Vermont's New Maple Syrup Grading System

Ingredient, Regional Food
on March 4, 2014
Vermont Maple Syrup Grading
Mark Boughton Photography / styling by Teresa Blackburn

March marks the start of sugaring season in Vermont—the time of year when trees are tapped and their syrup collected by countless sugar makers across the state. But this year, Vermont’s maple syrup bottles will have a slightly different look to them, all thanks to the new maple sugar grading system soon to be adopted worldwide. See the changes here:

Grading Standards

So what exactly does this mean for the world of maple syrup and ever-thirsty pancakes everywhere? It means whether you’re in Canada, New York or Vermont, the grades will be the same—which has never been the case before.

We tapped Mathew Gordon’s brain, who serves as executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, to find out what inspired the change.

“There’s just confusion,” Gordon said plainly. “When you have Vermont selling Vermont Fancy or Grade A Medium Amber…Canada selling Canada #2 Amber, New Hampshire doing their own thing, along with New York and Maine….[you] effectively have five different names for the same flavored syrup.”

Meaning international markets and curious customers, many of whom have never tasted maple syrup, are left a bit in the dark. “Grade A Medium Amber doesn’t really tell you anything…so adding a more clear color and flavor descriptor is a real step forward,” he added.

This is something full-time sugar maker and proud family man Steve Wheeler of Jed’s Maple Products can attest to. “If people are visiting from Ontario, they can just say ‘…I’ll take a dark robust,’ and I’ll know what they want.”

Steve Wheeler

Steve Wheeler testing maple syrup with a Hydrometer.

But with great change comes challenges. Some Vermont sugar makers are less than enthused with the adjustments and fear that the new maple grading standards will diminish the uniqueness of Vermont’s brand —effectively “muddying the waters” between the states, if you will.

Gordon dismissed this concern, saying, “This is not any sort of effort to make Vermont’s syrup interchangeable with Michigan’s, or New York’s or Quebec’s or whoever’s—it’s just to give people a clearer picture of maple syrup. Our chief competition is to get people to not buy Aunt Jemima.”

Wheeler agrees, noting, “Vermont doesn’t have to worry about competition, because we have such a high quality flavor in our maple syrup.”

And in regards to any extra work that may be involved on his end, Wheeler isn’t worried. “It’s going to be a little bit of work for the first year—talking customers through the process of ‘this is what we had, and this is what we have now’ but there is an opportunity there…If I get a chance to talk to a person about my maple syrups, the grades and the flavors, why wouldn’t I want to? It’s an opportunity to learn more about them and make friends.”

Steve Wheeler

Wheeler hosting a field trip.

The new standards are also aiming to present more varieties of quality maple syrup directly to consumers, namely the Grade A Very Dark/Strong (formally commercial) that was once illegal for sale in Vermont in quantities less than five gallons. The reasoning? Once upon a time, this extra dark syrup was frowned upon for its intense flavor. It wasn’t in vogue to appreciate maple flavor in baking or cooking, so it was primarily valued as a sugar substitute. On top of that, it was extremely difficult to produce with a pure taste.

“With the changes in our industry, now we can make a really good flavored dark syrup,” Gordon assured. “We have to recognize that there’s been a big change in how maple syrup is perceived. I think this new grading system is a real step forward in acknowledging that.”

Does all this maple talk have you craving something syrup-laden? See the recipes below…