To the untrained eye, it may seem that all maple syrup is the same. However, four state and federal organizations have established essential standards — color, clarity, flavor, and density — which provide guidelines for grading 100% pure maple syrup.
Grade A syrup, which is sold directly to consumers, must meet these four standards to be marketed as Grade A.
“Pure maple syrup derives much of its economic value from its characteristic flavor despite the fact that flavor lacks a quantitative measure for quality,” said Mark Isselhardt, University of Vermont Extension maple specialist. “Maple producers rely on personal experience and the assistance of trained experts to help ensure that all syrup is graded appropriately.”
The majority of formal maple syrup grading education comes in the form of in-person meetings and events, where producers can interact with experts and other producers to learn about grading and quality. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has prevented large conferences from being held, depriving the 3,000 plus sugar makers in Vermont the opportunity to attend educational opportunities.
Fortunately, Isselhardt has a solution. In 2018, he produced the “off-flavor syrup reference kit,” a handy, easily accessible kit that provided clear examples of the most common flavor defects in pure maple syrup. The kit quickly gained popularity and has been used as a tool for the International Maple Syrup Institute’s Maple Syrup Grading School and sugar maker groups around the country since its creation.
A Two-Pronged Approach to Improving and Maintaining Quality
In the face of COVID-19, and with the help of a grant provided by the University of Vermont Office of Engagement, Isselhardt riffed off his previous 2018 idea to create a two-part solution. His new plan gives maple syrup producers quality inspections and educational opportunities that they need.
The aim is for the kits and virtual tasting sessions to build on the IMSI grading school’s previous impact on maple businesses. A survey of Maple Grading School attendees revealed that the school helped 75% of attendees save money, increased their sales by 70%, increased their profits by 63% and reduced their costs for 70% of attendees.
The first part of Isselhardt’s solution is a revised “maple syrup quality control kit.” In addition to reference samples of “good” tasting syrup and defective syrup, the kit includes precision instruments for grading syrup density, syrup color and informational cards that explain how to ensure each batch of syrup meets the four key grading standards. With the assistance of Amy Walker, the kits were assembled and shipped to over 200 Vermont maple producers.
QR codes that bring users directly to Extension videos on “Maple Syrup Grading Fundamentals” and the IMSI handbook for maple grading and judge training are included in the kit.
Part two of Isselhardt’s plan focused on virtual tasting sessions before the 2021 maple syrup production season. A tasting session was held in conjunction with the Vermont Maple Conference Week and included Extension specialists and retired Vermont Agency of Agriculture maple expert Henry Marckres. Producers were asked to submit samples with unidentified defects and the panel tasted the syrup and discussed possible causes and solutions.
Building Trust in the Maple Syrup Brand
One of Isselhardt’s main goals is to prevent the direct and indirect economic consequences that come from unsatisfactory grading and quality testing. Inaccurate determinations of syrup quality at the producer level can have disastrous financial and personal repercussions throughout the market chain.
In Vermont, the bulk market makes up 87% of pure maple syrup sales. When syrup isn’t up to standard, its economic value can decrease by 30-70%. The growing popularity of maple syrup as an alternative sweetening agent in foods and beverages adds to the importance of producing a consistently high-quality, good-tasting product.
Indirectly, selling poor quality or off-flavor syrup results in consumer disappointment and the possibility that returning customers will stop buying from their staple Vermont producers.
With funding from the Office of Engagement, syrup producers, syrup packers, prospective maple producers and regional technology and career center programs have access to the kits and the opportunity to attend virtual syrup quality and tasting sessions, with the overarching goal of improving quality, sales and educational opportunities throughout the production chain.
According to Isselhardt, the combined sugaring experience of those who received kits was 4,320 years.
“Collectively those sugar makers put out 893,313 taps which represents 14% of all the taps in Vermont and 17% of all the syrup produced,” Isselhardt said.