Beer aficionados can select a golden lager, IPA, or brown ale. Coffee lovers can ponder light, dark, French, or Vienna roasts. But the choices for maple syrup connoisseurs have largely been restricted to grade A, B, or C.
That’s about to change as Vermont, the nation’s biggest producer of maple syrup, drops its traditional grading system and adopts new international labeling standards that are more descriptive of taste and color.
Maple syrup producers hope the change will lead to greater sales of darker, richer syrup that appeals to customers who prefer a stronger maple flavor, but carries the stigma of not making grade A. Under the new standard, grade B gets an upgrade to grade A — “dark and robust taste.”
“In the past, consumers may have inferred that grade B was inferior, but that inference is incorrect,” said Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, a trade group in South Royalton, Vt. “The new grading system is much more readily understandable.”
The new system eliminates the B and C grades for all syrup that is boiled down from sap, without any additives or preservatives. Instead, this pure syrup will be classified as grade A, and differentiated with labels describing color and flavor combinations such as “gold and delicate,” “amber and rich,” and “very dark and strong.”
The changes have been in the works for more than 10 years, with an industry task force developing the standards, conducting consumer research, and finally pushing for implementation by state, provincial, and federal regulators.
The International Maple Syrup Institute, a Canada-based industry group, developed the standards and hopes to implement them across all maple syrup producing states and provinces. Now, maple syrup grading and labeling is an amalgam of state and federal rules. Some states, like Vermont, enact and enforce their own syrup standards; others, like Massachusetts, defer to the US Department of Agriculture.
The USDA is considering whether to adopt the new international guidelines.
“We are reviewing the maple syrup grade standards at the request of the industry,” spokeswoman Gwen Sparks said. “We don’t have a timeline at this point.”
Vermont last month became the first state to implement the international maple syrup grading standards after its Legislature, notably protective of the state’s mammoth maple sugar industry, voted to adopt them in July.
Sugar maple trees grow throughout New England, the Great Lakes region, and the southern provinces of Eastern Canada.
The season starts when trees are tapped in mid-February, and generally lasts through April. The color and flavor of maple syrup mostly depend on when it is harvested. Syrup that is harvested early in the season is lighter, with darker grades toward the end.
Lighter syrups are traditionally found on breakfast tables for use on pancakes, waffles, and other foods. Darker syrups are normally relegated to cooking, but they are catching on in culinary circles and with people who find the stronger flavor more enticing, industry officials said.
Paul Palmer, owner of Palmer Lane Maple in Vermont, said he has already started implementing the new grading system.
His company’s syrup won four industry awards in 2013, including Best in Class at the Vermont Farm Show.
He said the new grades will make consumers more aware of darker syrups and lead to more sales of the product.
“I think the new standards will be a boon for our economy and industry,” Palmer said. “It allows us to put more syrup into the market.”
Vermont has an outsized influence on the industry and produces more than 40 percent of all maple syrup in the United States.
The state’s maple syrup production was a $26.6 million industry in 2012, versus $45.3 million for all of New England. New England states account for about 60 percent of the nation’s maple syrup production.
Like Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Ohio regulate maple syrup at the state level.
But Dave Chapeskie, executive director of the International Maple Syrup Institute, said most states are waiting for formal adoption of the rules by the USDA before changing to the new international standards.
He expects the USDA to reach a decision by the end of this year, allowing states to adopt the descriptive color and taste labels for the 2015 syrup season.
Massachusetts produces just a fraction of the maple syrup that Vermont does — about 60,000 gallons a year, compared to 1.3 million gallons.
Sean Davan, owner of Woodville Maples, a maple sugar producer in Hopkinton, has been making maple syrup since 2006 in a small backyard operation.
He said the new grades would be more consumer friendly and ease confusion about quality.
“I’m looking forward to the changes,” Davan said. “I think more people will understand what they’re buying.”
The new standards will educate consumers about the types of syrup available and differentiate pure maple syrup from synthetic sweeteners made from corn syrup and other ingredients, said Winton Pitcoff, a coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, a trade group.
But while new labels may more accurately describe syrup’s color and taste, industry officials said, in the end it comes down to personal preference.
“Labels aren’t as important as how maple syrup makes you feel,” Pitcoff said.