The Sweet Taste Of Grade Inflation
With the start of the new year comes a new system for labeling Vermont’s signature product: maple syrup.
The state’s sugar makers will begin switching over to international grading standards this season.
Soon people buying maple syrup will begin seeing different names on the label. Gone will be Fancy, Dark Amber and Grade B. Instead, all syrup will be labeled Grade A, with flavor descriptors like Delicate, Rich, Robust and Strong Taste.
Vermont is the first maple syrup producing region to adopt the grading system created by the International Maple Syrup Institute.
“I think these new grades will help us sell some syrup. It just gives a better sense of what’s in the bottle,” Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association, said. When producers sell directly to customers, they have no problem helping people find the syrup they want, Gordon explained, but as more syrup is sold on supermarket shelves out of state, the flavor descriptors on the label will help sell the product.
Under the new standards, there will be four types of Grade A: Golden, Amber, Dark and Very Dark. The current Grade A "fancy" syrups will now be classified as Grade A Golden, while Grade A medium amber and dark amber syrups will merge in a new Grade A Amber grade. Fans of Grade B (or Grade A extra dark) should look for Grade A Dark, while commercial grade syrup will be labeled as Grade A Very Dark, according to a handy guide put together by Coombs Family Farms in Brattleboro.
Emma Marvin, one of the owners of Butternut Mountain Farm in Morriville, said Vermont’s grading system inadvertently steered some customers away from those darker syrups, because Grade B conveyed inferiority.
“They chose something a little lighter and more delicate simply based on the moniker, and so hopefully that will change and allow people to feel comfortable buying the product that aligns with the flavor profile they’re looking for,” Marvin said.
Marvin likes that the new rules allow consumers to buy some very dark syrup that was formerly sold only as commercial grade. Now dark syrup lovers can look for a bottle labeled “Very Dark Maple Syrup with a Strong Taste.”
“Overtime, we’ve seen a trend with folks preferring the darker, stronger flavored syrups and so this will allow more of that type of product to be available to consumers,” Marvin said.
The place of origin will still be prominent on the label. And that’s important because Vermont will maintain the density requirement that sets its syrup apart, Gordon explained.
“The more sugar you have in it, the more dense it will be, because you have more solids that are dissolved in ours. So ours is just slightly denser. We think that’s what gives Vermont one of our big advantages. It’s a little more dense. It has a thicker mouth-feel, so you can really feel the difference,” he said. As the market for maple syrup grows internationally, the new grading will help Vermont compete with Canada, the world’s leading producer.
“In Canada, everything is a number. Not a grade letter. So it was Canada number 1, Canada number 2 and then we’re trying to sell them Grade A Dark Amber. And everyone just got confused.”
The confusion could continue because Canada has to adopt the standards. The grading change has to go through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and it’s in the process of drafting proposed rules.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also reviewing the grading system. A few other states have already agreed to the new grading if the USDA approves the change.
For the first year, Vermont producers will still be able to use up old labels before making the switch, so some Fancy and Grade B will still be on the shelves this spring.