All Things Evaporators: Part IV

In this final post of the evaporator series, we will examine a few remaining factors to account for when considering the boiling process for maple syrup. As you will see, a few instruments enable the necessary precision to ensure a high-quality batch of syrup every time.

In case you missed them, here is Part I, Part II, and Part III of the series.

Barometric Pressure Matters

One of the biggest factors influencing the boil in an evaporator is barometric pressure. Barometric pressure and weather fronts are frequently responsible for the day-to-day erratic behavior in the way sap boils. The boiling rate is directly associated with the barometric pressure on any given day. If you experience a high barometric pressure, sap boils faster; with low barometric pressure, the boil slows. Meteorological shifts can happen several times per day, and whenever pressure fluctuates the boiling point of water (212 F) will vary. Producers must adjust their thermometer to accurately produce syrup consistently at 219 F. Make sure you calibrate your thermometer in boiling water before the start of each boil and throughout the day as needed. A thermometer will give you a ballpark reading, but to get ultra-precise and guarantee 66 Brix syrup of the highest quality, additional instruments should be utilized.

Having the Right Instruments

You will choose one of three instruments to determine your syrup density coming off the evaporator.  Only one is the best and most accurate for reading syrup straight off the evaporator. As previously stated, syrup’s finishing point is 219 Fahrenheit, 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. Because barometric pressure influences boiling point, using only a thermometer can result in inconsistent finished syrup density. One better option is to use a refractometer, but the syrup sample has to be temperature-stable and filtered to get an accurate reading. For this reason, we do not recommend using a refractometer on syrup coming directly off the evaporator for obvious and practical reasons. (Refractometers are, however, the instrument of choice for measuring the density of cooled and filtered syrup during canning).

The most recommended instrument to determine the density of hot finished syrup is the hydrometer.  A hydrometer should be floated in a sample of finished syrup that is at least 211 degrees F. Hydrometers have two lines, one for cold and one for hot. You will use the hot line for your syrup density determination straight off the evaporator. Bring the instrument up to eye level or set it on a stable object close to eye level for the most accurate reading. The hydrometers red line should float even with syrup level in the container. Most hydrometers also have two scales, one for Brix and one for Baume (Baume measures specific gravity of a solution). The Brix scale is the most popular and frequently used today. Avoid letting scale build up on the outside of the glass as it will impact the density reading, and producers should regularly validate their hydrometers for accuracy. Once you confirm finished syrup of the proper density, you will filter your syrup for clarity and to remove niter. You can then use a color comparator to determine the grade of your syrup.

Conclusion

The evaporator has become the center piece of many maple operations. It is the first thing visitors see in your sugarhouse no matter what time of year they visit.  It is also one of the most essential pieces of equipment in your operation.  After all the process of making syrup requires that we must heat maple sap to 7 degrees above the boiling point of water to produce pure maple syrup. This results in the caramelization of maple sap into maple syrup. The addition of heat to maple sap results in the amber color we desire and the maple flavor we love.

Author: Les Ober, OSU Extension Geauga County

All Things Evaporators: Part I

A Simple Yet Complex Process

Many producers refer to boiling as the art of making maple syrup.  Boiling on a modern evaporator is a process requiring about 45 minutes to move from the inlet at the start to the draw-off at the finish.  Bringing 2% sap through a float at the back of the machine and moving the sap forward  through a series of channels until it reaches 66 Brix at the opposite end may sound quite simple; however, properly boiling syrup is a very complex scientific process based on physics, chemistry and microbiology.

To meet USDA Standards, maple syrup must be at least 66 percent sugar. This is referred to as syrup density which is measured in Brix. Brix is a measurement scale based on the percentage of sugar in a sample. Because Syrup is made up of over 98% Sucrose sugar, we simply define the density of maple syrup as percent sugar. In this case, 66 Brix syrup would be 66 percent sugar. Once we know the percentage of sugar in sap, we can determine the amount of sap that it takes to make a gallon of syrup. To do this we apply a simple formula – the “Jones Rule of 86” – where you take the factor of 86 and divide it by the percent sugar to obtain the number of gallons of sap required to make one gallon of syrup.  For example, 86 divided by 2% sugar content sap equals 43 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.

You can start to see how chemistry and a little math plays a role in converting sap to syrup. What about physics? When sap is boiling, a gradient is formed causing the heavy syrup to move in front of the lower density sap. If the pan on the evaporator is boiling, then the two will not mix unless you suddenly lower the temperature in one section of the pans. Disrupting the boil results in an intermingling of sap temperatures which causes a drop in boiling intensity. The result is the dreaded big batch and improper syrup density.

Microbiology comes in to play when colonies of microbes begin to increase. Lack of microbial sanitation is the most common reason for the darkening of syrup potentially resulting in an off flavor. Microbial action changes the sucrose to invert sugars (glucose and fructose). As the percentage of invert sugar increases, heat causes syrup color to darken. It is possible to darken the syrup to a level where the color and flavor are severely impacted. If you ignore any or all of the science involved, you could end up with something that you will definitely not want to put on your own table let alone sell to your neighbor.

Managing Your Flue Pan

The flue pan is where all the heavy lifting of the boiling process is done. There are two basic types of modern evaporators, raised flue and drop flue. The level of sap in a pan is controlled by a float box. With a drop flue, you only have one float box controlling the depth of the sap throughout the entire machine. The sap level is maintained at 1.5-2 inches from back to front. Two inches depth is a safe starting point for beginners. Any change you make to the float at the back of the evaporator will be transferred forward to the draw-off point. Thus, all changes should be minimal and incremental. A raised flue evaporator has two floats, one for the back pan or flue pans and one for the front pan or syrup pans. Though you are still running just one evaporator, you can control two separate processes. The double float design allows you to run your depth in the back pan at 1 inch while running the front pan between 1.5-2 inches. The dual control increases evaporator efficiency, more rapidly boils off water, and better controls the draw-off process. The shallower you can run the back pan the more heat you transfer into the sap and the harder the boil. If you run your back pan too deep, the boil slows, and efficiency is reduced.


Raised Flue Evaporator with device to evacuate away steam from boiling process.

Which style of evaporator you prefer is strictly a personal preference. And once you learn your evaporator’s sweet spot, once the depth is set, you can generally leave it alone. All evaporators should have at least one sap level gauge on the flue pan (raised flue evaporators should have a second gauge between the two front pans). A properly calibrated gauge allows you to know the exact sap level no matter if the flue pan is hooded or clouded with steam.


Drop Flue Evaporator with reverse front flow pan.

When running your evaporator, the basic goal is to maintain a boil across the entire rig with the hardest boil occurring in the flue pan. There is an old saying among maple producers, “You haven’t earned your producer’s badge until you have burnt a pan.” Trust me if you have never scorched a pan, or come close to burning one, consider yourself lucky. Usually the most common reason for burning a pan is human error, usually caused by a distraction. When you are running a rig, you are dealing with extreme heat. Stack temperatures can run between 600-1000 degrees F. You are applying that heat to a relatively small skinny volume of liquid (2 inches spread across the surface of the pan) separated by a thin layer of stainless steel. The only thing that keeps that metal from melting is the thin layer of sap on top. If the sap boils out because you forgot to turn on a valve or you ran out of sap, bad things happen very quickly. Uncontrolled high temperatures can go from a scorch to buckling a pan in just a few short minutes. Your season could be over if you cannot find a replacement.

Tracking bubbles in your sap is a good way to monitor your boil. The bubbles in the pan should be moving slowly in one direction toward the draw-off. If the boil decreases and the bubbles move back and forth then an adjustment needs to be made immediately. If you spot trouble the first thing you must do is avoid panic. Move quickly and precisely. This is where knowing what to expect and what to do is vital and that only comes with experience.

Stay tuned for Part II next week!

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

A Few Thoughts on Finishing Maple Syrup

Cold weather has set in and that has allowed me to scan the maple chat rooms. Many of the questions that keep popping up are about finishing maple syrup. Is it too thick or too thin? Should I use a thermometer, hydrometer, and/or refractometer? Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Most of these questions are coming from backyard producers with a relatively small number of taps. Making syrup on a flat pan or hobby rig is not an easy task. You deal with a lot more “what if’s” than you would on a big evaporator. The process is simple – build a fire under your pan and bring your sap to the boiling point of water. Use a thermometer to monitor the process. That thermometer reading will vary from day to day depending on the barometric pressure. When the temperature goes 2 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water, add more sap, preferably pre-heated sap. Continue the process until all your sap is in the pan and begins condensing down. At that point, stop boiling, take the liquid into the house to store, and finish the batch. Most hobbyists follow this procedure and it works well. The trouble starts when you have a rig that looks like a big evaporator but does not run like a big evaporator. Many hobby rigs have channels and a heater pan and that is good. Sap should come into the back channel and gradually work its way to the channel on the opposite side near the front. Higher density syrup should move ahead of the lower density syrup. The problem comes in when you have to decide how much sap to let in at any one time. It works okay as long as you can maintain a steady flow into the rig. You need to maintain a depth of 2-3 inches across the entire evaporator. Overflow the hobby rig with liquid, and you will kill the boil. Once this happens, the sap of lesser density intermingles with the heavier density syrup. Big problem! Despite the fact you have channels, you are now no better off than you would be with a flat pan. On commercial evaporators, we have a thing called a float that automatically maintains the level of sap moving across the rig. With a hobby evaporator, you are the float and maintaining the proper level takes time and experience.

A few words on syrup-testing instruments. As stated above, you absolutely must have a thermometer. Two other tools that I recommended are a hydrometer and a refractometer. The hydrometer is necessary and a refractometer is nice if it fits your budget. Others have mentioned the Murphy’s Compensation Cup. I have used one for the last three seasons, developed by Smokey Lake – the Murphy’s Cup is a very useful tool.

I have two ways of measuring density directly off the evaporator. Here is the formula I use. First, I draw a sample into a hydrometer cup once the temperature reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. Remember thermometers need to be calibrated. With your hydrometer cup filled with hot syrup that is above 211 degree Fahrenheit, insert the hydrometer into the cup. When it hits the top red line, you have syrup. I check this several times. Once I have the syrup where I want it, I pour one of the samples into the Murphy Cup. This device has a dial with corresponding numbers to those on a hydrometer. You insert your hydrometer into the cup and let it settle for 3 to 5 minutes. When the reading on the dial and the hydrometer match, you are at the right density. After that, I can fine-tune my auto draw-off for subsequent runs. On the last run, we are hitting between 66.0 and 66.5 Brix with this system. Refractometers are available in digital and analog versions. The digital versions seem to be the most popular. They are very useful to check syrup prior to bottling. Do not use a refractometer at draw-off, a refractometer’s reading is only accurate on temperature-stable and filtered syrup. The only reason for us to have a refractometer in the sugarhouse is to check the sugar content of concentrate coming off your reverse osmosis unit.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension