Maple Syrup Grades Explained

by Tig Tillinghast

Different states will have slightly different terms sometimes, but syrup grade systems are essentially the same: they all are based solely on the color of the syrup, and the lighter the syrup the “higher” the grade. In Vermont, the grades start at Grade A Fancy and move on, in order, to Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B and Commercial grade.

(Kit used for grading syrup samples by color)

Grades of maple syrup probably cause more confusion than clarification. They meant one thing a hundred years ago, another thing five years ago, and now new technologies have yet again shifted the significance of the various grades.

The upshot: the closer to Grade A Fancy, the lighter the color. In the past, those grades also meant “more subtle flavor” to those who liked light syrup and “less flavor” to those who were fans of the darker stuff. But nowadays, due to the new technologies that lighten the color of syrup, there is less of a connection between grade and flavor. This new factor is now reflected in the syrup market, where maple producers are being paid the same amount of money for Grade A Fancy syrup and Grade A Dark Amber syrup.

The Evolution of Grades

Since before the Civil War, and especially during the Civil War, New England maple sugar was the primary sweetener used locally. The country’s poor transportation network, and the great distance to the can sugar plantations down south caused that sweetener to be more expensive. Almost all maple production was made into granulated sugar, rather than the syrup we most often see today. Because this was used in great quantities in cooking, people often wanted to avoid the strong maple flavor, depending on the dish. Cooks preferred the lightest and least flavorful maple sugar, which is why the top of the grading scheme is reserved for the lightest syrup.

Today, maple sugar is sold mostly in the form of syrup, usually for a few specialty purposes where the strong maple flavor is very desirable. Many consumers mistakenly think that the higher the grade, the more maple flavor it will have. An old professor of mine who used to sugar nearby once did a taste test at the local country store to see what local folks actually preferred. He determined two things: that everyone likes free syrup taste testings, and that if people can’t see what their tasting, they tend to like either Grade A Medium Amber or Grade A Dark Amber.

The Destruction of Grades

A very few years ago, some producers introduced a bubbler machine into the maple boiling process, with the intent of allowing air bubbles to create yet more surface area through which water could be evaporated out of the boiling sap. It actually worked, and to the surprise of all, lightened the syrup grade to boot. No one knows why or how; probably something to do with an interference with a complex set of protein reactions known as Maillard reactions that give maple syrup its color and flavor. The sap going in would have made dark syrup, and the final product does indeed taste just like dark syrup, but the bubble process took away much of the color.

Not a lot of producers started using the bubbler machines, but the ones who did install the expensive machinery were some of the largest syrup producers in the country, trying to squeeze out yet more efficiencies in their operations. The result: a huge additional quantity of Fancy syrup that doesn’t actually taste at all like Fancy. Consumers now can’t tell the flavor of the syrup from the color, so grading is more an exercise in tradition than anything more useful.

Alternate Grading Systems

If you think about it, there are two different variables that really matter with maple syrup, after the basics such as cleanliness and clarity are taken care of. There is flavor, and there is thickness. The Canadians put together a “flavor wheel,” that sets out many different subtle flavor aspects together. Using that flavor wheel would make you sound like a wine snob when tasting syrup: “this has a hint of blooming flowers with a woody finish.” Some University of Vermont folks are putting together a less foofy version of that wheel, but I still wonder if it should be considered a wheel at all, instead of merely a list of known flavor possibilities.

Small syrup producers often find that their unique operations produce different flavors than the traditional “maple” flavor you get when you mix hundreds of producers’ products together. These individual flavors can sometimes be especially wonderful, and a few producers are actively marketing their syrup as unique flavors, as do wine makers or cheese makers.

State regulators have long put requirements on a syrup’s thickness, mostly so that customers don’t get cheated with dilute syrup, and thereby hurt the reputation of the syrup produced in the state. Most states call a solution with 66 percent solids in it syrup, and Vermont goes a little further, requiring at least 67.1 percent. That might seem a trivial difference, but it is not. The human tongue is especially sensitive to the difference in texture of fluids between 65 and 70 percent solids, with most people being able to easily tell you which of two fluids is the thicker, even with solutions separated by only 0.1 percent solids.

I have a theory as to why this is. I suspect humans evolved that taste sensitivity because foodstuffs like syrup that are above 67 percent solids have so little water in them that most molds and bacteria cannot grow well in them. Fluids with just 62 percent solids are fantastic places for pathogens to grow, so perhaps those forebears of ours with less sensitive tongues didn’t make it through life long enough to pass on their insensitive tongues to us.

Syrup finished off to 68 percent solids has a thick, smooth feel to it that makes it seem like a meal. Syrup finished to 66 percent feels thin and runny. Syrup finished much past 68 percent solids packs a super flavor punch and thick texture, but over time loses its thickness to sugar crystals that come out of solution, usually at the bottom of the bottle. It’s a special treat that can’t last very long, so people typically don’t sell it. Last year we made a special “Overstrength Reserve” run that proved very popular. It started out about 72 percent solids, and was great sipping straight out of a wine glass.

While I would like to see subtle gradations of thickness be incorporated in a new grading standard, the state folks, when they get around to creating one, will almost certainly use flavor as the controlling factor. This will make grading syrup much harder to do, and less consistent, but much, much more informative.