For Minnesota State Fair food judges, it's all tastefully done

Longtime canned foods judge Mary Bartz of Sleepy Eye
Longtime canned foods judge Mary Bartz of Sleepy Eye examines the color of a peach jam she and a partner are judging, among 24 entries in that category.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Huddled around a folding table inside the Minnesota State Fair's creative arts building, Mark Waletzko, Steve Saupe and Chris Ransom gathered Monday to sip, smell and otherwise scrutinize bottle after bottle of homemade maple syrup.

For much of the year, they produce the stuff as members of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association. Late summer, though, is fair season and, with a ribbon at stake, they'd been tapped to judge Minnesota's best syrup.

They offered a reporter a plastic spoonful of one of their early favorites — a silky-smooth number with a nice little sugary aftertaste. "You should smell it a little before you sample it," Saupe urged, "then bring it in with a little bit of air and swirl it around your tongue."

Next came a syrup that perhaps wasn't worth the sap. "It doesn't necessarily taste bad," Saupe offered, "but it's not what a maple syrup should taste like. What we're looking for is a classic maple syrup flavor, and that's what you want to give the awards to."

By the end of the day they would taste 77 syrups, grading each by color, density, clarity and most importantly, flavor. It's a labor of love that will be repeated hundreds of times this week at the State Fair for jams, pickles and pretty much anything else that can be grown and judged.

Contests at the fair range from best sheep to top corn cob. In creative activities alone, there were more than 8,000 entries last year. Officials say participation appears to be up this year, including a roughly 50 percent jump in syrup entries.

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There are 1,234 entries in canning competitions — jellies, jams, salsas, pickles, vinegars and more. Beef jerky in a jar is a category for the first time, with four entrants.

For whatever's being tasted and judged, a connoisseur's palate is required. Each food comes with its own protocol.

Take jams, for instance.

"Once we do start opening jars we're looking for the headspace of the jam," said Mary Bartz of Sleepy Eye, Minn., a jam judge since 2004.

She began working the peach jams first.

"One quarter inch is the proper headspace. We also have the recipes for each of the contestants, so we're making sure that their processing time matches the proper time for jellies and jams which is between 10 and 15 minutes in a water bath processer," she said. "And, of course, in judging this category we're looking at flavor and aroma, that's going to be a very important attribute. And we're also looking at texture."

Spreadability is important to her. It can't be too watery or too firm.

Even sound matters in the canning craft.

"That's a good pop," said Jean Miller as she opened an entry at the red raspberry station, not to be confused with black raspberry, which is among a few dozen flavors.

These judges have a background in food sciences. Some have worked in corporate test kitchens. This time of year, she has to keep up a good appetite. Next week, the judges will be on to cakes, cookies and breads.

Bartz knows others covet her State Fair assignment but it's too sweet a gig to stop.

"They wait for us to die," she said. "We will actually be doing this particular job until we no longer can physically handle it."