I have been attending the board meetings of the International Maple Syrup Institute for the past several years. The agendas are always interesting and focus on a wide variety of topics of importance to the maple syrup industry, including many facets of marketing and promotion, misrepresentation of maple syrup in the marketplace, and ensuring product quality.
I have been fairly surprised by the amount of discussion related to improving the quality of maple syrup in the marketplace, as I never realized how big and widespread a problem it was and continues to be.
We all know maple syrup is a pure, natural, and (usually) delicious product, but we may not realize the extent to which off-flavors can occur in maple syrup. It is imperative that as we continue to grow the industry, we make concerted efforts to ensure that all of the maple syrup being offered for retail sale is of the highest quality possible and to keep defective syrup out of the hands of all consumers.
The new grading system makes it clear that any defective syrup should be classified as processing grade syrup. There are many ingredient applications where the off-flavors can be hidden and those are acceptable uses for processing grade syrup.
To give you a sense of the nature of the problem, consider the following. Ten years ago, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers started a program to monitor syrup quality being offered at retail stores throughout Quebec. They bought 100 random samples every year and checked to make sure that the syrup met minimum requirements for color, density, clarity, and flavor.
When they first started checking on quality control, 40% of the random samples that they pulled did not meet minimum quality requirements. Think about it- for every five people that purchased a bottle of pure maple syrup, two wound up with a defective bottle. When someone gets a bottle of off-flavored maple syrup, they either (1) eat it anyways because they don’t like to waste, (2) throw it out and purchase a new bottle that hopefully tastes better, or (3) throw it away and no longer purchase pure maple syrup. The Federation has been working diligently on increasing quality and that figure is now down to 15%.
There are two ways to think about that- one is that it is an incredible feat to have reduced the incidence from 40% to 15% in a relatively short time frame. The other is to say any number above 0 is unacceptable, and we need to continue to be vigilant so that nobody purchases maple syrup that doesn’t meet the high standards that we should all hold ourselves to. Remember that people are more likely to relate a negative experience to their friends and family than a positive one, so we must ensure that nobody has a reason to state why they had a negative experience with pure maple.
One of ways the Federation has reduced the incidence of off-flavored syrup has been through a joint agreement of the packers not to put an off-flavored syrup in to retail packages. All of the bulk syrup is graded through the Federation, and if it is off-flavored, the packers have to prove that it is being used for industrial or processing purposes and is not blended in to retail containers. The system is not perfect but it’s on the right track. Maple producers and packers in all jurisdictions should follow that same guideline when packaging syrup for retail sale.
While skilled people may be able to blend in some off-flavored syrup in to a large batch and not be able to taste it- that is risky business. You can very easily ruin an entire batch of syrup when bottling if you put in too much of the off-flavored syrup. It is important to be able to recognize off-flavors and make sure none of that winds up in a jug of syrup meant for retail sale as table-grade syrup.
The opportunity for blending in off-flavors is certainly enticing for producers who make light-colored, but off flavored syrup at the end of the season. It may look like a Golden or Amber syrup, but it certainly doesn’t taste like a high-quality Golden or Amber syrup. With the new grading system, the flavor must match the color. If it has a Golden color but a commercial flavor, then it is commercial (or processing grade) syrup and should be graded and sold as such.
With the increased focus on sap processing efficiencies and collecting sap later in to the spring, the amount of off-flavored syrup has risen significantly in recent years. We are collecting sap later in to the spring when sap quality has deteriorated and the sap doesn’t get enough time under high heat to adequately caramelize and develop a strong flavor to overpower off-flavors.
Approximately 1/3 of the syrup in reserve at the Federation is off-flavored and we have an oversupply of processing grade syrup in the marketplace (20 million pounds at the Federation warehouses alone). The amount of processing grade syrup being produced is outpacing the demand for this type of syrup in commercial and industrial applications. That is one of the main reasons the prices for commercial syrup dropped so much last year and will be even lower this year.
The problem with off-flavored or otherwise defective syrup on store shelves is certainly not limited to the experiences described in Quebec above. In fact, this is a problem that we see throughout the world and Quebec likely has one of the lowest rates of defective syrup on store shelves. Globally, the issue may be some companies selling off-flavored or low quality syrup in foreign countries because the people there often don’t know what good pure maple syrup is supposed to taste like.
Locally, many problems within the maple producing regions are the result of producers failing to properly store, package, and handle syrup. It is often producers who don’t go to meetings, belong to their local association, or subscribe to publications such as this one.
Tasting syrup is very important, so we always recommend having someone with a discerning palate taste syrup before it is bottled. At the New York State Fair, there are usually four people judging samples of pure maple syrup entered in to the competition. While the vast majority of syrups do pass the test on color, density, and clarity, more than half are usually rejected as a result of flavor defects (and all four people agree that there is a flavor defect).
At the NAMSC/IMSI meeting a few years ago in New Brunswick, the judges had a hard time finding any samples entered in to the competition that met quality standards for several of the categories. While there are many more examples of these types of events, there is no need to belabor the point. Maintaining syrup quality is a serious problem and something we all have a responsibility to focus on. Even if you always make sure that syrup you offer for sale is of the highest quality, it is important to also make sure your fellow sugarmakers follow the same high standards.
When any syrup is being offered for sale that doesn’t meet the standard we expect, it hurts the reputation of the entire maple industry.
The first step towards correcting a problem is admitting you have one. The IMSI has clearly identified that we have a problem with off-flavored and otherwise defective syrup in the marketplace. It is imperative to make sure that whatever syrup we bottle and sell is done so with the highest quality standards in place.