To Tap or Not to Tap

Isn’t it lovely to see the sun!!!  Truly energizing. 

Everyone in MapleWorld is itching to get started.  Syrup is already being made in Southwestern Ontario.  Producers around here like to be tapped by Valentine’s Day, and I even know of one fellow in Westport that’s sweetened his pans.

“Sweetening pans” refers to the initial stage of syrup production in the evaporator.  The evaporator is where enough water is boiled from from the sap to take it from a 2% sugar solution to at least 66%.  Generally these machines work as “continuous flow”: fresh sap comes in one end, hot syrup comes out the other.  You can imagine that at the start of the season, you have to start with pure sap (or “the water” as my Quebecois friends refer to it), and oftentimes you make little to no syrup during your first boil.  What you do accomplish, though, is to set up the “gradient” that will allow the machine to work properly.

Because these different densities of syrup boil at different temperatures (the boiling point rising as it thickens), they actually don’t want to mix together in the pans, and instead “push” each other along as they lose water, just like air masses in the atmosphere.

Turning water into steam is the name of the game at the evaporator, and the sleek rigs of today are vast improvements over the cauldrons and flat pans of the past.  The biggest aid to the syrupmaker in recent history though, is the adoption of Reverse Osmosis to make boiling faster and more energy efficient. 
Turning water into steam is the name of the game at the evaporator, and the sleek rigs of today are vast improvements over the cauldrons and flat pans of the past.  The biggest aid to the syrupmaker in recent history though, is the adoption of Reverse Osmosis to make boiling faster and more energy efficient. 

Reverse Osmosis (RO) is water filtration technology, relying on high pressures and an almost solid “membrane” that you’d have a hard time believing water can actually pass through.  Unlike the unit under your sink, or those in places treating sea water, like Israel, Saudi Arabia or California, we don’t want pure water, we want the contaminant: sugar (and the associated minerals and flavour compounds in the sap).

We happen to employ an RO unit ourselves, and they are industry standard in commercial production.  As a dealer in Maple equipment, I can tell you that nothing gives a better return on investment for the syrupmaker.  However, they remain a point of contention among traditionalists, who maintain that they produce inferior syrup.   This hasn’t been demonstrated by any taste tests, trials or research, but those who reject RO will have to use 3-5 times as much energy to make the same amount of syrup.  That’s 3-5 times as long working the evaporator, and 3-5 times as much effort in the bush cutting trees and preparing firewood.

Our unit pulls about 3/4 of the water out of the sap, bringing it up to about 12% sugar before it hits the pans.  I almost cried when I saw all of that pure water pouring out of it for the first time.

Like every other aspect of agriculture, Maple Production, or as the Quebecois call it, Acericulture (sugar maples being “Acer” en francais and botanically Acer sacchrum), has modernized incredibly over the past two generations.  Gathering from pails with horses – a standard practice well into the 1970’s – has been replaced with high vacuum tubing and pumps.  A family scaled undertaking in these parts might have upwards of 3,000 taps the last time our Sugarbush was tapped.  Today, there are operations with over a million in remote parts of Quebec and New Brunswick.  And while maple remains hard work, rather than having bodies scampering throughout the woods, wireless monitoring systems, automatic valves and pumps, cameras and wi-fi controls have come to be commonplace in both the bush and sugarcamp.  Complete automation of the process is the goal, and many producers are getting close.

No matter what though, someone has to set this stuff all up, tap (and untap) the trees and make sure it all works.  Even in Quebec, where there is a strong tradition and ample government support for Acericulture – including educational opportunities – a lack of manpower remains the limiting factor in developing the industry.  It’s orders of magnitude worse here in Ontario, where although making syrup was a significant part of many farms’ economy, today it is regarded largely with nostalgia, and often as not, at best as a very expensive hobby (lingering memories of the back breaking work probably responsible for some of the hesitancy!)  Local culture and the willingness/expertise to do the work really defines maple production: Vermont’s industry is thriving, New Hampshire and New York’s are barely touched, though they share the same forest resources.  Similarly, much of the growth in Ontario and New Brunswick’s industry has come from Quebecers moving in… Quebec is pretty well out of taps!

And so while technology and human resources are important factors, none is more important than weather, and maple is unique in its precariousness.  Not only is the season so short, but a few degrees makes the difference between a dribble and a torrent, and entire seasons can be cut short and written off by too warm, too cold and ice-storms (which wreak havoc on lines, and even worse, cause the trees to lose all of their sap from their wounds).

Right now, there is uncertainty whether the warmth we are experiencing is a “false spring” or indeed the beginning of the thaw, and whether or not we will see a return of proper winter for several weeks (not that we had much of one in the first place).  We have gotten underway early in the past, and although we made a small amount of syrup for our efforts, everything also quickly froze solid: our lines, tanks, evaporator etc. and later delayed our production.  Part of me wants to avoid that, but I also have an extremely eager and energetic 17 year old who is HOT TO BOIL.  And so, it goes without saying that all of our trees are tapped, tanks are set up, and the sugarhouse is clean. 

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