A Little Science behind Maple Sugaring Weather

Hands down, the number one question that comes up this time of year is “When should I tap?”

Due to the warmest December on record, I have heard a few Ohioans even asking “Should I have tapped in December?”.  When you look back over the years, the trend has been toward earlier tapping dates, but hoping that you can keep taps open for 3+ months is a bit of a stretch.  There is no way that will happen on a gravity system, and you will need more than a little luck even on high vacuum.

The scientific approach to planning involves studying climatological data and developing a plan based on that data. The maps below are long range weather predictions for the next three months. You can clearly see that all indications point to above normal temperatures for the next three months. For sugar makers what does this mean?

To quote a good friend and fellow maple researcher, “when you look at forecasts you need to look at it from the big producer / small producer perspective.”  Because most small producers tap everything at one time, they need to consider the value of a good short-term, 30-day forecast.  In most cases, especially if you are on a gravity system, you need to find the best 30-day window that will allow you to make the most syrup.  Once you tap, you are on the clock and that clock runs out shortly after 30 days.  On the other hand, if you are a large producer or even a medium producer on vacuum, you need to study yearly trends.  Trends will disclose what has happened over the last 3 to 5 years.  What we have seen is a trend to earlier tapping just about every year.  In most cases, early tapping has paid off in Ohio.  A major reason is that newer technology lends itself to pushing the envelope when it comes to tapping.  You have the advantage of running a semi-closed vacuum system utilizing 24/7 operation.  This lengthens your season considerably.

One of the most valuable pieces of data you can use are temperature history graphs for your location.  Weather Underground has some of the best.  They plot the maximum, minimum, and average temperatures.  Plotting the maximum and minimum will give you a good idea on the number of freeze-thaw days to anticipate for a month.  As we all know, freeze-thaw cycles are very important and drive daily sap runs.  You can look at these cycles over a five or even ten year period.  Over time you begin to see how various weather patterns play out.

Keeping in mind these are zip code specific but we are talking at the broad scale of an entire state, here are three February graphs. You can clearly see we started February leaving a warm end to January on two out of the three graphs.  In all the graphs, conditions continued to warm up as February wore on.  In two out of the three, the temps dropped going into March.  This may be a hint for what could happen this year.  2020 and 2022 were almost normal.  In both cases, our records show average to above average production.  2021 was the outlier and production was down for that year as temperatures stayed warm through most of March.  The other two years highlight the fact that starting out February warm does not mean you will march into March warm.

Too much science?  Here is a more common sense approach that prioritizes the size of your operation.  If you are tapping thousands of taps, you must start early to get the job done.  For a moment, think about a huge 50,000-tap operation.  Should they consider tapping right after the first of the year?  Definitely!  One of their strategies is to tap 5,000 taps super early.  This results in the Facebook posts you may have seen bragging about syrup being made over Christmas.  Several big producers in the East did this in December.  Does that mean they tapped everything?  Most likely not.  A large commercial producer hedges their season by tapping some early and the rest over the month of January with everything in the tree and ready by February 1.  Small producers who are setup to boil early can also do this, the only difference is they may start tapping their early running trees shortly after New Year’s but plan to finish out in February.  This keeps fresh taps in the system and prevents you from putting all your eggs in one basket.  The best way to accomplish this is to keep very good records.

That brings us back to our initial question.  When should I tap this year?  All indications are that we are going to have a warmer than normal winter.  If you are in Southern Ohio, you might be tapped already.  North of I-70, you should probably hold back until the end of January.  This is where analyzing the 30-day forecast is critical.  Studying several long-range forecasts a little closer, I noticed that we may have some of the coldest weather of the winter on the last week of January and the first week of February.  While the forecast is showing a warming trend coming off several weeks of genuine cold weather, depending on your situation you may even want to hold off until the first week of February.

Of course, the joker in the deck is the El Nino weather event we are experiencing.  El Nino’s are known for extremes and all it takes is a bend in the jet stream and you could be looking at 10 more days of below average weather.  Once this happens, you usually go right back to the warmer than normal pattern.  In this case, cold weather is your friend.  What we do not want is 10 days straight above normal!

As for my prediction!  I will tell you what kind of season we had in 2024 on the first week in April.  May your sugar season be long and sweet.

Ohio 2023 Season Summary – “A Tale of Two Halves of Ohio”

I think everyone would agree the 2023 maple season was anything but normal.  It started with a fierce snowstorm in late December and ended with a chaotic mixture of warm and cold days.  If you are an Ohio maple syrup producer, how your season went seems to be a matter of location, location, location.  This winter was either too warm, too cold, or just right.  Depending on where you live and when you tapped, it was either all good or all bad.  Once again, Mother Nature had the final say.

The season kicked off early despite a surge of extremely cold weather at Christmas time, but warm weather arrived shortly after New Year’s.  The one thing Ohio producers have learned, when it looks and feels like tapping weather, you tap.  This year, many producers – I can confidently say more producers than normal – in both Northern and Southern Ohio started tapping in January.  Those tapping in early January experienced strong runs going into February, but many early tappers saw sap flow slow or completely shut off going into March.  The weather in February largely determined the success of your season.

Southern Ohio producers saw sap flow and sap quality end by the first week of March at the latest, many producers didn’t even make it out of February.  The jet stream kept the cold air pushed north, but abnormally warm temperatures plagued the southern part of the state.  More northern producers had strong sap runs into St. Patrick’s Day and beyond.  For the calendar tappers who traditionally waited until mid-February to tap, the season was average at best.  Overall, it was “ A Tale of Two Cities.”  Some northern Ohio producers experienced one of the best seasons in recent decades, but many southern producers experienced one of the worst production seasons in recent memory.

For producers who will associate the 2023 season with more positive memories, syrup quality held up remarkably well despite a season with so much variability.  Ohio made lots of Golden Delicate and Amber grade syrup.  The flavor was excellent for the most part until the warm weather ended the season.  Even then, a lot of lighter grade syrup was made right up until the last boil.  The biggest problem was filtering, excessive niter made it very difficult to filter and that high niter was reported from many producers statewide.  One of the reasons for outstanding yields was the good sugar content of the sap, averaging close to 2%.  Once again, the best yields were achieved on high vacuum tubing systems, but many bucket/bag producers had a good season as well.

Maple syrup is made all over the Buckeye State, but Geauga County is the number one maple syrup producing county in Ohio.  This year, the county lived up to its reputation in a big way, and production records were set across the county.  It was not uncommon to see syrup yields hitting or exceeding a half gallon per tap being produced.

Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season, Part II

Read the first installment of our autumn mini-series “Get Ready for the Season” here.  The first article focuses mainly on the woods, and Part II sticks to the sugarhouse.

It is perfectly natural after a long hard season to put off sugarhouse cleanup and maintenance. This can be a major mistake. Getting the sugarhouse ready for the next season starts immediately after last season has concluded.  Dirty unmaintained equipment sitting around in warm weather can promote the worst of unsanitary conditions that will surely haunt you into the upcoming season.

Let’s start with storage tanks. Not everyone can afford bright shiny stainless-steel tanks that are easy to clean. Many producers substitute more affordable plastic tanks. Unfortunately, plastic tanks have earned the reputation of lowering syrup grades due to rapid microbial growth. All of the elements for rapid growth are present. The sap supplies the food and the tanks warm quickly. Where do the microbes come from? They are hiding in the porous interior of the tank. That porosity is what makes it almost impossible to thoroughly clean a plastic tank. You may get by for two or three years but sooner or later the tanks will have to be scrapped. The cost of three or four plastic tanks over a ten-year period can add up quickly. Consider the economic value of a stainless tank that should last forever if handled and maintained properly.

Reverse osmosis (RO) has revolutionized the dynamics of the maple syrup industry. For the commercial producer, the RO has drastically slashed labor and fuel expenses. When it comes to maintenance, the most critical element is maintaining the primary filter or membrane. Membranes that are not maintained properly can be severely damaged. Damage can lead to the passing of sugar into the permeate tank. This results in a hidden loss of profits going down the drain. Always check your permeate for abnormally high sugar content. Washes of both soap and acid are used in the cleaning process followed by an extensive permeate rinse. A properly maintained membrane should last for many years. Another critical but oft overlooked issue are increased levels of chemicals being discharged from the sugarhouse. When you are using an RO, you are discharging thousands of gallons of liquid through your sugarhouse drains. You are also discharging acids and soaps through the same drain. If possible, neutralize the chemicals by bringing both acids and soaps back to a neutral 7.0 pH before you flush them down the drain. Neutralizing agents are readily available from your maple dealer.

Producers tend to overlook where and how they store there concentrate before boiling. When you concentrate sap, you are creating the perfect storm for a microbial outbreak. You are doubling, and in some cases tripling, the amount of sugar in the tank. When you run the sap through an RO you also boost the concentrated sap’s temperature by at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming the concentrated sap is housed in a relatively warm sugarhouse, it makes no difference if you are using a stainless or plastic tank, microbial populations always explode in concentrated sap. The first line of defense is to boil the concentrate as soon as you can to prevent grade deterioration. If you only have enough money to purchase one stainless steel tank, make the purchase for your evaporator feed tank. This is doubly true if you are concentrating with reverse osmosis.

One of the best maintained pieces of equipment in any maple operation must be the evaporator. After all it is the center piece of most sugarhouses. Producers tend to take pride in how their evaporator looks inside and out. Here are a few things to consider before you start the season. Make sure all of the fittings and gaskets are functioning properly. It is good idea to do a test boil before using. You do not want to waste sap or concentrate if there is a malfunction. During the season, always start each day with clean niter-free syrup pans. Do not let niter build up. Excessive niter can cause a pan to overheat and even burn. Make sure you are using defoamer properly and in the proper place. If you are going to be shut down for a long time due to a warm spell, plan on draining your pans to prevent microbial buildup. Attempting to keep the liquid on the evaporator will only lead to contamination of fresh sap when it arrives and the production of poor-quality syrup. In a freezeout situation, make sure to inspect your pans to make sure they are not freezing solid. If they are, light a fire and thaw out your pans so they do not break. Again, emptying the pans is not a bad idea. Along with your evaporator make sure your filter press and auto-draw off are functioning properly. Improper maintenance of your evaporating and filtering equipment can result in the production of poor-quality syrup that will cost you money in the long run.

After the season, make sure everything is cleaned and stored properly. There are many ways to clean an evaporator and it comes down what works for you. Avoid using any kind of detergent in the cleaning process. Hot water and elbow grease wins out every time. At the end of the season, make sure your syrup is stored properly. There is nothing worse than opening a barrel of your top grade, only to find out it has spoiled. Syrup is best stored in a location where it stays below 70-degree Fahrenheit. Even though you hot pack your syrup it is wise to roll the drums, if possible, several times during the offseason. This agitation helps eliminate moisture condensation from collecting at the top of the drums due to temperature fluctuations.

If you are planning to upgrade your sugarhouse, keep in mind that this is the best time to make sure your facility can pass a state or federal inspection. All of the rules and regulations are available online through OSU Extension.

You have now done a comprehensive evaluation of your sugaring operation. What are your most cost-effective “low hanging fruit” items? Act now – season will be here before you know it.

Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season

The leaves have changed and have mostly fallen from the trees.  In some corners of Ohio, the first snow has already fallen.  For maple syrup producers, that means the push to get ready for a new season is upon us.  This is the best time of year to walk through your entire operation and systematically appraise your operation.  Now is the time to walk your sugarbush with a notebook in hand.  This assessment process allows you to locate the little things that make a big difference when the sap starts flowing.

Begin by looking at the most logical place first – your trees!  What condition are the trees in?  Are they healthy?  Did the June storms cause wind damage to the crowns?  The health of the trees will determine the number of taps per tree, and to some extent, the depth of your taphole.  If trees appear stressed, consider tapping a bit shallower (1.5 inches) rather than the full 1.75” or 2” depth.  It is not unusual to rest a tree for a season, allowing it to overcome obvious stressors.

Now reflect on your tubing system’s performance the very first year it was installed.   Compare that year to the way your system performed last year.  Have you noticed a drop-off in performance? It is easy to blame a poor season on the weather; in reality, the cause could be the age of your system and some neglected repairs.  For many producers, the first inclination is run out into the woods looking for squirrel chews and start repairing lines.  Do not get me wrong, that is important, but it is just one stage of a more holistic leak detection process.  The first order of business should be to inspect the lines for more systemic degradation and disrepair.  I hope that everyone is starting every season with all new spouts?!  However, your assessment should look deeper still.

When was the last time you changed the drops?  How long are the drops?  Are they long enough to allow you to reach around the tree?  Thirty-two inches is a good starting point for drop length in established systems.  What condition are your tees in?  Bad tees lead to micro leaks that sometimes are worse than squirrel chews because they are harder to locate and might be ignored an entire season.  What condition are your laterals?  Do they need to be replaced?  Are you noticing a mold buildup in the lines?  Are your lines patched together because of multiple repairs and damage?  When you replace laterals, it is a good time to look at the overall layout of the lateral system?  Count your taps on each lateral to determine if one is overloaded.  Remember, any given lateral should only be carrying 5 to 7 taps.  Also look at the slope of each lateral.  Is it running straight and tight and downhill for best performance?  What about your saddles, are they leaking?  Old saddles, just like old tees, need to be replaced on a regular basis – at least every 5 years.  Old saddles are often one of the major causes of leakage in maple tubing systems.

The next area of concern is the mainlines.  Ultraviolet light and wind damage are major causes of stress on mainlines.  Mainlines are good for 10 to 15 years, but eventually they must be replaced.  Yes, that is an expensive project!  However, the benefits outweigh the cost.  Installing new lines also allows you to remove damaged and unwanted trees during the repair.  Sugarbush stand improvement is important as it will improve the overall health and productivity of your sugarbush in the long-term.  Hazard trees, such as standing dead ash, should also be dealt with during a mainline replacement project.

It is easy to see how performing a pre-season assessment of your tubing system can be beneficial.  And that is just the tubing system!  After you walk your sugarbush – clipboard in hand – go back to the sugarhouse and develop an improvement plan. What must you buy?  In what quantity?  When will it arrive?  Are their supply chain delays?  Rank everything you have found in order of importance and start chipping away at your list – sap season will be here before you know it!

It’s Time to be Counted – USDA Ag Census

Attention: Ohio Maple Producers

As many of you probably remember, USDA NASS stopped collecting Ohio’s maple syrup production data in 2019.  Since that time the Ohio Maple Producers Association, The Ohio State University Extension, and others have had no readily available annual data to use in the support of our state’s maple industry.  Without this information, the ability to present hard numbers in support of our industry to Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio’s Legislature has been limited.  Even though our ability to report annually is gone, Ohio Producers can report every five years via the Census of Agriculture.  In fact, just like the US Census, reporting to the Census of Agriculture is mandatory for all farmers in Ohio and the US.  On this note, I (Les Ober writing here) received the following request from Jean Lamontagne Executive Director of the International Maple Syrup Institute.

It’s Time To Be Counted!!

Greetings to all maple association leaders, please take note and inform your members.

 

“The Census of Agriculture is taking place this month! Every five years, the USDA takes a Census of all US Agriculture to update its complete count of America’s farms and the hardworking people who run them.

 

The census provides valuable information used at the local, state, and national levels to plan for the future and help ensure our country’s agricultural community receives the resources it needs. Participating helps inform decisions about policy, conservation programs, infrastructure, education, and more. It is also the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and impartial agricultural data for every county and state in the country. Make every voice count in the future of agriculture by participating in the census!”

 

All information gathered is completely anonymous and private.

 

 If you do not receive a census form in the mail in November sign up at 

 

https://www.agcounts.usda.gov/static/get-counted.html

 

Jean Lamontagne, MBA McGill

Executive Director IMSI

 

NOTE: It is important for our maple industry to respond to this survey and the annual NASS maple syrup survey.  An up-to-date, accurate and complete aggregate record of the US maple crop’s growth and yield gives producers, packers, and equipment manufacturers a competitive advantage compared to other businesses and industries that are competing for capital as well as public funding such as research grants. Being counted helps the entire industry’s ability to influence supportive public policy decisions at every level of government as well as benefiting from economic development programs.

Over the last two years, I have been working on a IMSI (International Maple Syrup Institute) Committee submitting proposals to revise the NASS Maple data collection protocol.  Significant progress has been made.  It is my sincere hope that if Ohio Maple has a positive response to the 2022 Ag Census, the state may be reinstated in some form.  This will only be possible if Ohio Maple Producers include their maple production data in the Ag Census along with the rest of any other commodity data produced on your farm.  Please support Ohio’s maple industry by including your maple data in the 2022 Census of Agriculture when it shows up in your mailbox this month.

It’s time to be counted!

Les Ober, Geauga County Extension Educator
NE Ohio Maple Syrup Program Coordinator
The Ohio State University Extension
Ober.10@osu.edu
440-834-4656

Ohio 2022 Season Summary – “Better Luck Next Year”

I suppose if you had to select one word that would describe Ohio maple syrup production over the last five years it would be “change.” Traditionally, maple trees are tapped on Presidents Day and the season runs until April. In the last five years, producers have been tapping trees earlier and earlier. In some cases in northeast Ohio, the last week of January. In more southerly portions of Ohio, many are tapping even earlier than that. In some years, producers have boiled a large percentage of their syrup in February. In many years – this year being no exception – by the time the Geauga County Maple Festival arrives, the actual maple season is a distant memory.  Seasons like 2020 will be remembered for excellent production. 2021 was dismal and forgettable for most. 2022 is a more difficult year to generalize.  A “one size fits all” label and commentary would be oversimplifying the season.

The first reports that reached my desk were that the 2022 season in Ohio was a bust. A half crop at best and for some that was true. For others, that was not the case. It all came down to location and timing. In parts of the state where you would expect a poor crop in a bad year, a full crop was produced. In more traditional areas of the Buckeye State, the result was less than favorable. Again, it all depended on the specific location of the sugarbush, when trees were tapped, and when the season stalled to a stop.

In Ohio, the 2022 season turned back the clock to a more traditional start. After a very cold and snowy February, the majority of the producers tapped within a week of President’s Day. The 2022 season was also a very intense season. The majority of the syrup was made over a short window between March 1st and St. Patrick’s Day. Heavy snows in February and heavier rain the first part of March resulted in an abundance of moisture in the woods. Two things happen when you have excessive amounts of precipitation. It translates into large volumes of sap, but it can simultaneously lower the sugar content within the sap. In 2022, that certainly was the case. A 60 to 1 sap to syrup ratio was not uncommon.

In the sugarhouse, producers reported that the niter had an uncharacteristic red cast that was hard to filter. For the majority of Ohio sugarmakers, the season ended on March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. A few of the more adventuresome producers hung in until the last major freeze of the season on March 25th but the payoff was negligible. 2022 will be remembered as a continuation of the La Nina weather patterns experienced in 2021. Even with a more traditional start date, the season was again short with few big runs and low sap sugar. If you were lucky, you had an average year at best; however, most will chalk up 2022 as a 2nd consecutive disappointing season.

Mainline in Ohio State Mansfield Sugarbush

Better luck next year?!

Raising the Bar on Syrup Quality

Maple grading and syrup quality are major topics at just about every maple winter meeting. Why has this topic taken on a heightened sense of importance? What is driving this interest? As the popularity of maple syrup products continues to grow, we are introducing more new customers to pure maple syrup. As interest grows, so does the number of questions about content, grading and nutritional value.  Consumers are curious!

What is the difference between pure maple syrup and table syrup?

Is pure maple syrup truly a superior product?

Is pure maple syrup worth the higher price?  

In most stores, you can find maple syrup right above the pancake flour. Shelf space is minimal and is often shared with Log Cabin, Mrs. Butterworth, and other corn syrup derivatives. The first thing consumers notice is that pure maple syrup is substantially more expensive. They may also take time to read the labels. The lower priced competition has a multitude of ingredients. Many ingredients are difficult to pronounce and not something a savvy customer wants to consume. So, they gravitate to the pure maple syrup which contains only one ingredient, Pure Maple Syrup. Many assume that because they are paying a premium price it must be a premium product. Consumers today assume a direct relationship between price and quality, and for the most part, do not mind paying a premium price for something they truly enjoy.

You only have one opportunity to make a good first impression!

There is variability in pure maple syrup sold across the country. There are USDA Standards for color and density. Density is straight forward, at least 66.0 or 66.9, depending on where you live. But grading standards by color can be confusing. To add even more mud to the water, many states do not require grading; color grading is voluntary. Remember, much of the syrup marketed in the US, especially outside the maple producing regions, is sold in box stores.

Most of the time, syrup sold in a box store is good syrup. It is sweet and with an excellent maple flavor, but occasionally there is a surprise. Until a bottle of syrup is opened and tasted, a bad bottle of syrup often looks exactly like good syrup; although, there is a tendency for poor quality syrup to wear a more generic label. You might compare buying a generic bottle of syrup to buying a box of “Cracker Jacks”, you are wondering what sort of prize will be inside. Customers can avoid bad surprises by buying from local producers who confidently and proudly attach the name of their operation to the label.

The flavor of our maple products is the single most important aspect of maple grading. Flavor more than anything else sells the product; however, grading for flavor is also one of the least understood aspects of quality syrup production. Syrup flavor varies for a multitude of reasons. Some would say it is subjective, but it is not. Each grade has its own identifiable and unique flavor profile. Because each grade is unique and prized for its own reasons, blending grades is discouraged and should be avoided. However, blending syrup grades is not restricted and it does happen. So, what exactly happens to flavor when two grades of pure maple syrup are combined to achieve a more desirable color? To put it simply, colors blend but flavor does not. Blended syrup might look attractive, but the flavor is just off. While the average consumer may not detect the difference, a discerning palate will.

If the following principle is true, for every effect there is a cause, off-flavored syrup can often be traced back to mistakes made by the producer. No one who has ever run an evaporator will deny that. Ten minutes too long on the evaporator, poor sanitation or running too late in the season, can all result in off flavors and sub-standard syrup. Mistakes happen, and in most cases, they are not intentional. That syrup should be allowed to enter the on-the-shelf marketplace. To salvage the syrup, these mistakes often end up in a barrel sold on the bulk market for whatever price the producer can get. This is what everyone does, right?!

Overall, the industry does a good job of grading density and color and is gradually placing more emphasis on quality. However, it is the responsibility of everyone involved to know when something has gone wrong. Because we are selling a food product, we need to know where to draw the line. We need to encourage producers who want to learn more about the process of making quality maple syrup to attend local or regional maple grading and quality workshops. While state regulations may enforce a bare minimum, a state’s producers should strive for better than just barely passing. Raising the bar on maple syrup quality can only be achieved through mutual cooperation and education at all levels of the industry.

 

Footnote: Substandard syrup quality and grading errors aren’t just a brick-and-mortar problem.  Check out this article from The Maple News, courtesy of research done out of University of Vermont, that examined online syrup sales and these exact same issues.

How to Combat Buddy & Sour Sap – The Path to QUALITY Syrup (Part 4)

Prevention of sour sap is all about sanitation. Here are a few things to consider when developing a sanitation plan for your maple operation. As soon as the previous season ends, producers using tubing need to clean and sanitize their lines. There are many ways to do this, but the most important thing is to make sure it gets done. As the new season approaches, inspect your lines for sanitation problems, consider replacing not only the spouts but the drops and tees if needed. As the new season begins, producers using high vacuum should consider running your vacuum 24/7 to keep your lines clean, clear, and cool.  During the season, make sure you wash your holding tanks often to prevent microbial scum buildup.

Where sap is held for a long period of time, avoid using plastic tanks for long term sap storage. Plastic is porous and retains bacterial inoculum that will quickly generate bacterial growth. These plastic tanks are often referred to as commercializers, named after the old commercial grade of syrup that nobody wanted. Once a plastic tank becomes contaminated, they are almost impossible to clean and should be replaced.

In the sugarhouse, making quality maple syrup starts with your reverse osmosis (RO) unit. Concentrate must be evaporated as soon as it comes off the RO. Bacteria multiply quickly in concentrated sap. This is the result of a higher percentage of sugar in the concentrate. There is also an increase in the sap temperature as it moves through the RO. It may enter the RO at 40 degrees F or less, but when it comes out, it will be closer to 50 degrees F. High Brix concentrate, elevated sap temperatures, and a warm sugarhouse are the perfect recipe for taking good sap and turning it into a microbial cesspool if not careful. This is one of the reasons many producers are now considering using refrigerated milk bulk tanks to store concentrate. This cools the concentrate and allows more time to manage the boiling process.

Producers often accept the fact that concentrate left on the evaporator overnight will produce a darker grade syrup, at least until fresh sap is introduced.  This does not have to happen if managed properly.  Small evaporators should be drained if possible. Larger evaporators can be equipped with a wash system that allow the entire evaporator to be cleaned and drained. Once the syrup leaves the evaporator, the process of sanitation continues. Syrup should be filtered and placed in a stainless-steel drum after being reheated to at least 180 degrees F. There is an inherent risk when you attempt to drum syrup at lower temperatures. Spoilage happens when barrels are packed at low temperatures. The hot syrup and cold barrel causes condensation (H2O) which combines with the remaining air in the barrel ultimately resulting in mold and fermentation.  It is best practice to place filled barrels in a cool place like a basement or a barn that does not heat up. Another practice worth looking into, is to build a cool room by equipping  a small insulated room with an air conditioner.

When you re-open a barrel of syrup, you should have syrup that is ready to bottle. When you bottle your syrup bring the syrup back up to 185 degrees for packing. Syrup packed below 185 F is subject to spoilage and reduced shelf life. Going above 190 also creates several problems. And if the syrup peaks above 200 F, the syrup will start to foam, and niter will start precipitate. The only solution for this scenario is to filter the syrup again. You will also overheat your jugs causing them to contract and suck in if they are not 100% filled. Plastic jugs should always be filled within a half inch of the top and laid on their side to kill any bacterial that may have found its way in the jug.  If you pack in glass bottles, make sure you put your bottles in the oven at 200 degrees for a few minutes. Hot glass will not condensate moisture and you can eliminate most problems with this simple step. It is always good to pack several times over the course of the year to maintain the highest quality in your syrup.

Many years ago, there was a use for commercial outlet for sub-standard syrup. The majority was sold to the tobacco industry. It was used to sweeten chewing tobacco. That outlet for the most part no longer exists. There are places where substandard syrup could be used but its objectionable flavor drastically lowers its value. For this reason, there is now a movement to prevent this type of syrup from getting into the market. Bulk buyers no longer want to handle sub-standard syrup and if they buy it they are not going to pay very much for the product. In addition, there is a currently an effort by the International Maple Syrup Institute and others to promote educational programing to raise producer awareness about ways to avoid producing this kind of syrup. The reality is that there is very little economic return from sub-standard syrup production. With rising costs of equipment and inputs the production of anything less than top quality saleable syrup in today’s high demand market is foolish.

There you have it – a 4-part series starting with a lesson on phenology and how to track growing degree days, relating growing degree days to tree bud development, appreciating the differences between buddy sap and sour sap, taking sanitation seriously at every single phase, and PRESTO! viola! alakazam (if only it were that easy!!) – you are making QUALITY maple syrup!

Off-Tasting Syrup: Understanding the Culprits (Part 3)

Now that we have talked about tree phenology and maple buds and growing degree days, let’s the talk more about the main prize of every sugarmaker’s dream – QUALITY syrup!  As we get ready to embark on a new maple season, let’s go over some of the things that will help you to improve the quality of your syrup in 2022. We all know that paying attention to detail in the woods will pay off with big rewards; however, the place where paying attention to detail is most important is when the sap or concentrate is on the evaporator. The finishing process can make or break your operation. Maple production is becoming a very competitive business, and the producers making the highest quality syrup will rise to the top.

Here is an oversimplification of what happens during the syrup-making process.  Once bacteria are introduced into the sap, a conversion of sugars takes place. A portion of the maple sap, which is almost 100 percent sucrose, is converted into glucose and fructose. This portion of the sugar content makes up the invert sugars present in syrup. When the sap is heated (The Maillard Reaction – something you can read more about here) the color of the syrup and the flavor of the syrup is formed, largely based on the amount of glucose and fructose sugars and other factors happening at the same time.  Thus, the level of microbial interaction plays a vital role in determining the color, grade, and corresponding flavor profile of the syrup produced. So, as you can see not all microbes are bad, in fact they are essential to everything we love about maple syrup!

Sap flowing from the maple tree is sterile, so where do the microbes come from?

Microbial activity begins as soon as sap is exposed to the outside environment. Early in the season microbial development is slow due to the normally cold temperatures, but once warm weather arrives (above 50 degrees F), more and other strains of microbes begin to multiply in the sap. As the microbes interact with the sap, the syrup produced darkens and develops an increasingly bold and pronounced maple flavor. Microbe colonies continue to expand eventually resulting in very dark and viscous syrup with an unpalatable strong flavor. Because this degradation of the sap is more likely to occur at the end of the season, low quality syrup is often associated with tree budding which happens at approximately the same time.

If you did a taste comparison, you would notice is a definite difference between buddy syrup and sour sap syrup. Buddy syrup has a chocolate flavor akin to what a Tootsie Roll tastes like while sour sap syrup has a bitter sometimes fermented taste that stays in your mouth. If you boil buddy sap, it will produce a pungent unforgettable smell. Sour Sap thickens to the point where it cannot be evaporated and will be difficult to draw off the evaporator. In extreme cases, you can pour a stream out and it will suspend in midair. This is referred to as “ropey syrup”. Sour sap is a result of intense microbial activity that builds anytime during the season when environmental conditions are right for bacterial growth. Buddy syrup comes from sap collected when the buds emerge naturally from the tree. This is a normal physiological growth stage that occurs every year.

Both processes require and progress with seasonal warming. In a normal season, the two tend to occur simultaneously and accelerate at the end of the season. Though the two are correlated, it is important for producers to understand the differences if you want to avoid the problems associated with each.

 

Maple Leader Lost in Ohio

These are the words of Les Ober in memory of Karl Evans

 

It was a little over 5 weeks ago that I traveled to PA on a bright sunshiny day to help with the Lake Erie Maple Expo.  I remember thinking that we had finally rounded to the corner and a new normal lay ahead.  A month later Ohio successfully pulled off The Ohio Maple Days on an early December cloudy and rainy day.  Little did any of us realize this was a premonition of what was to come.

The following Wednesday we heard the news that the Ohio Maple Community had lost one of its own. The news left all of us speechless, asking why?  Karl Evans, current President of the Ohio Maple Producers Association, passed away on December 15, 2021.  Karl was only 51 years old leaving behind his wife Amber and two beautiful and amazing daughters Abigail and Anna.

I have known Karl for most of the years that I have worked for OSU Extension, and he took over one of the most historic maple syrup operations in NE Ohio when I was just getting started.  The woods he owned was formerly owned by Francis Manes.  Francis was a prominent distributor for the Leader Evaporator Company in NE Ohio.  Karl fit right in, taking over the Leader dealership, and developing May Hill Maple Supply.  Working alongside him was his longtime friend and fellow maple producer Ray Gingerich.  He changed his home woods over to a vacuum tubing system and was soon working together with Ray installing tubing systems across NE Ohio and NW PA.

When the idea germinated to start the Lake Erie Maple Expo, Karl was one of the first to sign on and make it happen.  At the same time, Karl became interested in working with the Ohio Maple Producers Association.  After several years on the Board of Directors, he took over the position of Vice President working alongside President Dan Brown. When Dan retired as President, Karl was elected in his stead. Karl was never one to seek out recognition.  He was rather shy and reserved, but over the 4 years I watched him gain confidence using his determination to build a stronger organization.  He represented Ohio as a Director for the North American Maple Syrup Council.  He also worked with Ohio State University lending support to develop the OSU Mansfield Maple Program.  His guidance and advice will be missed.

Evans is pictured here in his perfect maple tree orchard that he planted himself over the past 20 years at his farm in Orwell, Ohio.  Evans took great pride in this orchard saying he wanted to leave a legacy for his daughters.  Just like the straight rows of 300 maple trees, Karl will be remembered most for the straightforward and honest advice that he gave to his fellow sugar makers.