When it comes to trendsetting seasonal flavors, there’s only one question. Which comes first: the booze or the coffee?
I remember when pumpkin beer first began to approach the point of ubiquity, because the trend took off while I was a senior in college in Poughkeepsie, and my first visit to nearby Half Time Beverage flabbergasted me with the options available. Pumpkin? In beer? Sure, I thought, I guess it’s worth a try. Granted, pumpkin spice lattes might have beaten craft brewers to the punch. But regardless of who first set the stage, pumpkin spice is everywhere now, in everything — and not just around Halloween time. You can’t escape it.
Related: Our Favorite 4 Pumpkin Beers
For whatever reason, coffee and craft beer seem to set the tone for the next flavor everyone’s looking for. And I’m calling it now: Maple is the new pumpkin. Bourbon makers in the last year, seemingly out of nowhere, have started stocking the shelves with half a dozen new brands of maple-flavored liquors. One company doing so is Gardiner’s own Tuthilltown Spirits. One of their newest creations, Bitter Frost, is a special blend of unaged rye, Sarsaparilla, and other herbs and spices combined with maple syrup. Maple-bourbon barrels have aged some of the highest rated, highly sought beers in the world. Take a road trip up to Vermont and you’ll find that coffee, just about anywhere, now comes with optional maple to sweeten the stuff — a vast improvement over simple syrup, and an offering that I have no doubt will soon become common in adjacent maple-producing areas like the Hudson Valley.
Maple in coffee is a no-brainer — and it’s easy. Maple in beer, though, turns out to be a bit tougher. Brewers face a similar challenge with pumpkin: The real stuff doesn’t hold up as a strong flavor through fermentation, which chews through many of the delicate aromatic qualities. With pumpkin, however, brewers and baristas have an easy work-around: Add a bunch of those pumpkin pie spices we all associate with the flavor. There’s no such opportunity with maple, which, as sugar, is almost entirely eaten up in the course of fermentation.
Plan Bee Farm Brewery’s oak barrel-aged Tree Beer is made with local maple syrup and spruce tips
The difficulty in getting a beer to really taste like maple syrup may be the only thing holding back the onslaught of maple-flavored everything.
“Anytime you label a beer with the words maple, people have a very specific assumption of what the beer should taste like — maple something,” says Evan Watson, brewmaster at Plan Bee Farm Brewery in Fishkill. In early March, Plan Bee will release Tree Beer, its annual brew made with local maple syrup and spruce tips, and aged in oak barrels. “People have the expectation that your beer should taste like what they pour on their pancakes. The reality is that those rich flavors of vanilla, caramel, and honey exist because of the ridiculously high sugar content. The higher the sugar content, the more the syrup coats your palate and that provides for a longer and richer taste experience. I make very dry beers, and maple syrup is highly fermentable.”
Since sugar ferments out of a beer, and maple syrup is almost all sugar, the question for brewers remains: How do you get a beer to taste like maple?
As a beer maker, there are two main ways to incorporate maple into a beer. Syrup, of course, but brewers can also acquire unprocessed, pure maple sap to use in place of ordinary brewing water. Contrary to what you might think when basing a beer around hundreds of gallons of sugary maple sap, taking this route will actually lead to subtler results.
Chris Basso, brewmaster at Newburgh Brewing Company, has produced beers with both methods. Most recently, the brewery used sap from Crown Maple at Madava Farms in Dover Plains to make its Xylem Farmhouse Ale. Rather than going with boldly flavored, coffee-like dark grains, Basso brewed with only Pilsner malt (the lightest of base malts used in brewing) to let the delicate flavors from the sap shine through.
“The sap really gives an earthy minerality to the beer, the aroma you would get when you break the branch off of a sapling in the woods. It’s subtle, but it can be a really unique aroma that I haven’t found from other more commonly used brewing ingredients.”
Newburgh used 600 gallons of sap for the batch, replacing nearly all of the brewing water. It may sound like a lot, but with such a delicate ingredient, the beer still takes the lead. “I can’t stress enough how subtle the maple sap flavors are,” Basso says. “But that’s the fun of using local seasonal ingredients: I get one chance a year to learn from and improve upon what I’ve done in the past.”
Unless you have sugar maples on your property, maple sap may not even be an option for you. Commercially purchased maple syrup is expensive but readily available throughout the year. But if you truly want a beer that tastes distinctly of maple, you’ll need to splurge a bit.
Homebrewers have a major advantage that no craft brewery does: Breaking the budget is a little less likely to anger investors. Maple syrup certainly isn’t the cheapest ingredient you might throw in a beer. But it can be worth it, especially as a once-a-year seasonal treat.
I’ve taken two approaches in my brews with maple syrup: using a lot of maple syrup and using an insane amount of maple syrup. The latter resulted in one of my favorite beers I’ve ever made — a decadent, one-of-a-kind imperial stout.
If you love craft beer, watch for brewers like Basso and Watson to bring innovative concoctions to your glass. If you brew beer yourself, go ahead and justify the need to buy a whole lot of maple syrup. And if you happen to know me, ask for a taste of this imperial stout in the spring. I’ll prove to you that maple is the next big thing.
Related: 9 Maple Syrup Weekends
Derek Dellinger is the creator of the brewing blog Bear-Flavored.com, brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Co., and author of The Fermented Man, out 2016. He leads homebrewing workshops and classes in the Hudson Valley with Beacon Homebrew.