ST. ALBANS — It may sound blissful to consume maple sugar for six hours, but it can become a little hard on the stomach.
“You have plenty,” said Henry Marckres of the Agency of Agriculture, Farm and Markets. Marckres and seven other volunteers sat around tables in the Bellows Free Academy cafeteria late Thursday afternoon, sipping maple syrup, tasting maple cream and granulated maple sugar from spoons, nibbling the edge of maple sugar cakes and sinking teeth into creamy maple fudge.
One volunteer, Tim Wilmot from the University of Vermont Extension, sat back after sampling a maple sugar cake and put a hand on his belly. “My stomach is beginning to rebel,” he said.
He and the others were in the midst of the final steps in determining the winners in the “Best of Vermont” Maple Syrup and Products Contest: taste-testing. After determining and accepting the density and color of each syrup and the consistency of each product, judges then have to check for flavor.
“We try to have people (judges) for each grade,” said Mackres, referring to the official Golden Color-Delicate Taste, Amber Color – Rich Taste, Dark Color – Robust Taste classes.
Two more people were dedicated to the maple products.
“Doing it the way we’re doing it, it’s not as hard as it used to be,” said Marckres, who added that several people used to judge (and taste) every entry in every category.
Looking at the Dark Color – Robust Taste entries, Marckres and his judging partner, Julia Hoogasian, tried one sample that tasted a little funny. According to Marckres, it left a slight film on the roof of his mouth, a sign of too much de-foamer – a fat – used in the boiling process.
“It happened to have too much in there,” he said. “It has a slight off-flavor.”
Entries like that are rejected from the contest. While disappointing, Wilmot said the contest is just as much about learning as it is about winning and that rejected entries will have an accompanying explanation for how to do better, which entrants appreciate.
“This is an educational experience for people,” he said. “We have people who are fairly new sugarmakers.”
For those syrup and product entries deemed acceptable, they go on to be judged as “excellent.” At that point, judges start raising their standards for taste.
Over at the Amber Color – Rich Taste table, judges Matt Gordon of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association and Fletcher farmer David Mayotte discussed an acceptable but less impressive syrup.
“Nothing to write home about,” said Mayotte.
“I wouldn’t put my pancakes under it,” agreed Gordon.
The syrups and products that do impress the judges and pull away from the “excellent” pack get to the next level: “outstanding.” Each class awards an “outstanding” judgment to one entrant.
To make that decision, tasters often have to compare syrups or products with others to really get a feel for the flavor.
“It’s got more flavor than that one does,” said Steve Parise, an Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets inspector and judge, of the Golden Color – Delicate Taste entry he just tasted.
At the next table, Wilmot commended a granulated maple sugar entrant. “I like the flavor,” he said.
The most outstanding syrup or product with the best flavor out of all the class winners will receive the coveted top prize, “Best In Show.” Announced at the Vermont Maple Barbeque on Saturday evening, entrant will be rewarded with the $50 C. Blake Roy award, and the glory and maple bragging rights forever.
Hoogasian, a judge in 2015 and a sugarer from Morrisville, has won the top prize for her Vermont Maple Forest Products maple fudge and maple sugar cakes in the past. She said the experience is incredible rewarding.
“It’s nice – it shows that you really take pride in what you’re making,” she said.
And the winners are …
The 49th Annual Vermont Maple Festival contest winners are:
1st: Local Fare
2nd: As The Crow Flies
3rd: Eaton’s Fine Jewelry
Of 57 entries, 28 received blue ribbons for excellence.
Vermont’s Best Youth Cook: Marianna Merritt (Maple Tartlets)
Maple, For the Health of It: Sue Southwick (Maple Granola)
Pickles, Preserves, Sauces and Dressings: Jamie Rushford (Salted Maple Sauce)
Breads: Jamie Rushford (Maple Morning Muffins)
Cakes: Keeli Garceau (Maple Bacon Cream Cupcakes)
Pies/Other Desserts: Marianne Dubie (Maple Walnut Whoopie Pies)
Top winners in the maple syrup contest are announced Saturday evening at the maple barbecue event.