Sweet Dilemma: Will New Maple Syrup Standards Sap Vermont's Image?

The Wall Street Journal - Feb. 2, 2014

Elliott Morse of Vermont's Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, bottling maple syrup in the packing center, says he and his brother Burr think the new labels will change Vermont's unique grading system. Jennifer Levitz / The Wall Street Journal

MONTPELIER, Vt.—A sticky debate is swirling around this state.
As production of maple syrup soars, the industry's big trade group is pushing a dozen states and four Canadian provinces that make up the North American maple belt to adopt one uniform grading standard. The International Maple Syrup Institute thinks the booming commodity can be better marketed world-wide without confusing consumers.
But while many maple-producers are eager to spread the idea, scores of others are waffling over going to one international standard, fearing a loss of their quirky, homespun image.
"I'm not changing," said Edward Merrow, the owner of Blow Hill Maple Products in Danby, Vt., who has resigned from one local maple association that supported the new standard and has aligned himself with the Rutland County Maple Producers, some of whose members spoke against it at public hearings. "What are they going to do, put me in jail?"
The maple melee is running especially thick in Vermont, where maple is the official "state flavor" and busloads of leaf-peeping tourists snap up quaintly packaged syrup by the gallons. The state, the biggest U.S. producer of maple syrup, is the first state to adopt the new international standards and is giving producers until next January to comply or face possible fines.
Sugarmakers, as industry professionals call themselves, fear that sharing label descriptions with New York, Maine, Quebec and elsewhere will dilute the cachet of Vermont-made syrup.
"Vermont doesn't have an ocean and it doesn't have Disneyland. What it's got is a maple image, and we have capitalized on that by offering four grades of syrup," said Burr Morse, a white-bearded longtime sugarmaker at Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, off a winding road here in Montpelier. "But we can mess that up."
Vermont, which puts maple syrup on a pedestal along with cheese and covered bridges, has long had its own distinctive syrup-grading system: Grade A Fancy Light Amber, followed by Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B, so-called, locals say, not because it is lower in quality but for its more intense maple flavor, which appeals to many tourists.
But after a series of community "maple meetings," the state adopted new standards. By next year, all retail syrup in Vermont will be labeled "Grade A" because the trade group believes that consumers assume anything lower on the alphabet is inferior.
"That is just an absolute crock," said Mr. Morse. "Over half of my customers say, 'I like Grade B.' "
Syrup will be differentiated by a "descriptor" based on color, clarity and taste: Golden/Delicate Taste; Amber/Rich Taste; Dark/Robust Taste; and Very Dark/Strong Taste.
"Robust? Strong? What are they talking about: coffee or maple syrup?" asks Mr. Morse.
Currently, coordinating any sort of comprehensive exporting is "a nightmare," said Eric Randall, a New York maple-syrup producer and a board member of the International Maple Syrup Institute.
Light-colored syrup, for instance, is called "Fancy Grade" in Vermont, "Light Amber" in New York, and "No. 1 Extra Light" in Canada—a pattern seen in multiple categories. Market research showed consumers felt flummoxed, he said.
For instance, "people were confusing light with fat-free and no calories, and well, we know maple syrup has calories," he said.
The conundrum springs from a sweet situation. Maple syrup production is soaring because of new vacuum technology that is increasing the yield of sap per each tap placed in trees. Weather still matters, but no longer do wintry temperatures have to be ideal to get the sap running.
U.S. maple syrup production in 2013 hit 3.25 million gallons, up 70% from 2012, with the Vermont bringing in 40% of the haul, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The industry is evolving, and it is time for syrup makers to compete more globally and bring home the bacon, many maple experts say.
"You can't just sell syrup to your neighbor anymore," said Henry Marckres, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's official staff "maple specialist" who said he recently helped ship 10,000 cases of Vermont syrup to Australia and had interest from Thailand.
Getting states and provinces on board with one grading standard has "been fraught," said Mr. Randall, of the international trade group. Anger pours out in online maple chat rooms. "I refer to it as trash," he said.
In Wisconsin, where the grading proposal is under discussion, syrup-maker Katrina Becker of Stoney Acres Farm said some producers fear their industry could become Big Maple. One standard is the first step to price controls, more regulation and speculative maple-syrup trading, she predicted.
New York is planning to move to the new standards in 2015, though there were some naysayers, including the Northern New York Maple Producers Co-Op which lodged its formal opposition, claiming that the new edict allowed what it viewed as a lesser quality of dark syrup, now graded as "Extra Dark for Cooking," to be called "Grade A."
Nearby in Croghan, N.Y., the American Maple Museum—which houses the Maple Hall of Fame, displays a collection that includes variety of buckets and is largely funded by pancake breakfasts—is refusing to take a position in the flap. But museum director Dale Moser said it is hard to stay out of the fray.
"I have gone to many state meetings, and it can get pretty testy," he said. "Wherever maple syrup is made, people get very passionate about it."
In Maine, some producers are sweet on the new standards. The state is set to follow the new grades, in part if they are also adopted by the USDA. The agency says it is reviewing the proposal at the industry's request.
Michael Bryant, the secretary-treasurer of the Maine Maple Producers Association, said the system would put Maine on a level field with Vermont syrup, whose prestige he attributes to "marketing" more than just quality.
Does a "tree know which side of the border it is on? I don't think so," he said.
That notion is jarring over at Morse Farm in Vermont, where the aroma of hot syrup wafted from the packing room into the retail store on a recent visit. The owner Mr. Morse said "the epicenter of Vermont is syrup."
"I'm really scared about this change of grades," he said. "It seems as though it's designed to erode my brand. I hope I'm wrong."