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Maple Syrup: Clarifying the Color Amber

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Just in time for the heavy breakfast season, the State of Vermont is trying to ease the national confusion about maple syrup. The largest maple syrup-producing state proposes to re-write the labeling of syrup so we all know what it is we are pouring on our pancakes.

Changing the grades is serious business. This fall Vermont held public hearings, not about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but about how best to describe maple syrup.

Sources close to the tap say the grading system should be clarified and made uniform among syrup producing regions. The Vermont Agriculture Department points out that the two largest producers of maple syrup, Vermont and Canada, have different rating systems. As you might expect, Vermont's top grade has a different name from the Canadian because it is called "Vermont Fancy." That's followed by "Vermont Grade A Light Amber," "Grade A Medium Amber" and "Grade A Dark Amber."

Note that Vermont's fourth rated syrup is still "Grade A." They also have a "Grade B" and "Commercial," which is recommended for cooking. That, by the way, is contrary to the common wisdom of cooking with wine, which holds that you shouldn't cook with something you wouldn't drink.

The Canadians don't have a grade that starts with "Vermont" or "Fancy." But they do have a "Grade B Amber," which is actually darker than their "Grade A Dark Amber." Evidently dark is not dark unless it's Grade B dark. Maine has a "Fancy, U.S. Grade A Light Amber," which is almost as many titles as an African dictator.

An operation in Connecticut sells a "Grade A Medium Pure," which is like being a "Medium Virgin."

The syrup producers also like to label their stuff by state, as if they are the wine-growing regions of France. "New York Grade A Light Amber" is their Chateau Lafite of syrup.

Of course most people know nothing about maple syrup. Millions of Americans believe Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima are maple syrup. Log Cabin bills itself as "Authentic Flavored Syrup." Authentic what? The word "maple" isn't on the label and nothing maple is in the bottle.

Aunt Jemima, which also has no maple syrup in it, has a multi-tiered grading system of its own: Original, Lite, Butter Rich, Butter Lite, Country Rich and Country Rich Lite. "Butter Rich," has no actual butter, only "natural butter flavor." "Country Rich Lite" seems to have broken new ground with being both "Rich" and "Lite." But nowhere on the label does it say, "Nothing Maple About It!"

So you can imagine the confusion at the farm stand when people buy maple syrup. A new grading system might simply be "Vermont Grade One" then "Two," "Three" and "Four." Or, Grades A through D. Maybe even "Best," "Good," "Not That Good" and "Not Fit for Waffles." But to make things crystal, Vermont proposes a ratings system that goes as follows:

-Grade A Golden Delicate Taste.
-Grade A Amber Rich Taste
-Grade A Dark Robust Taste
-Grade A Very Dark Strong Taste

All four grades are "A." Eliminated are "Grade B" and "Commercial." Nothin' but Grade A stuff comin' from Vuhmahnt. You could probably scramble the bottles on the shelf and few people would know which was the top and bottom grade.

The Vermont Ag department claims it wants to educate syrup lovers about exactly what grade of maple syrup they're buying. So when the re-labeling is done, we can be sure that Vermont's maple syrup grades will be absolutely clear, or at least one of several pleasing shades of amber.