Prior to 2014, Golden & Delicate maple syrup was officially known as Vermont Fancy maple syrup. With a light transmittance of at least 75%, Golden maple syrup is the lightest grade of maple syrup. It is made early in the maple syrup season before the syrup begins to naturally darken. The flavor may be considered Delicate, but it is the pure essence of maple to be savored by the discerning palette. It’s a perfect topping for vanilla ice cream, but would be overshadowed in a marinade. The new Golden & Delicate nomenclature is fine, but like most Vermonters, I still call it Fancy.
To be clear, I do not consider all Golden syrup to be Fancy. In this blog, I discuss a little history, some modern trends, blending practices, and off-flavors. I wrap up with a study by the UVM Extension showing that 0% of “Golden” syrup sold online was actually light colored enough. Seriously - NONE! (note that Maple Farmers syrup was NOT part of that study)
A Historical Glimpse of Vermont Fancy Maple Syrup
Fancy maple syrup has been somewhat elusive in the maple industry. Sugarmakers are often excited and proud to say that they made a certain amount of Fancy. It’s considered a sign that their operations are clean and that they boil the sap so quickly after collecting that it can’t even begin to darken. Despite best practices, some sugarmakers don’t make any Fancy at all. The color is also dependent on weather conditions and the trees’ sap; not all trees make Fancy sap.
The images below are from Gilead Brook Farm back in 1959. Records were written on the door of the sugarhouse that Rick Wright’s grandfather built. Note how late the seasons started. That’s about one month later than we start now. Also note that about three quarters of the crop was Fancy before the color dropped down to Grade A and then Grade B (our modern Very Dark & Strong). These days, only about 15% or so of the syrup made is light enough to be considered Golden. So the Wright’s must have had Fancy making trees. Or perhaps the cooler weather played a role. In any case, those were the good old days – except maybe for collecting the sap from 2500 buckets!
Modern Practices and Golden Maple Syrup
The maple syrup industry is moving to higher Brix reverse osmosis machines and steam powered evaporators. This trend is enabling factory farms to make lighter colored syrup. The problem is that these processes don’t give the maple sugar in the sap a chance to caramelize during the cooking process; the syrup does not develop its notable maple flavor.
Flavor is paramount in the maple industry, and I hope that we are not creating a new norm where the color is golden and the flavor is so delicate that there is only a whisper of maple flavor. That would be tragic, and while it may be “Golden & Delicate”, it is certainly not “Fancy” in my mind.
Blending of Maple Syrup
Another modern trend is blending of syrups. I’ve heard that the new steam-produced Golden syrup is good for blending – because it’s so light on flavor. While Golden syrup is best for making candy, it’s not so great for every day table syrup. About 75% of customers prefer Dark & Robust syrup over the other grades. People want that good caramelized flavor, so they would not enjoy the new steam-produced syrup. But if you mix some of that Golden with some dark syrup, you will end up with a very marketable grade of syrup that has a good maple flavor.
I can certainly see why packers mix and blend syrup to ensure the highest profits. I’ve heard the term “NTB” used for syrup. That’s for when the syrup flavor isn’t quite right, but it’s ‘not too bad.’ The syrup may be slightly off-flavored, or just so bland that it is not something that should be served on the table. But when mixed with ‘good’ syrup, then the resulting blend tastes OK. However, in my world, blending is just not something I will ever do. I enjoy the small-batch unique flavors made throughout the season. If I would not serve my syrup to guests in my home, then I won’t sell it. It really is that simple.
Don’t be Fooled by Metabolized Maple Syrup
Last year my syrup turned very light color at the end of the season. We’d had a few days of excessively warm weather followed by a few days of very cold weather. When the sap started flowing again the resulting syrup was near Golden in color, but there was something just not quite right about the flavor. It was grassy smelling with a hint of cardboard. It was NTB, and we’ve been cooking with it all winter. But it is what we call an ‘off-flavor’ in the maple industry, and certainly nothing I would sell to customers.
That off-flavor is called ‘metabolism’ and it can happen when the trees have started to wake up after a spell of warm weather. It is interesting that the color really lightens up. However, this does not necessarily mean that it is Golden syrup. Remember that the “Delicate” flavor description was added to the grade requirement. An off-flavor is certainly not delicate.
Last year I was chatting with a large producer in our area. They had the same issue with the very light colored but metabolism flavored maple syrup. They brought their barrels of the metabolized syrup down to the bulk buyer who was happy to buy the syrup because of the ongoing shortage. And the producer told me with a sly grin, ‘they paid top dollar because the color was so light’.
This brings up an interesting question. In a recent Maple News article about ongoing syrup shortage, they state that “packers could use some of the metabolized syrup to blend with better grades to convert it to table grade.” Oh, please! Covering up NTB syrup through blending just feels wrong.
Not so Fancy Maple Syrup
In 2021, the folks at the UVM Extension conducted an experiment to look into the quality of maple syrup sold online. They searched for maple syrup and bought three samples of Golden and three samples of Dark from the first 25 places that popped up in the search results. A second person from the Extension repeated with another set of 25 syrup from their search results.
All of the samples were then tested for color, clarity, and flavor. NONE of the “Golden” samples were truly light enough to be considered golden (75% or more light transmission)! Even with a few percentage points of allowable wiggle room, they were all too dark to officially be considered Golden. Part of the issue could be that maple syrup darkens when stored in plastic jugs. However, even taking that into account, the researchers estimated that most of the samples were never Golden to begin with. Regardless, if they had been on store shelves, they all would have been removed for not meeting Vermont’s grading standard. All of them.
It's too bad that Maple Farmers syrup was NOT included in the UVM Extension study; we would have been the stand-out. As soon as their presentation was over, I opened a bottle of our syrup from the Howard Family and tested it with my digital checker. Sure enough, our Golden truly is Golden. Pretty darn Fancy, I would say!