It’s Almost Maple Syrup Time!

As the days get longer, and the temperatures start to warm up, there is a pocket of North America that starts getting really excited about a yearly tradition – maple syrup!  From Ontario westward to Quebec, and south below the border to Maine and Vermont, the sugar bush is being prepared for the annual ritual of tapping the trees.  Canada produces a whopping 80% of the world’s maple syrup, with the States producing the remainder.  (Go Canada!)

lorneLast week at the Elora Farmers’ Market was Maple Syrup Day.  The spotlight was on Lorne and Linda Brubacher, who live with their children just outside of Elora and have 1200 taps each year.  Half of the trees use buckets to collect the sap, while the other half use plastic tubing (lines) to connect from tree to tree and then flow back to the sugar shack, using either gravity or a vacuum system.  Lorne sells his syrup year-round at the market, along with frozen muscovy ducks and some vegetables.  Ask him about maple syrup season and his whole face lights up!

Even though I have enjoyed maple syrup for over 30 years (our family didn’t use alot of the real stuff, unfortunately), I discovered that there was still alot I didn’t know about the production of maple syrup.  What I DID know was that it takes 40 litres of maple tree sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup.  That’s right, a 40:1 ratio!  The sap, once collected, is boiled down until it reaches a specific concentration of sugar, or Brix content.  Legally, all maple syrup sold MUST have a brix content of at least 66.  If it is higher, the sugar becomes more concentrated, and will actually start to crystalize at a Brix reading of 68 or so.

In addition to the sugar content, the syrup’s colour and taste will evolve through the season.  The first sap to flow will be “extra light” or “light”.  It is traditionally a sugary syrup used for processing into products like maple butter.  Later, the sap is a “medium” grade, which according to Lorne, is the best for pancakes.  “Amber” follows and is most bakers’ preference, as it has a full-bodied flavour for baking.  And last of all (but still delicious) is “dark” syrup.

Lorne has a very simple way of grading the various flavours.  Here, the jar with the black cap is being compared to the ones on either side of it, to decide if it will be a medium or amber syrup.     qualities

Lorne also had on display the different types of spiles (or taps) that are used.  Research and experience has shown that the smaller-diameter plastic spile is less invasive and will leave a hole that heals over much more quickly than the traditional metal ones of days gone past.     A healthy tree will heal over completely in just one year.

spilesholes

Cleaning the tubing is critical to syrup quality from year to year.  Lorne uses a 50% food-grade alcohol solution which evaporates quickly and leaves no residue behind.  It is important that any bacteria is removed so that there is no contamination for the following year.  At a 40:1 ratio for production, you don’t want to be wasteful!

The most surprising fact I learned was when the sap runs best.  I had always believed that the sap will run when the nights go below freezing temperatures and the daytime is above zero and sunny.  Wrong!  Lorne told me that the best flow happens when there is the greatest difference in pressure between the tree and the barometric pressure outside.  An overcast grey day can be one of the best production days!

If you want to learn more about this delicious natural sugar, check out the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers website.  Better yet, find a local sugar bush in your area and make a trip out.  There is nothing more heady than the smell of sap boiling over the evaporator, or more yummy than the sweet chewy taste of maple syrup toffee (boiling hot syrup poured over snow, instantly making delicious candy) !

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And when you come back from your adventure, why not enjoy a bowl of Mushroom Quinoa Chowder, which has (you guessed it!) a hint of maple syrup flavour!  Until next time!

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