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Food and Drink

Season of change

Vermont is the first state to adopt new international maple grading system

DUMMERSTON—A pickup truck travels slowly along a curving, snow-covered road. The truck’s cargo, a stainless steel sap collection tank, juts across the tailgate. Ahead of the truck walks a sugarmaker carrying a coil of clear plastic tubing used to transport maple sap from three to tank.

Sugarmakers are preparing for another Vermont sugaring season. It’s the centuries-old practice that renders sweet, clear maple-tree sap into thick, amber maple syrup and keeps sugarmakers running.

This year, Vermont — which leads the nation in maple production with 40 percent of the country’s syrup last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — also became the first in the country to officially adopt new maple grades, which supporters hope will help the small state compete on the big international playing field.

The four new grades will feature levels of taste — delicate, rich, robust, strong — assigned to Vermont syrup.

Maple lovers accustomed to Vermont grades like “Fancy” or “Light Grade A Amber” will soon see descriptors closer to those found on a bag of Starbucks coffee like “Grade A Dark, Robust Taste.”

Sugarmakers have 2014 to transition to the new grading system. Producers selling within Vermont can continue to use the traditional Vermont grades in addition to the new grades until 2017.

Over a decade in the making, the four grades will serve as the maple syrup standard in an international marketplace. Canada leads the world’s production of maple syrup, with Québec the highest-producing province.

Right now, maple grades change from state to state and from the U.S. to Canada.

The same lightest-colored syrup — traditionally called Fancy in Vermont — is known as No. 1 Extra Light in Canada, while in New York sugar shacks, it’s called Light Amber.

Arnold Coombs, of Coombs Family Farms, which is part of Bascom Family Farms, a major wholesaler of maple syrup to the New England region, notes the commercial headaches of the scattershot grading standards.

While many consumers like Grade B on their pancakes, said Coombs, Grade B can’t be retailed in New York.

But critics have cautioned that the new system could hurt sugar producers by eliminating grades like “Fancy” — terms that have, by persistence of tradition, become part of the Vermont brand.

Culinary words

“I’m a native Vermonter, and I don’t like change either,” said Henry Marckres, Agency of Agriculture chief of consumer protection and maple syrup specialist.

Marckres feels the new grading system, however, will help Vermont sugarmakers reach new markets and receive more money for their product.

The International Maple Syrup Institute proposed standardizing maple grades to the Agency of Agriculture 12 years ago, said Marckres, who also served on the committee charged with developing the grades.

The new grades are based on multiple consumer panels and taste tests, he said. The descriptors used, like “robust,” are culinary terms that most people understand.

“If you said to someone who knew nothing about maple syrup, ‘Would you like some Medium Amber?,’ they’d have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Marckres.

The agency held public hearings, meetings, and information sessions to gather feedback and concerns from the public and sugarmakers, said Marckres. Last year, the Legislature issued a joint resolution supporting the Agency of Agriculture in writing the new maple rules.

An expanding market

Vermont’s maple-syrup production has soared above what Vermonters alone can buy.

According to Marckres, a decade ago, Vermont sugarmakers drilled an estimated one million taps. Last year, the number was four million.

Advances in technology mean sugarmakers now harvest an average half gallon of sap per tap, where they used to harvest one quart, he said.

Consequently, Vermont has a “tremendous amount of syrup and we need to export it,” Marckres said.

The new grading system also allows grades previously sold only in bulk for cooking to be sold retail. The commercial grades, once relegated to granola bars and other food products, can now be sold on the store shelf as Grade A Very Dark, Strong Taste, providing its flavor remains good.

Dark syrup can sometimes have what sugarmakers describe as an “off taste.”

Sugarmakers will be able to get better prices for the darker syrup, Marckres said.

The new grades “even the playing field,” but marketing is the ultimate tool that Vermont can use to show to the world how its maple-sugar goodness differs from syrup produced in other states or provinces, he said.

For example, under agency rules, Vermont-produced maple syrup must have a higher density. This regulation translates into syrup that is thicker, has a higher sugar content, has more flavor, and has a better mouthfeel, he explained.

“I really think producers need to market that,” Marckres said.

Also, if it’s made in Vermont, the label must read, “Made in Vermont,” allowing sugarmakers to use the cachet of the state’s brand, Marckres said.

To sugarmakers attached to older grades, Marckres said the old terms, like “fancy,” can still be included as informal marketing descriptors.

Marckres said that the agency enacted a long transition to the new grades so sugarmakers would have time to phase out packaging and incorporate new labels.

“We’re trying not to put the burden on the Vermont sugarmakers,” he said.

By contrast, New York rules require that its current grades remain in effect until Dec. 31. On Jan. 1, 2015, sugarmakers in that state must switch entirely to the new international standard grades, he said.

An artful science

Grading maple syrup is both a science and an art, said Arnold Coombs, who supports the new grades.

Maple syrup is categorized by two factors: sugar content, and the amount of light the amber liquid transmits.

A passionate sugarmaker uses terms like “36 degrees Baume” or “spectrometer” and can out-geek a Doctor Who fan discussing the finer points of the series, or Star Trek fans gabbing in Klingon.

That’s the science part of maple syrup grading, and that will continue, said Coombs.

What changes is the artful part of maple, the words used to describe something as subjective as taste as objectively as possible.

Coombs, who has spent many an hour marketing maple syrup, said that outside of Vermont, most consumers need a lot of education on maple.

It’s not just the difference between traditional Vermont grades like Fancy or Grade B that confuses people, he said.

Many consumers who didn’t grow up with maple lack the taste buds to differentiate between pure maple syrup and artificially-flavored knockoffs like Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima, or Vermont Maid.

When a consumer is choosing which product to buy, they’ll often opt for the less-expensive imitation over the pure deal, he said.

Add to this, confusion over the myriad of maple grades and, again, shoppers grab for the artificial table syrup, said Coombs.

Pure maple quality

Vermont Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, a caterer who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, doubts Vermont maple will lose its identity after decades of producing a quality product.

“We’re perceived as specialists in this area [maple],” said Toleno.

Toleno said the “kicker” in favor of the standardized grades for him was maintaining access to domestic and international markets.

Vermont could be kicked off the shelves of stores outside the state if it had chosen to cling to its old grades while other states or provinces adopted the new system.

Without the new grading, Vermont syrup would effectively fall below the industry standard, and stores could choose not to sell it, he said.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, said she heard many concerns about adopting the new grades.

The three-year transition period that allows dual labeling was one compromise the committee insisted on to make the change more palatable for sugarmakers, she said.

Partridge said that the long transition period was also designed to give maple producers time to use the legacy packaging with the old grades. The committee hoped this concession would help keep costs down for sugarmakers, who now can phase in the new labels rather than abruptly have to invest in a lot of new packaging.

When asked whether the strength of the brand of Vermont maple syrup would become lost in the sameness of international maple grading, Partridge answered no.

“I think once people taste Vermont syrup, they won’t want anything else,” she said, laughing. “And you can quote me.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #240 (Wednesday, February 5, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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