Two years ago this fall, the maple syrup industry completed the adoption of a new system for grading syrup. The process took a long time starting back in 2011. The International Maple Syrup Institute took the old USDA Standard grades that included USDA Grade A Light, Medium and Dark and Grade B and transformed them into four Grade A categories that would include all saleable syrup. Two important additions were the flavor descriptors and the %Tc (light transparency) range. This allows consumers to compare grades based on flavor, and the new system also opens the door for standardized instruments to be used for color determination.
The four Grade A categories are Golden Delicate, Amber Rich, Dark Robust and Very Dark Strong. You will find that Golden Delicate parallels the old Light Amber Category. Amber Rich includes all of the old medium and the very top of the Grade A Dark Category. Dark Robust includes the rest of the of the Grade A Dark category and the very Top of the old Grade B Category. The Very Dark Strong Category includes the rest of the syrup that was formally classified as cooking syrup. Most very dark syrup that is produced and does not have an off flavor or a density problem will fall in the Very Dark Strong category. If syrup has an off flavor or does not meet the minimum 66 Brix level or overshoots the maximum 68.9 Brix standard, the product will be marked as commercial syrup and priced accordingly. It should be pointed out that the retail price in most markets does not change for any of the top 3 grades, and many producers sell their Very Dark Strong syrup for the same price.
The new grading system allows producers to not only sell syrup based on color but also on flavor. After all, flavor is what sells maple syrup! Flavor is a component of maple syrup judging that is quite subjective. Everyone has their own idea of what maple syrup should taste like. It is almost unfair to put maple syrup in a jug that has not been graded. It would be like labeling a cut of meat as beef. You as a consumer would be buying a package of meat without knowing if you were taking home a Porterhouse steak or stew meat. Today’s consumers are getting smarter about what they buy. Why would you try to sell them mystery syrup that could be Very Dark Strong, Golden Delicate or something in between? Your business would be missing out on an important part of marketing, interpreting and understanding what the consumer truly wants.
There is however, one word of caution about selling graded maple syrup – the grading better be right! Accurately grading your syrup is where spectrophotometry comes in. Today, for 60 to 80 dollars you can buy a Hanna Checker. There are more accurate and expensive models available for commercial packers, contest and grading fanatics, but even the most basic instrument is based on the transmission of a beam of light through the sample. As the product darkens, the percentage of light transmitted (%Tc) decreases. Once you have a reading, you match the %Tc light transmission reading on the device to the %Tc range of one of the new grades. Each grade has a unique %Tc range. Over the last two months putting together my maple syrup evaluation programs, I have had a chance to look at dozens of samples of maple syrup, some graded and some not. Many times these samples were so close it would have been impossible to grade accurately on a handheld temporary grading kit. This new instrumentation makes it easy to grade syrup and at an economical price point. This is just another evolution in the syrup maker’s production cycle that is grounded in pure science – start to finish.
Overall the new grading system has been well received. At many fairs and shows, we have heard conversations about the characteristics of each individual grade. Implementing sample tasting is a great way to interact with your customers. The customers themselves seem to really like the Amber Rich grade but more and more are trying and enjoying Dark Robust. This has been a learning experience for both producers and consumers alike. It is important to note that grading in many states is not mandatory, and Ohio is one of them. The other factor to remember is that most consumers are not familiar with how maple syrup is graded. Most consumers compare your maple syrup to your average table syrup which has no identity. I believe this is where maple producers can learn from the wine and craft beer industry. Those industries have built entire marketing campaigns around highlighting the various unique characteristics of their product. Is it out of the realm of possibility that we might someday include a tasting room in our sugar houses? Think about it, this could add a whole new dimension to the way we market maple syrup.