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Vermont Maple Grade Inflation

June 23, 2014

Real maple syrup is non-negotiable. Pancake syrup or other maple-flavored syrups, regardless of whether they are all natural or artificially flavored, are a blight upon the world.

If there is no real maple, your choices are limited. Most likely at a place that only stocks some cheap imitation, the jam is probably some high-fructose corn syrup and pectin concoction. Hopefully the joint at least uses real butter. Then at least you could sweeten your French toast or pancakes with a bit of powdered sugar. I’d avoid commercial honey too, since that can be nothing more than a simple sugar syrup stripped of everything that made it honey in the first place.

Ah, the wonders of modern food production. Isn’t progress marvelous.

As you likely know, real maple comes in grades. Soon, those grades will be changing. You may start seeing them now, but by 2015 they should be firmly in place. While I’m bummed that my underappreciated (and thus occasionally bargain-priced) Grade B will be renamed “Grade A Dark with Robust Taste”, the truth is that the secret of Grade B’s robust maple flavor has long been out of the bag. Plus the new grading system promises to include the mysterious Grade C which up until now wasn’t available for retail sale.

But recently, I had an experience with maple that turned my world a bit upside down.

If you believe that all Grade B syrups taste the same, you are wrong. Grades are determined by color and not flavor. And a while back I went to the Schenectady Greenmarket and picked up a few Grade B syrups from local producers and tried them side by side. The differences were remarkable.

What I had never done was taste all the grades from one producer side to side. Technically, that should probably be side-to-side-to-side-to-side since there’s Fancy, Grade A Medium, Grade A Dark, and Grade B.

It just so happened that my mother got me a gift tasting pack of syrups from one Vermont producer. So what else was there to do but break out the fancy tasting glasses, sit down, and start sipping on some syrup.


This was a bit of a surprise, especially since I was expecting to hate it. The aroma had notes of singed white wood, and along with that was a delicate floral component. Sure, there was a maple flavor, but it was very light and subdued.

When tasted with full fat Cabot plain Greek-style yogurt, Little Miss Fussy noted that it tasted like sweet lemon. She was right. And it made me think that this light syrup would work well for sweetening a sparkling lemonade. Ooh. That was good. But I also really did enjoy this on its own over the most decadent yogurt commercially available in the northeast. Overall, it was my second favorite of the set.

Grade A Medium Amber
Obviously, this was darker and had a more pronounced maple flavor. But it also smelled like roasted nuts. That part was good. What wasn’t so good was an earthy element that was wafting out of the glass. This earthiness was also echoed in the flavor, and I didn’t like it. Maybe those kind of undertones would be more up someone else’s alley. And it’s funny because I really enjoy earthy wines, but in maple I found it unappealing.

Grade A Dark Amber
I called this one copper in color. Little Miss Fussy, always the artist, said it looked burnt orange. Maybe I helped her come to that, a wee little bit. But the words were all hers. The aroma was distinctly that of toasted marshmallows on top of a more robust maple core. Typically, I prefer a deep dark syrup that just screams maple, but this one was very pleasant and would be assertive enough to provide pancakes and French toast with the true maple flavor.

Grade B
So how did my favorite and most ballyhooed grade do in the tasting? Terribly. More than maple, it had the aroma of burnt sugar. Not in a bad way. It was more like a creme brulee topping than a pot of sugar neglected on the stove. But overall the flavor was more caramel than maple. Still, Little Miss Fussy said she liked “the taste and how it lasts in your mouth for a long time.” And it was her favorite of the bunch.

Me? I was shocked to see that Grade A Dark Amber won me over. It’s made me reconsider everything I’ve held dear about real maple syrup. And it served as good reminder to avoid being complacent. Even if there is something that you love, it’s good to occasionally try other things. Those you think that might be lesser, may turn out to be better than you thought.

I’ve got to keep that in mind upon returning to Albany next week. There are old places I need to give another shake. And there are so many new things, I almost don’t know where to start.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Cindy permalink
    June 23, 2014 10:09 am

    Mmmmaple. In our household we’ve also always been Fussy about using only real maple syrup, no “pancake syrup” or “maple-flavored” syrup. My husband prefers medium-grade. Until this post, I wasn’t aware that there are 2 (not just 1) darker grades that are currently available. Love the idea of tasting with plain, full-fat Greek yogurt – it makes perfect sense but I wouldn’t have thought of that. Little Miss Fussy is becoming quite the tasting connoisseur!

  2. June 23, 2014 1:13 pm

    And what about the differences between geographic areas? Are Vermont maple syrups very different than New York syrups, or Connecticut? etc. This begs for more pancakes, er…tasting.

  3. June 23, 2014 3:17 pm

    I tried this a little over a year ago after you mentioned Grade B and I began to understand more about maple syrup flavor and grades. I railed against ‘pancake syrup’ and the like, and started to read the ingredient list of what my wife was buying. Almost all we had in the house was ‘maple flavored corn syrup’ or some factory concoction!! Never again I exclaimed!! So I found some 100% real maple syrup on the shelf at price chopper and danced a jiggity jig all the way home.
    Imagine my disappointment when I did a side by side by side taste test with the pancake syrups and my 100% maple syrup and they tasted EXACTLY the same :( . Eventually, I made my way over to Honest Weight Food CO-OP and got some local ‘Grade B dark’ and WOW!! THAT was what I was looking for! Deep and rich with caramel notes and great maple flavor. Unfortunately, my kids don’t seem to care either way at this point, but I know they will as they get older. You just can’t beat the flavor and richness of great dark maple syrup.
    Thanks for being so fussy Mr Fussy!! I know you catch a bit of grief for being so fussy, but it really does make a difference! Keep it up!

  4. enough already! permalink
    June 23, 2014 9:40 pm

    Totally agree with Todd. Fussy-ness prevails!

  5. June 28, 2014 11:50 pm

    Thanks you guys. It’s nice to get a bit of positive feedback to offset some of the nastiness. Not that I’m complaining. If I’m trying to shake things up, I’m bound to ruffle a few feathers. And I’ve got a thick enough skin to take it. Still, I appreciate the kind words.

    Anyhow, to close the loop on this, I did a follow up cross comparison of the Vermont Grade A Dark (above) and a Canadian Grade B (from Trader Joe’s). The TJ’s Grade B had none of those burnt sugar notes as the Grade B from VT (above), but the TJ’s sample did have a notably darker color and stronger maple flavor than the VT Grade A Dark.

    Of all these syrups, it was the Canadian Grade B that’s really the closest to what I’m looking for in 100% pure maple. Your milage may vary.

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