AKRON – “Hmm, what was that?”
Three judges raise plastic spoons to their mouths, pressing their lips together and slurping the amber liquid they’ve doled out like gold.
They run their tongues across the roofs of their mouths to get every last taste, every nuance, every sticky and sugary drop.
They search out the minute differences that will set one sugarbush’s syrup apart from the rest and give bragging rights in the 2007 North American Maple Syrup Council’s maple syrup contest.
* * *
Judges retreated just after breakfast Oct. 22 to a small conference room overlooking the silos at Akron’s Quaker Square.
While the rest of their fellow maple syrup producers from all over the U.S. and Canada browsed syrup-making equipment in the trade show or listened to updates in the council’s business meeting, these three were relegated to slurping spoonful after spoonful of maple syrup, smears of maple cream, and bites of maple candy, and deciding whose was best.
It’s an admittedly daunting task.
The syrups look mostly the same, all lined up in maple leaf-shaped bottles.
“After a while, your mouth gets sticky sweet,” said judge James L. Miller, a veteran judge who makes syrup on his Sugar Valley Maple sugarbush in Middlefield, Ohio.
Swishing cupfuls of water to chase entries is the norm. Sometimes, judges are even known to sip ginger ale or eat pickles during the contest to cut the sickly sugariness that coats their mouths.
Another judge, Henry Marckres, the Vermont Department of Agriculture’s Chief of Consumer Protection, recalls a time he taste-tested 932 samples in one day, the equivalent of drinking about a half-gallon of syrup.
“The ones that are a little different stand out to a judge, even if someone eating [the syrup] on a pancake would never notice,” Marckres said.
* * *
The syrups, entered from sugarbushes reaching from Minnesota to Maine and into Canada, came by mail or were hand-delivered to the competition last weekend.
And then, in a private room, the entries were checked for density and color and poured into the maple leaf-shaped bottles to be sure no judge knew whose product they were tasting. There would be no playing favorites here.
“DO NOT ENTER” signs were posted; anxious producers are forced to wait more than two days to see how their syrup ranks.
The judges huddled around a table to begin their judging. Each bottle is uncapped, and held to the window to see if it has “floaters” – dirt, sand, bugs, molds. Some entries lose points immediately. Some demerits are delayed, noticed only when a bug or moldy spot comes tumbling onto the judge’s spoon.
Then comes the biggest factor in judging: flavor.
The judges take turns filling up their spoons, slurping the syrup and commenting. James Miller raises each bottle to his nose; for him, smell is just as important as taste.
“Not bad, but not real maple-y.”
“Only about one step above water.”
Some syrups are rejected. They show signs of metabolism, a woody taste that carries through to the final product when the early sap pulled comes from the tree trunk, not the roots. Maple syrup’s taste is largely up to Mother Nature, the three judges agree.
They pass the bottles back and forth, moving through the categories for light, medium and dark ambers.
“Buttery. It’s not bad, but not your typical taste.”
“Musty, like a dishrag taste.”
“More maple flavor, and a good aftertaste.”
The judging goes on.
* * *
Each man talks and tastes his way through the three classes, narrowing his favorites and then waiting to see if the others agree. And most of the time, they do.
The judges debate some entries and take two or three or four spoonfuls of a syrup to be sure they’ve placed them correctly, but each judge must agree before they move on.
A good syrup just jumps out at you, the judges say. You can’t ignore it. You can’t miss it.
“Wonderful flavor, not overpowering, but a good maple taste.”
Sixty-eight bottles later, the judging is done, class winners are selected, best of show honors bestowed. The judges search for water or coffee to rinse their mouths.
Then it’s back to the sugarbush to see what’s on tap for next year.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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