Vermont’s maple syrup will soon have a new consistency.
The flavor will not change, but new international standards for labeling maple syrup taking effect in January will erase Vermont’s iconic “grade B” from the label.
Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association, said the changes will provide consumers with more clarity.
“It helps to provide a little bit more definition to it. Vermont Fancy is kind of an icon, but Vermont Fancy doesn’t really tell you much,” Gordon said, in reference to the state’s lightest maple syrup grade. “It really gives you a better indication of what you’re buying.”
Vermont’s grade B variety will now be lumped into a spectrum ranging from “golden/delicate taste” to “dark/strong taste” – all grade A – as part of a drive to align with the new standards initiated by the International Maple Syrup Institute.
The grades do not indicate quality. Instead, they refer to the color and taste of the sap that varies throughout the season – early season sap is light in color and taste while later season sap is dark and bold, Gordon said.
“The process is the same, whether you are making a clear golden or dark black syrup,” Gordon said. “The grades that are produced, it’s still up to nature, really.”
The changes won’t affect Vermont’s brand, Gordon said.
“I don’t think we are going to lose any bit of the Vermont cachet,” he said. “If they wanted Vermont syrup, they wanted it because it was made in Vermont.”
Opponents of the new labeling standard might be disappointed to see Vermont’s grade B erased from the label. The demand for this grade has set its price nearly equal to other grades in recent years, Gordon said. Regardless of the new grading system, prices for the darker varieties of syrup will continue to rise, he said.
“We are at a point, whether it’s dark or light, it’s pretty much equal,” Gordon said.
Last spring was the best season in 70 years for maple producers. The state produced 1.3 million gallons of syrup following a trough in 2012, when the state produced about 800,000 gallons. Grade B accounts for about 25 percent of sales, Gordon said.
Burr Morse, a seventh-generation maple syrup producer at Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, said the changes might not be welcomed.
“I’ve had an awful lot of people come to me with disgust about this change. I’ve tried to remain neutral,” Morse said. “Where I swear they’re wrong, they want everything to be grade A. They say grade B means to people something inferior, but that’s not true, I’ll argue that to the hilt.”
He said grade B is in high demand for both its taste and image.
“Just like Fancy used to be, grade B has become an icon,” Morse said. “They go there faster than sap drips on a good day. They say, ‘grade B, that’s what I like.’”
At his small 3,000-tree farm in East Montpelier, he said the change will not affect his business that sells only retail maple products rather than wholesale maple syrup.
“I’ve stayed out of the maple politics,” he said. “We don’t need it, for us, we are going to sell just as much syrup without it.”
On the plus side, Morse said the changes will allow maple syrup producers to sell their darkest grade of syrup, previously banned from commercial sale in amounts smaller than 5 gallons. He said the purpose of the labeling is to expand the available market for this grade of syrup.
“There is going to be a lot more syrup coming out of Vermont than ever,” Morse said.
Maple has become a symbol of rivalry between New England states touting local quality. But Gordon said all sap flavors are tied to geography, such as whether the soil is composed of bedrock, limestone or New Hampshire granite.
“I am biased, I’m going to say Vermont is better,” Gordon said. “There is definitely a geographical difference.”
He said neighboring states and Quebec are not the real competition — it’s the fake stuff.
“The real competition are the plastic squeeze bottles,” Gordon said.
Vermont will be the first state to adopt these international standards, he said. While New York is likely to adopt new standards, it is unclear what New Hampshire and Maine will do, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also creating new grading standards. It is unknown whether they will be different, Gordon said. The association is having regular meetings with the USDA to discuss the new standards, he said.
The international standards and their graded equivalents are: Grade A Golden/Delicate Taste (Grade A Light Amber); Grade A Amber/Rich Taste (Grade A Medium Amber and Dark Amber); Grade A Dark/Robust Taste (Grade A Dark, Extra Dark Amber and Grade B); Grade A Very Dark/Strong Taste (commercial grade); and processing grade.