New York state is its own isolated world of syrup production with its own language and measurement system, according to maple industry expert Stephen Childs, but that’s begun to change.
Thanks to some recent changes by the state Department of Agriculture, the New York maple scene is about to go international.
“We’ve always had our own grading system,” he said, “and Vermont had their own grading system. Canada had theirs.”
He was in the woods near Ithaca on Monday morning, checking taps as part of his Cornell University research. Talking on his cellphone, he explained the current New York grading system:
Syrup producers label their product based on grade and color. Grade A is considered suitable for table use, broken down into light, medium, and dark colors. Grade B, or “extra dark for cooking,” is as the name suggests considered an ingredient rather than a condiment.
As the season progresses, syrup generally gets darker. The system has always worked locally to define that darkening, but outside the state, it can get confusing.
“We were confusing our Californian clientele,” said Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association.
She said people from non-maple producing areas can’t grasp the different grading methods of Vermont, New York, and Canadian exports, which put them off.
It was this confusion that prompted the International Maple Syrup Institute to create a universal grading system at its annual meeting last October. Thomas said a consistent system will make sense to maple-ignorant people and lead to a larger consumer base.
The new measurement system won’t change anything about the actual syrup, just the way it’s labeled.
According to Childs, most producers use a grading kit of syrup samples to separate newly bottled stock. It has always been based on translucence. Basically, the more light that shines through a bottle of syrup, the lighter the syrup and the higher the grade.
Currently anything over 63 percent translucence is considered light in New York. Vermont has a bit higher standards, as does Canada.
The new measurement will require a translucence figure of at least 75 percent across all state and province lines to get a score of “golden.”
Terminology will change as well. Vermont syrupers call their lightest stuff “fancy” rather than the New York “grade A light.” Canadians sell an “extra light” variety.
The IMSI decided all producers will work on a compromise system from “golden” to “extra dark,” all in the tableworthy category.
Thomas said the vast majority of the state’s 1,500 producers support the changes, but there’s still a way to go before it all becomes permanent. Maple regulations are handled at the state level.
New York, Vermont and several Canadian provinces will all have to independently convince their governments to adopt universal grading measurements before it will go through.
“We’ve been talking about it internationally for five years,” said maple producer and NYSMPA President Dwayne Hill. “It will be three to five more before it’s done.”
That’s on the international level. New York state could get it changed a lot faster.
Since October, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which is in charge of the industry, held a public comment period. It got mostly positive responses, including one from the Farm Bureau sent Feb. 7.
“Previously there has not been a universal code among the 16 states and provinces responsible for the supply of pure maple syrup,” wrote bureau spokeswoman Nicole Willis. “Grade confusion among producers and consumers has been well documented and these regulations become the basis for the industry to move forward in a positive and beneficial direction.”
Officials at the state Department of Agriculture and Markets did not return a call Monday seeking comment on when the new measurements will become official in New York.
Hill said it will likely take about a year, followed by a grace period for producers to use up old labels.