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Syrup Confusion: Grading Kit Gets It Wrong

Strafford — Vermont became the first state to begin implementing a new international maple syrup grading system this winter, but the rollout wasn’t sweet for everyone.

Strafford sugar maker Phil Coburn lamented a mistake with t he USDA-approved maple syrup grading kit provided to sugar makers, noting that his favorite grade of syrup was too close to translucent to be visible on pancakes.

“Can’t see the Fancy this year on them,” he said in an interview by phone Thursday. “It’s too light!”

The kit, supplied by the state’s Agency of Agriculture through the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, included a sample for the highest grade of syrup, now know as Grade A: Golden Color with Delicate Taste, which was too light.

A maple syrup grading kit consists of a vial for each grade. As they label their syrup, sugar makers compare the color of their product to the vials in the kit, providing consistency for consumers.

State officials did not realize the Golden Color sample in the maple syrup grading kit they consulted in preparing color samples this winter was too light until kits were distributed to maple syrup producers, said Consumer Protection Chief Henry Marckres of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

He said the USDA relied on Tintometer Ltd., based in the United Kingdom, to manufacture the kit this year. He said in the future the USDA is planning to make its own color samples.

For 2014, however, Marckres said he instructed sugar makers to rely on last year’s color sample for Fancy — the highest grade under the outgoing system — instead.

“It was all we had,” he said.

The temporary kits can last for up to three years if stored in cool, dark places, said Marckres.

Marckres said both retail and bulk market prices are the same for the three top marks on the new grading system: Golden, Amber and Dark.

“Money-wise I don’t think it hurt anybody at all,” he said.

Marckres said the mix-up was “unfortunate,” but that the sample will be corrected by next year.

Switching to the International Maple Syrup Institute’s new grading system, which eliminates Grade B and uses color and flavor descriptors to identify four grades instead of five, was optional this year.

Orange County Sugar Makers Association President Roger Palmer said, “most everybody went by the old kit.”

Producers who sell the product out of state will be required to switch to the new grading system beginning in 2015, while in-state vendors will have until 2017, according to the Agency of Agriculture’s rules.

Palmer, who sets up the maple exhibit at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, also indicated that overemphasizing the light color for Golden or Fancy might not be a bad thing. He said he encourages producers to grade their syrup conservatively, so that if it looks a little dark it would be classified as Amber, not Golden.

Conservative grading is necessary because syrup’s color degrades over time, he said.

Palmer said one of the most common reasons a syrup will lose out at the fair is because a producer has categorized it incorrectly.

He said that during this year’s season most producers made Medium Amber, now known as Amber Color with Rich Taste.

Palmer expressed a personal preference for Dark Amber, now known as Dark with Robust Taste. He said it makes better candy than lighter grades.

Jeff Luce, co-owner of Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock, said he harvested more dark syrup this year than average. He wasn’t complaining.

There is “a strong market for all grades in Vermont,” said Luce. “We still don’t have enough product to match desires for Vermont maple syrup.”

Luce said he was unaffected by the sample mix-up as he is using up old grade stickers.

Diana Wright and Steve Hoffman of Winter Ridge Farm in Thetford produced 24 gallons of syrup this year — “about half of what a super year would be,” said Hoffman.

The couple said that because of their small scale they don’t worry about grading their syrup.

Instead, Wright said they package most of their syrup in glass containers and customers “tell us if they like it on the lighter or darker side.”

Hoffman expressed a preference for the “mapley flavor” of Fancy (or Golden), while Wright said she likes her yogurt-topping sweet stuff dark.

“A lot of people have different opinions,” said Hoffman.

New Hampshire has not adopted the new maple grading system yet, but Agricultural Inspector Vickie Smith with the state’s Department of Agriculture said officials are developing new rules, similar to Vermont’s.

Smith said New Hampshire is eying a January 1, 2015 implementation date and noted that the aim is to “get everyone on board.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.