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Samples of grades of maple syrup during production.

Maple Syrup Grades

For your convenience, the short concise guide on the different maple syrup grades is as follows:

  • Golden Delicate Taste: Maple syrup made from early-season sap, producing a light golden color that transmits greater than or equal to 75% of light through the syrup. You can expect a delicate and subtle maple flavor with hints of vanilla, baked apple, praline, and fresh butter.
  • Amber Rich Taste: Maple syrup made from early to mid-season which transmits 50.0 to 74.9% of light through this light amber-colored syrup. Look for hints of bourbon, nutmeg, crème brûlée, oats, and rich maple when tasting this popular grade of pancake syrup. 
  • Dark Robust Taste: A dark amber maple syrup with a more robust maple flavor made from mid to late season which by law must transmit 25.0 to 49.9% of light. This robust pancake syrup delivers hints of prunes, butterscotch, and cinnamon.
  • Very Dark Strong Taste: Produced late in the sugaring season, this very dark syrup must transmit less than 25% of light. This powerful maple syrup is known by its fans for use in baking, look for overtones of toffee, apricot, and coffee when tasting this syrup.

If you want to get deep into the details of why some syrup is darker than others, read on!

Ask Vermont maple producers about their favorite grade of pure maple syrup and you're liable to get a wide range of answers. Ultimately, it all comes down to your individual preference and getting the right grade of maple syrup for its proper use. Whether you're baking, sweetening morning coffee, or floating your pancakes, I hope to help you choose the right grade for the job at hand.

How Maple Syrup Color and Flavor Development

Before I explain the grading system, I want to give a quick explanation of why pure, real maple syrup trends darker in color as the season goes on. Through my research, I've found a TON of misinformation, enough so that I thought it was worthy to clear it up here. I have to credit the University of Vermont Extension for their work on this topic and Northern Woodlands Magazine for compiling it all in one place.

The simple answer for maple syrup color change boils down (see what I did there) to microbes. Microbes are present in maple sap right from the beginning of the season, both natural yeasts and bacteria. However, as the season progresses, the number of microbes present increases.

These microbes prefer their maple sap sugar in the form of invert sugars, fructose, and glucose. The problem is, that sap from the tree is in the form of sucrose. So, through natural processes, the sap microbes invert the sugars to fructose and glucose, in turn making them easier to consume (for them).

As you might know, maple syrup is produced through a process called evaporation, where maple sap is boiled and water content is removed. This process kills the bacteria present and ensures it doesn't end up in the final product you enjoy.

During the process of boiling sap, especially during the latter part of the season, chemical reactions take place. The chemical reactions are more frequent with higher populations of microbes. For example, the more invert sugars present in the sap from microbe activity in turn causes a higher level of browning reactions.

For the cooks reading along, you might recognize this as the Maillard reaction. For the noncooks, think of that nice brown on seared vegetables or meat. Additionally, UVM research indicates that through a naturally occurring outcome, maple trees release higher levels of amino acids into the sap as the season progresses, which for the food scientists reading this, is an important part of the nonenzymatic browning that we dub the Maillard reaction.

As I'll discuss in each section of the maple grades, you'll notice that the flavors become bolder and bolder as the season progresses and the maple syrup darkens in color. When reading about Very Dark Strong Taste/End of Season maple syrup, keep in mind the process described here. The build-up of microbes causes the precipitous drop in quality leading to a strong maple flavor, thereby signifying the end of the maple season.

"Buddy" Taste and the End of a Maple Season

As we wind the current maple season to a close, I was talking with my brother about when he decides to close things down for the year, his answer was, "When the syrup turns into 'Bud Light'." For the uninitiated, that’s the term sugarmakers use for the last syrup of the season when the finished syrup rapidly lightens in color and tastes “buddy”, which happens to coincide with the bud break of the tree. “Buddy” flavor in maple syrup is one of the most common defects and something you can identify in some syrup that you can find off the shelf, we don't retail any syrup we produce with this defect. “Bud Light” maple syrup is worse than this, and does not taste good, and you’ve likely never seen it on store shelves because it would be a poor representation of what maple syrup should be.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so bear with me. After our conversation I was thinking about what a tree bud tastes like and if it’s like what we call “buddy” syrup. I can confidently say I didn’t go to the woods, climb a tree, and taste one for myself, but I think that sugarmakers coined the moniker, “buddy” because the flavor coincides with trees beginning to open their buds. So, rather than go into the woods and taste a maple tree bud for myself, I went to the internet and searched for a scientific answer.

My search took me to an in-depth research paper conducted by the Canadian National Institute of Health which analyzed the chemical changes of maple tree sap over a production season. To understand their analysis, it’s important to be familiar with DTBB or Days-to-Bud-Break. DTBB is the remaining time until the trees can be expected to start growing leaves or break open their tree buds. In their research, they noticed that significant chemical changes began to occur in the tree sap at approximately 30 DTBB, which for us occurs around the first week of April or late March in a typical year and is when we close out the maple season. At 30 DTBB, maple sap begins to register increased levels of nitrogenous compounds and amino acids, which researchers believe are caused by the trees conducting “stem photosynthesis”, which they say is an important function of woody plants, especially before bud break.

The next question was, why does the syrup lighten at the end of the season then, contradicting what I just wrote about in the preceding paragraphs? Well, it seems that the build-up of amino acids in the tree sap prohibits the maillard reaction we discussed in the previous section, and contributes to the bitter taste we call, “buddy”. You can now consider yourself armed with information if you ever have a conversation with a stranger about maple syrup chemistry and off-flavors.

A bluebird day on the farm through the grades of maple syrup.

Vermont Maple Syrup Grades

In 2015, Vermont adopted a new system for maple syrup grades. The decision was a move to align our state system with the International Maple Syrup Institute. Ideally, pulling every producer from the United States and Canada under one umbrella would clear a lot of confusion. However, this has NOT been the case, as I think I answer more questions on which maple syrup is which grade than anything else. If you were a fan of the old "Grade A Medium Amber", "Grade A Dark Amber", or "Grade B" maple syrup you know exactly what I'm talking about. 

Under the previous system, the naming conventions erroneously indicated that some maple syrup was better than others. To the uninitiated, Grade A dark syrup would seem to be of higher quality than B, and people were right to assume that. For that reason, the state of Vermont decided that a new system was needed to more intuitively explain what each of the syrup grades represents.

As you'll see, the new system is descriptive, so rather than opting for Grade A dark or light over B because of the name, that same customer might buy the new Grade B for its bolder, more robust flavor and maple taste if it better suits their personal taste.

I asked my father, and he said he spent about as much time explaining the old system as I do explaining the new system. Some things never change. As I'm writing this, my mother just commented, "When does the 'new' system stop being new, we're seven years in now, maybe you should add that to the blog!" So this is me adding it to the blog. Without further ado, here is a rundown of the "new" Vermont maple syrup grading system.

Golden Delicate Taste 

Grade label for Golden Delicate Taste maple syrup at the Carman Brook Farm.
The lightest grade of maple syrup, Golden Delicate Taste.

Previously known as Fancy, this lightest of the maple syrup grades has a golden color and is produced at the beginning of the maple season. When the winter first breaks and the trees begin their physiological process in sap production, the light-colored sap from the first few runs is what produces one of the most sought-after of the maple syrup grades.

The Vermont official grading scale requires a light transmittance of greater than or equal to 75% to qualify. When tasting, the first thing you'll notice is the aromas of vanilla and baked apple. The first flavors are notes of praline and fresh butter that finish with a very delicate maple flavor, which fans of this grade treasure.

Popular as an ice cream topper, it is preferred for some home baking confections, and as a table maple syrup. In the summer months, we use this maple syrup as a simple syrup replacement in our hit margarita recipe.

Amber Rich Taste 

Amber Rich Taste grade sticker from the Carman Brook Farm for maple syrup.
The Amber Rich Taste maple syrup color profile.

Probably the most popular of the Vermont maple syrup grades we produce, Amber Rich Taste syrup is a favorite for pancakes, French toast, and waffles. A true utility player on the maple syrup team. You might recognize its old name, Grade A Medium Amber, I think the new name sets expectations properly. This grade boasts a pleasant, rich, well-balanced rich flavor (which is why it's my favorite!).

My tasting notes report a slight bourbon nose, with hints of nutmeg producing a fine balance. Crème brûlée is the first taste you'll notice, with a wonderful finish of oats; of course, all wrapped together with that well-balanced rich flavor this grade is known for.

Produced mid-season, the golden-amber hue of this Vermont syrup makes it our favorite to feature in glass, and is the maple grade perfect for gifts. State regulations require a light transmittance of 50.0 to 74.9% to be considered Amber Rich Taste syrup.

Dark Robust Taste 

Carman Brook Farm's grade label for Dark Robust Taste maple syrup grade.
A pitcher of Dark Robust Taste maple syrup.

Like its early season counterpart, Amber Rich Taste, the Dark Robust Taste grade of syrup is another perfect table syrup option, especially for those who want a slightly bolder maple finish. As its name implies, the robust flavor is what shines through, and will linger after the first taste.

The nose reminded me of prunes and lightly caramelized sugar. I would liken the taste to butterscotch, followed by hints of cinnamon that goes away as quickly as it comes.

The savory maple flavor will also enhance your favorite culinary dishes, which we like to highlight for those who might not want to buy both Amber Rich Taste and Very Dark Strong Taste syrup.

If you can only choose one grade and like to cook, you could do much worse than choosing this hearty maple syrup. This maple syrup grade was previously known as Grade A Dark Amber and by regulation requires a light transmittance of 25.0 to 49.9%.

Very Dark Strong Taste 

Maple syrup grade sticker from Carman Brook Farm, Very Dark Strong Taste Baking.
Very Dark Strong Taste Baking syrup grade in a pitcher.

This grade covers a lot of territory, so strap in. State guidelines allow producers to use "market descriptors" to help clear any confusion with customers. We decided that to do this grade justice, we needed to split it into two separate maple syrup grades. You might remember that there were two grades under the old system not discussed yet, Grade B and C. We account for them here with Very Dark Strong Taste/Baking and Very Dark Strong Taste/End of Season, respectfully.

Again, state guidelines broaden a bit here, only stating that this grade should be, "maple syrup which is free of any material other than pure, clear, clean liquid maple syrup in a sanitary condition; which has a color for light transmittance less than 25%". In other words, a pretty broad grade worthy of two categories, in our opinion.

Our Very Dark Strong Taste/Baking syrup, or the lighter of the two, is the syrup formerly known as Grade B. Prized by many for its bold maple flavor, and ability to come through in a variety of dishes, this pure Vermont maple syrup has a rabid fan base we wanted to ensure were honored by carrying it through in the new system. I describe it as having a smell reminiscent of apricot and toffee, which leads to an intense maple flavor with slight hints of coffee.

Many people note a thicker mouthfeel as well, which I would corroborate, though it should be noted that all of our syrup is the same density, as regulation dictates. This syrup is a staple in our refrigerator here at the farm for cooking our favorite recipes. If you know, you know.

Very Dark Strong Taste grade sticker for End of Season maple syrup.

Finally, the darker end of this grade is what we call Very Dark Strong Taste/End of Season. Formerly known as Grade C, this is the final syrup we produce at the end of the season (as the name implies) and the darkest of the maple syrup grades. Jam-packed with heavy mineral flavors and antioxidants, it leaves a sharp flavor that sticks to your taste buds, it is not a popular pancake syrup for this reason.

This grade has long been popular among followers of the Master Cleanse. Likewise, it is also popular for granola, marinades, and mustard. I use it with meat marinades for beef jerky to great effect, if I post the recipe in the future, I'll link it here.

If you need more information, the boring regulations can be read in full here.

Also, If you are looking for answers on maple syrup density, check out this blog, or here for tips on storing maple syrup, we also break down some of the health benefits of maple syrup here, otherwise, I hope you enjoyed this explainer on the grades of maple syrup.

Contact us with your questions or leave a comment below.

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Comments 2

Blake on

Super interesting and helpful explanation. Thanks!!

BostonGirl on

This is so helpful, thank you for posting!

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