New Labels, But Same Old Maple Syrup

Bill Proulx, the owner of River's Edge Sugar House, inspects one of his thousands of taps spread out over 200 acres in Ashford. (STEPHEN DUNN)

Connecticut, along with the rest of the maple-syrup-producing world, is about to switch to a whole new system that is intended to help consumers know exactly what it is they're buying.

The new grading system, has been in the works for years. It will replace a hodge-podge of different methods in different states and Canada for describing this beloved pancake and waffle topper.

But consumers are almost certain to be confused, at least for a while. Some Connecticut sugar house owners are pretty sure it's going to cost them money. Others insist the reforms are worth all the trouble. There's even an argument that it's only happening because of a powerful foreign cartel.

The natural sweetener made from the sap of maple trees will still taste the same. The difference is that, by next year, chances are you will no longer be able to buy various types of "Grade A" or "Grade B" syrup, a labeling system that's been in use for something like three decades.

Instead, consumers will be choosing from a range of Grade A variations with descriptions such as "golden/delicate" and "dark/strong."

The change in designations, according to Connecticut maple syrup producers like Mark Harran and Rob LaMothe, will make the whole labeling thing "much more consumer friendly" in the long run and benefit the industry as a whole.

"I am a skeptical convert," says Harran, president of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut. "I just didn't understand fully the positives of the new system." He says the grading does a far better job of "translating taste sensations" than the old method.

Harran makes and sells maple syrup from his Brookside Farm II in Litchfield. LaMothe is owner of LaMothe's Sugarhouse in Burlington, one of the largest in Connecticut. For the past two years, with the approval of federal and state officials, Harran and LaMothe have been testing the new grading system, and they say it works.

"It will put everybody on a level playing field," says LaMothe. He points out that there has been confusion over different grading systems for maple syrup, with Vermont using one system, Canada another, and states like Connecticut following the lead of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

No More Grade B

The USDA hasn't yet adopted the new grading system, but is expected to soon and Harran believes it will be in place for all of Connecticut by 2015. Connecticut producers don't have to use any grading for their maple syrup if they don't want to, says Harran. But if they do use a grade, it must conform to the USDA system.

Harran says the new naming system also does away with the old "Grade B" nomenclature for syrup that wasn't really substandard at all but simply very dark and strong. Some consumers were put off by the negative Grade B connotation.

"You probably wouldn't go into a supermarket and buy Grade B beef or vegetables," Harran says. He believes the new system is simpler and easier for consumers to understand.

Some long-time maple syrup producers in New York, Connecticut and elsewhere have taken a lot of convincing. A few hardliners in Vermont are still insisting they won't make the switch, even though their state has become the first in the U.S. to formally adopt the new system.

"Those old swamp Yankees had their knickers in a twist," laughs LaMothe.

"There was a fair amount of grumbling about it," says Bill Proulx. His family has operated River's Edge Sugar House in Ashford since 1997 and now taps about 2,000 trees. The taps are what drain the sap from the maples. It takes more than 30 gallons of sap, boiled down, to make one gallon of syrup.

"It's a little bit of a hardship for producers," explains Proulx. "We have to change over all our labeling, and our websites." He adds that, "There's going to be confusion – we're going to have to educate the consumers." Despite those problems, Proulx says he believes the new grading method will be good for everybody in the long run.

The new international standards will all be Grade A, with color and taste descriptions that include: Golden/Delicate Taste; Amber/Rich Taste; Dark/Robust Taste; Very Dark/Strong Taste. Previously, the dark and very dark designations were labeled Grade B under the old system.

Connecticut's old grading system included "Light Amber or Fancy;" "Medium Amber;" and "Dark Amber." In Vermont, light-colored syrup has been labeled "Fancy Grade," a designation some Vermont sugar houses were loathe to give up.

Henry Mackres, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Agriculture, says his state went to the new system as of Jan. 1, but said producers have one year to use of their old labels. Mackres says Vermont will also allow local sugar houses to use a double-labeling system with both the old and new grades until 2017, but he doubts many will bother.