Sweet job: Trio of judges select Vermont's best maple syrup

ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. (AP) — In the country's top maple producing state, Vermonters take their maple syrup seriously.

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But perhaps none take it as seriously as the judges at the annual Vermont Farm Show maple contest.

On Monday, a panel of three judges tasted teaspoon after teaspoon of syrup, critiquing entries for density, clarity and color before picking the top in each class of syrup and an overall best in show.

"It is a lot of fun," judge Mark Isselhardt, maple specialist with the University of Vermont Extension, said 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.

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 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.

This year's best in show went to Howard Beaupre, Sr., of Milton, Vermont, for his amber syrup.

Dave Fuller of Waterville, Vermont, won the golden category.

"It's surprising," he said Wednesday, noting that his family has made syrup for generations.

He said it's his first win and he plans to hang his ribbon in his sugar house, "so everybody can see it."