Maple syrup is poured into a test bottle recently at the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension in Skowhegan, where syrup producers, buyers and inspectors learned the ABCs of syrup grading. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Every industry has its heroes who deserve recognition. Superstars in baseball and rock ‘n’ roll get their due at their respective halls of fame. For the maple syrup community in North America, it’s no different.

In October, the North American Maple Syrup Council announced that Kathryn Hopkins, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator, will be inducted into its Maple Hall of Fame. Hopkins is one of the creators of International Maple Syrup Institute Maple Grading School, which has helped the industry make strides in quality control since it started in 2004, and has served on the board of directors of the International Maple Syrup Institute since 2008.

When the announcement of Hopkins’ nomination was made at the annual International Maple Syrup Institute meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, she was surprised. “I’ve enjoyed my work, but I never anticipated that it would lead to something like being nominated for the hall of fame,” she said. “I’m still speechless.”

Since 1977, the North American Maple Syrup Council’s Maple Hall of Fame has recognized exceptional individuals in the maple syrup industry of the United States and Canada. Each year, two individuals are nominated by the Maple Hall of Fame Committee and announced in October. To date, 91 individuals from 13 states and four Canadian provinces have been inducted. Hopkins is only the second Mainer to receive the prestigious honor, joining the ranks of 2001 inductee Robert S. Smith, a Skowhegan-based maple producer, candymaker and former president of the North American Maple Syrup Council.

Hopkins’ maple syrup journey started more than 20 years ago, when she was an educator at the Somerset County Extension office. Though her background was in plant and soil sciences, she was responsible for all agriculture and natural resources programming. One day, she recalled, two maple producers walked into her office with a mission. “They said, ‘Did you know that Somerset County is the largest maple syrup producing county in the nation?’” she said. “‘And what are you going to do about it?’”

Hopkins took their words to heart. Since that fateful day, Hopkins has spent the past two decades working to bolster the maple in Somerset County and beyond, devising training programs and conducting research through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension to help with production and quality control across the industry. One of her primary concerns has been education. After noticing that there were issues across the industry in terms of consistency of quality, Hopkins co-created the International Maple Syrup Institute Maple Grading School in 2004, a two-day training program that teaches maple producers, bulk syrup buyers, state inspectors and other members of the maple syrup industry how to accurately grade maple syrup, either for their own quality control or to judge maple product entries at fairs and contests.

“While you can go and read anything you want, there seems to be a gap in reading it and implementing it,” Hopkins said. “That was sort of our guiding principle. We developed the school as a very hands-on type of training.”

There were other training methods that existed at the time, but according to Hopkins, they were largely lecture-based. Hopkins’ Maple Grading School was innovative in its incorporation of hands-on learning, including a syrup tasting portion that taught participants about the four major characteristics of good syrup: density, color, clarity and flavor.

“Producers are used to tasting their own syrup,” Hopkins said. “The challenge is if you only taste your own, that’s what you think it’s supposed to taste like, and you’re not detecting any nuances of flavor that can characterize syrup.” Hopkins recalled tasting remnants of cleaning products in maple syrups where producers overzealously cleaned their equipment thinking that squeaky clean equipment would make for a better final product.

“There are times when people might be trying to do the best possible job they can, and they can overdo it and end up with flavors that aren’t so great,” she said. “But it was not done on purpose to create bad syrup. Practicing and educating your pallet is good.”

Even after 14 years, Hopkins keeps class sizes to around 25 to make sure that the hands-on aspect remains central. More than 200 participants from across the maple-producing areas of the Northeastern United States and Canada have attended the International Maple Syrup Institute Maple Grading School since its founding.

“She has done countless hours of service in terms of education,” said Lyle Merrifield, the Maine delegate to the North American Maple Syrup Council and president of the Maine Maple Syrup Producers Association. “I couldn’t eve put a time factor on that.”

According to Merrifield, the council judges hall of fame candidates based on their impact and longevity in the industry. “Kathy has been there through low points and high points,” Merrifield said. “The industry has been more than fortunate to have her active, and that has certainly helped to grow the maple syrup industry in Maine. I just can’t say enough good that she’s done.”

Though the hall of fame induction may seem like a career-capping honor, Hopkins’ work improving the in maple is far from over. She plans to continue researching the efficacy of various “best practices” in Maine maple syrup production. “We’ve done a lot of research on some of the conventional wisdom of the industry and kind of just discovered that some of that conventional wisdom is questionable,” Hopkins said. This may be especially true when it comes to sterilizing containers and managing mold in maple syrup.

Even when Hopkins is delving in to the grittier side of maple syrup manufacturing, she always finds joy in her work. “It doesn’t seem like work, it seems more like fun,” Hopkins said. “Maple people are by and large the most helpful people, the most supportive people of each other. It’s been a pleasure working with the maple industry.”

The induction ceremony will take place in May 2019 at the International Maple Museum Centre [sic] in Croghan, New York.