• Fancy that
    February 21,2013

    Vermont maple producers appear to be going with the flow.

    The maple syrup industry is pushing a new labeling protocol that would require Vermont to abandon the traditional grades that its sugarmakers have used to describe their syrup.

    Traditionalists favor the familiar grades, each of which has its meaning and its champions. The lightest and most delicate-flavored is called fancy. The next lightest is Grade A medium amber, followed by dark amber and Grade B. There is also a Grade C, which is not sold as syrup but is used in baked goods and other products.

    Vermont produces more syrup than any other state, by far. In 2012, Vermont produced 750,000 gallons, amounting to 39 percent of the national output. Maine and New York were the next most productive, each making about 360,000 gallons.

    In Vermont production was down by about 34 percent last year from the year before, when the state produced a near-record 1.14 million gallons. Producers blamed the lower output on the unusually warm weather in March.

    Vermont may be the leader in the United States, but output in Quebec, which produces 90 percent of Canada’s syrup, dwarfs production in Vermont. In 2011 Quebec produced 7.7 million gallons.

    Despite the decline last year, production in Vermont burgeoned over the past decade. The number of taps in Vermont grew from 3.15 million in 2010 to 3.5 million in 2012. Yield per tap has also been growing, except for last year when the weather interfered. Improvements in technology and increased interest by producers have caused the output in Vermont to double in the decade.

    Vermont producers are making far more syrup than Vermonters can consume, which means their syrup must compete on the international market with the tsunami of syrup flowing each year from Quebec. And the industry has adopted a grading lingo that the business believes is more helpful to consumers than is Vermont’s terminology.

    There will be several types of Grade A: golden color with delicate taste; amber color with rich taste; dark color with robust taste; and very dark with strong taste.

    Vermonters are inclined to think that the world can just as well learn the language of Vermont. If you want to know what “fancy” means, buy a pint. “Medium” and “dark amber” seem sufficiently descriptive. “Grade B” speaks for itself, and some people like it best.

    Spreading the Grade A label over a spectrum of tints and tastes seems like a system devised in Lake Wobegon: All syrups are above average. The new system also imports one of the most overused contemporary adjectives: robust. “Robust taste” seems to be a term designed for obfuscation. Is robust less strong than strong? Who knows?

    And yet the imperatives of international commerce seem to override the chauvinism of the Vermont producer. The Agency of Agriculture and the producers themselves seem ready to give in. Sen. Kevin Mullin gave vent to Vermont chauvinism when he said, “We should not be following everyone in lockstep ... giving them the ability to try to pretend that syrup made in another state is anywhere near as good as syrup made in Vermont.”

    Take that, New Hampshire.

    But producers will have three years to phase in new containers and labels. And if Vermont syrup is really better, then it will continue to stand out. Chuck Ross, secretary of agriculture, says Vermont’s syrup is better because regulations require it to be boiled down further so it is more dense and rich in taste than syrup elsewhere.

    The name “Vermont” carries with it an important message about quality, and so whether it is called “robust” or “dark amber,” it will enjoy an advantage. The state’s real worry probably has more to do with that heat wave last year, which could be a harbinger of a climatic shift that could transform the woods and the maple industry for the worse.

    In the meantime, fancy will continue to flow in the hearts of Vermonters.

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