather McCarthy, senior designer. Raised on authentic maple syrup, but now buys sugar-free breakfast syrup. Says she could (and would) drink maple syrup straight up.
— Scott Taylor, reporter. Grew up covering his pancakes and French toast in Karo syrup. Since moving to Maine, he is exclusively a real maple syrup guy.
Maple syrup has been made for centuries by tapping — or piercing — maple trees, collecting the sap for four to six weeks at the end of the winter, and then boiling the thin sap down until it is more concentrated. It can take about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. In the U.S., pure maple syrup contains only maple syrup and no other ingredients.
The lighter the syrup the sweeter it is, with the first sap of the season being the lightest and sweetest. Although grading can vary by location, maple syrup generally comes in grade A, and can be light amber, medium amber or dark amber. It also comes in grade B, which is typically the darkest and has the strongest maple flavor. Grade B is usually used in cooking.
Proponents tout maple syrup's low glycemic index — it spikes blood sugar less than corn syrup, table sugar or refined honey — and they like the fact it contains nutrients, including zinc. Canada is the world's largest producer of maple syrup, but the United States is also well-known for it, with Vermont, New York and Maine being the top domestic producers, in that order.
Breakfast syrup is an alternative to pure maple syrup. Although brands once contained some amount of maple syrup, most now contain none, opting instead for corn syrup and/or other sweeteners. Unlike maple syrup, breakfast syrup is generally thicker, comes in low-calorie and sugar-free varieties and is less expensive. A 24-ounce bottle of breakfast syrup can cost a third of what an 8-ounce bottle of maple syrup costs.
We tested four maple syrups and four breakfast syrups. The maple syrups were: McLure's Pure Maple Syrup (grade A dark amber from the New Hampshire-based company, though the fine print said it was a product of both U.S.A. and Canada); Pure Maine by Jillson's Sugarhouse in Sabattus (grade A light amber from Maine), Shady Maple (organic grade A dark amber from Canada) and Sirop D'erable Pur (Pure Maple Syrup, no grade given, from Canada). The breakfast syrups were: Aunt Jemima Original, Log Cabin, Mrs. Butterworth's Original and Vermont Maid.
Everyone was given small cups of syrup labeled 1 through 8. Some of our six testers sipped the syrup straight from the cup or from spoons. Others dipped, dunked or slathered it on mini pancakes. Water with lemon was available to cleanse the palate (and in some cases, sticky hands).
Before the taste test, nearly everyone expected to be able to tell the difference between pure maple syrup and breakfast syrup. As the samples circulated, doubt started to creep in.
"You watch, my favorite will be Aunt Jemima and I'll embarrass myself," Washuk said.
As the sampling continued, one by one, no clear favorite emerged. Swirling their cups, sniffing the syrup like a fine wine and smacking their lips at each taste, some judges decided they liked the first (what would turn out to be Vermont Maid) because it was thick and had maple taste and smell. Others said they didn't like it because it was too thick and not sweet enough. Some thought the third sample (Log Cabin) was too sweet and had an aftertaste. Ronzio rated it the highest of the eight samples, calling it "big, robust" and "a smokey maple experience."
"No. 3 is the 20-year-old Scotch of the group," he said.
There was greater agreement about No. 4 (Aunt Jemima); mostly they agreed that it was not good.
"This stuff's going to make me throw up," Slover said, grimacing at his sip of syrup.
Scores got better for No. 6 (Pure Maple) and No. 7 (Shady Maple).
"It's watery," McCarthy said, peering into her cup of No. 6, before sampling it. "Oh, good, I like watery."
No. 8 (Sirop D'erable Pur) — the only syrup that came in a can — also proved watery. But not in a good way to everyone.
"You can quote me on this," Ronzio said, "No. 8 looks like a urine sample."
It also contained tiny black specks. One person speculated it was ash from the heating process. Another, nutmeg.
"Flavor specks," Montana said.
And the winner is:
By the end of the 45-minute exhaustive (and filling) taste test, there was no unanimous winner. Everyone favored a different syrup or two.
Judges rated the syrups on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. No syrup earned a perfect score of 30 points, but with 22 points each, Pure Maine maple syrup by Jillson's Sugarhouse and Sirop D'erable Pur, the canned entry from Canada, tied for first place. With 19 points, Mrs. Butterworth's came in a close third.
With 18.5 points, Vermont Maid and Shady Maple — one breakfast syrup and one pure maple syrup — tied for fourth.
"That is hilarious," Taylor said as the samples were unveiled. "I'm boggled."
Log Cabin earned 18 points and McLure's Pure Maple Syrup earned 17. Aunt Jemima Original came in last with 16 points.
The results surprised. But, for some, also gratified.
"I'm just buying Log Cabin from now on," said Ronzio, who left with the bottle.