Ask any Vermonter about their favorite grade of 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 syrup for its proper use. Whether you're baking, sweetening morning coffee, or floating your pancakes, I hope to educate you on choosing the right grade for the job at hand. If you are looking for answers on maple syrup density, check out this blog, otherwise, read on.
Maple Syrup Color
Before I explain the grading system though, I wanted to give a quick explanation on why 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, as well as Northern Woodlands Magazine for compiling it all in one place.
The simple answer for syrup color change boils down (see what I did there) to microbes. Microbes are present in sap right from the beginning of the season, both natural yeasts and bacteria. However, as the season progresses, the quantity of microbes present increases. These microbes prefer their sap sugar in the form of invert sugars, fructose and glucose. The problem being, that sap from the tree is in the form of sucrose. So, through natural processes, the microbes invert the sugars to fructose and glucose, in turn making them easier to consume. As I'm sure you know, maple syrup is produced through a process called evaporation, where syrup is boiled and water content 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, especially during the latter part of the season, there are chemical reactions taking place. The chemical reactions are more frequent with the 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 non cooks, think of that nice brown on seared vegetables or steak. Additionally, UVM research indicates that 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 grade, you'll notice that the flavors become bolder and bolder as the season progresses and the syrup darkens in color. When reading about Very Dark Strong Taste/End of Season syrup, keep in mind the process described here. The build up of microbes causes the precipitous drop in flavor quality, thereby signifying the end of the maple season.
Vermont Maple Syrup Grades
In 2015, Vermont adopted a new syrup grading system. 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 what syrup is which than anything else. You reading this who were a fan of the old "Grade A" or "Grade B" syrup know exactly what I'm talking about.
Under the previous system, the naming conventions indicated that some syrup was better than others. To the uninitiated, Grade A 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 grade represents. As you'll see, the new system is descriptive in nature, so rather than opting for Grade A over B because of the name, that same customer might buy the new Grade B for it's bolder, more robust 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
Previously known as Fancy, this is the finest colored syrup produced in 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 this grade. 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 are 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 table syrup. In the summer months we use this syrup as a simple syrup replacement in our hit margarita recipe.
Amber Rich Taste
Probably the most popular grade 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 it's old name, Grade A Medium Amber, I think the new name really sets expectations properly. This grade boasts a pleasant, rich, well balanced maple flavor (which is why its 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 maple flavor this grade is known for. Produced mid-season, the golden-amber hue of this grade 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
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. Like it's name implies, the robust maple 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 with butterscotch, followed by hints of cinnamon that goes away as quick 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 syrup. This maple grade was previously known as Grade A Dark Amber, and requires a light transmittance of 25.0 to 49.9% .
Very Dark Strong Taste
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 grades. You might remember that there were two grades 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 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 it's bold maple flavor, and ability to come through in a variety of dishes, this 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, that 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.
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). 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 for followers of the Master Cleanse. Likewise, it is also popular for granola, marinades, and mustards. I myself 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 here
Contact us with your questions or leave a comment below.