When someone goes to buy Grade A Vermont maple syrup, they can feel very confused by the system that's used. Making this slightly more difficult is that the USDA revised the grading system in 2015. Even old-timers who've used Grade A Vermont maple syrup for decades can benefit from understanding what the current system is and how it relates to the previous one.
There Are Four Sub-Grades of Grade A
Yes, that is how it now works. The reason for the change was to correct the consumer misperception that Grades B and C were inferior to Grade A. Those grades are not inferior, and many connoisseurs prefer them for their strong tastes and thicker consistencies, especially for baking. USDA officials wanted folks to understand these products are equal to Grade A syrup, and they changed the system to reflect the equality of the products.
There used to be two sub-grades of Grade A: fancy and dark amber. The current "golden color" grade is the lightest in color and weakest in flavor, and it is most commonly used as a topping. This is the old "fancy" version. If you've ever poured authentic Grade A Vermont maple syrup on pancakes, for example, there's a pretty good chance it came from this class. If an older recipe calls for Grade A, assume "golden color" is what it means.
Dark amber in the old system was reclassified as amber color in the new one. It is known for a darker color and richer flavor compared to the golden variety of Grade A Vermont maple syrup.
This is the former Grade B product. To be clear, many aficionados consider this the most desirable grade. If you're new to maple syrup, that might surprise you. However, it also serves to explain why the USDA decided to change the grading scale.
One major advantage of the dark color maple syrup is that it can hold its own against other strong flavors. For example, it has a strong enough taste to be used in vinaigrettes, dark coffees, hard drinks, and ciders. You can also use it in place of molasses or brown sugar if you'd like a less processed product to use in baking and sauces.
Very Dark Color
This grade is the closest a syrup gets to molasses, and most recipes allow a one-for-one substitution of the two products. It is largely sold to commercial operations for making candy and baked goods. Folks who want a strong taste and dark glaze prefer this grade.