ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. — In the country’s top maple producing state, Vermonters take their maple syrup seriously, and so do the judges at the annual maple contest.
Tasting teaspoon after teaspoon of maple syrup samples, after first critiquing the entries for density, clarity and color, a panel of judges at the annual Vermont Farm Show picked the top in each class of syrup and the overall best in show.
Someone’s got to do it, right?
“It is a lot of fun,” judge Mark Isselhardt, maple specialist with the University of Vermont Extension, said late Jan. 29 during the judging. “It’s interesting but it can be a little bit much when you have, you know, 100 samples or more to taste.”
Vermont is the country’s leading producer of maple syrup, producing nearly 2 million gallons last year. That’s the second-highest amount on record for Vermont. The state set a record for the value of the crop in 2016, with production totaling nearly $60 million, the USDA said.
Many maple syrup producers — called sugar makers in Vermont — have been doing it for years, while there have been a rush of newcomers in the last decade after syrup prices climbed to an average of $40 a gallon in 2008. The price has been gradually going down since. And the contest ribbons earn sugarers bragging rights over other producers.
“These ribbons that people earn and win for hard work, it goes on the sugar house wall of honor and you walk into some of these and you see years and years of various ribbons and trophies that their maple syrup and maple products have brought home, and they’re very proud,” said George Cook, a maple judge, and retired maple specialist with the University of Vermont Extension.
And judging is far more than a sugar buzz.
First, a judge tests the syrup density — its sugar content — using a refractometer to make sure it falls within a certain range. Then, the syrup is judged for its color based on what type of syrup it is: golden, amber, dark or very dark.
Finally, there’s the flavor.
Most of the syrups taste pretty good, but off flavors are picked up quickly by the discerning judges’ palates.
“I don’t like it,” said Amanda Voyer of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association after pouring a small sample of one syrup into a plastic spoon and placing it in her mouth Monday. Isselhardt agreed, and said it had a mineral taste.
One year, Voyer even detected garlic in an entry likely packed in a recycled jar that had been previously used for pickling. Other times, the flavor can be adulterated by too much defoaming agent used when boiling the sap, or sap that is boiled too long creating a scorched taste.
Typically one of two samples stick out as having superior flavor, Isselhardt said. “That happens from contest to contest pretty significantly,” he said.
This year’s best in show went to Howard Beaupre, Sr., of Milton, Vermont, for his amber syrup. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Doug Bragg, a past class winner and judge, has ribbons hanging around Bragg Farm Sugarhouse & Gift Shop in East Montpelier, Vermont.
“Putting an entry in with all of your peers, and there’s a lot of them, and being judged the best is certainly pretty encouraging to say the least,” he said.