Handling Sap and Syrup During the Season

The maple season is now underway and this is a good time to talk about handling your sap during and after collection. How you handle your sap prior to boiling will strongly affect the quality of the syrup you make. When quality syrup is the goal, timing is everything, and the clock starts as soon as the sap leaves the tree and doesn’t stop until it hits the evaporator.

When sap comes from the tree, it is sterile. That all changes once the sap starts to drain from the taphole. The air and surfaces surrounding the tap contain an abundance of microbes. The sap supplies the food source and a media for the microbes to grow and multiply. Research at Center Acer in Quebec found 21 different strains of microbes present in sap. At first you would think that could be problematic, but the reality is, you need certain strains of bacteria to produce the color and flavor that is unique to maple syrup. For microbial growth you also need the right temperature. Once the environment warms the sap, microbes multiply rapidly. Producers can monitor the potential for microbial growth by checking the temperature of sap. If the temperature is close to freezing, growth is suppressed. Below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the growth of bacteria is slow, but once the temperature rises above 50 Fahrenheit microbial growth is rapid. The chances for 50 degrees and above temperatures are greatest at the end of the season.

When sap leaves the tree, the sugar is 100% sucrose. Once the sap is exposed to bacterial action, a small fraction of the sucrose is converted into glucose and fructose, often referred to as “invert sugars.” When maple sap containing sucrose, glucose, and fructose is heated, you create an amber color and a unique maple flavor. The problem is when undesirable bacteria begins to outnumber the good bacteria. This changes the chemistry of the sap. As the invert sugar level increases, syrup begins to take on a darker color and a stronger maple flavor. This produces the different grades of syrup. Syrup early in the season has a light color and very mild flavor. The maple syrup produced at the end of the season is often darker and stronger flavor. Syrup containing higher levels of bacteria can develop a very strong almost bitter off-taste known as sour syrup. The syrup consistency takes on a thick almost rubber like appearance and is often referred to as ropey syrup. Sour sap is often confused with buddy syrup because it happens most often at the end of the season. Buddy syrup is caused by sap coming from trees where the buds are getting ready to bloom. The chemistry is completely different from sour sap. Sour sap can happen any time during the season when a warm spell causes extreme flushes of bacteria growth. Sour sap can be prevented with good sanitation practices. Buddy syrup is a natural occurrence every year at the end of the season.

The quality of syrup produced from buckets and bags is best early in the season. Once the hole is drilled and the spout is exposed to the air, microbial development and taphole healing begins. Your season has begun, and you are now on the clock. A normal season for a bucket, bag or gravity tubing producer is 4 to 6 weeks. During the cold periods early in the season, the sap stays fresh just like it would if you put it in your refrigerator. Keep your sap below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and you are fine, but let it heat up to over 50 degrees and you asking for trouble. That happens readily at the end of the season. What many producers forget is that the bucket is an incubator for bacteria if it is not cleaned out regularly throughout the season. Leaving sap sit in a dirty bucket for any length of time is a problem. Remember bacteria does not grow in a clean dry bucket. If you are in a warm spell wash out your buckets and place them upside down next to the tree. If you are in a extended cold period, you should collect your buckets and let them hang until the next run. And never let stale sap sit a bucket, hot or cold.

As for tubing, we have discussed tubing sanitation multiple times over the years and those articles are in the Ohio Maple Blog Archive. Keep your lines as clean as possible throughout the season. This is difficult unless you are on continuous high vacuum. I know it sounds expensive to run the pumps 24/7, but it works to your advantage by keeping the lines cool and dry when the sap is not running. Another essential is to follow the tubing sanitation guidelines, installing new spouts every year, and new tees and drops every three years. You will improve the quality of your syrup.

Once you get the sap to sugarhouse, there are additional things you can do to improve quality. Sap that is going to be stored for longer periods of time needs to be stored in a stainless steel tank. Avoid poly tanks for sap storage. Plastic tanks are incubators for bacteria. Older galvanized tanks, like galvanized buckets, need to be discarded because of the risk of lead contamination. For the backyard producer, make sure your tank is in the shade. Pack around it with snow if possible. You can even freeze some sap and put it in the tank during warm spells. What ever it takes to keep your sap cold, take those necessary precautions. Anytime your sap reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit and you can’t immediately cool it back down, boil immediately.

What about the evaporator? Boil your sap as quickly as possible. If you are using a reverse osmosis machine, make sure you do not let your concentrate sit. Boil it as soon as it comes through the RO. You double, triple, and in some cases, quadruple the sugar concentration in your sap, and bacteria builds fast in concentrated sap. If you are using a small evaporator, it is a good idea to drain and flush your rig. Leaving partially boiled sap on an evaporator in a warm sugarhouse can result in ropey syrup. Once the syrup is filtered get it into a barrel or a container as fast you can. Do not let it sit around. Pack your drums hot and do not open them until you are ready to use them. Do not store syrup drums in a warm building. Move them into the basement where it is cool or package the syrup at 185 degrees Fahrenheit shortly after the season. From the tree to final container, paying attention to details pays big dividends.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Handling Your Maple Syrup Crop after the Season

 Every once and awhile it is good to go back and revisit an old post with a good message – here is one from 2013 with a few additions.

Maple syrup is often referred to as “liquid gold.” Increased demand for maple syrup and the escalating value of this year’s crop has added new meaning to this term of endearment. Once the season is over, you need to use a little TLC when it comes to storing maple syrup so it will maintain its quality and value. If you have not sold all of this year’s maple syrup and have some left in the sugarhouse, you need to pay careful attention to the inside temperatures of those buildings. With all of the recent hot weather, syrup stored in non-insulated structures can quickly reach high temperatures and spoilage can occur. You may think you safeguarded your product by packing the syrup hot in a sealed container. Maybe not!

Most syrup is stored in stainless steel barrels that were packed in February and March. Syrup should go into barrels hot and sealed with as little air as possible. The drums then cool to the ambient temperature with the syrup soon reaching the same temperature inside. Steel as a general fact transfers heat and cold well.  The syrup on the inside of a steel barrel will remain cold for a long period of time due to its viscosity and mass. However, this also means that if the steel on the drum’s exterior warms quickly to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or above and stays warm, the result is condensation that will develop between the warm steel and the cool syrup on the inside. If this moisture develops in the interior air space, molds can form. This is the same thing that happens to jugs when they are not heated properly to 185 degrees. If the product is not above 66 Brix, syrup can even ferment. The worst culprit for spoiled syrup is a partially-filled drum that is then topped off with hot syrup. This scenario can be avoided by repacking the entire drum between 150 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. It is always best to completely fill a drum with hot syrup right off the filter press, seal it, and store it.

The best solution for long term storage is to build a cool room. You notice I did said cool, not cold. A walk in cooler would be the best case scenario but most producers cannot afford such a luxury. Take a small space big enough to hold several drums of syrup. This could be a closet or small room in a building. Insulate the room and stick a window air conditioning unit through the wall. When temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit for any length of time, kick on the air conditioner and cool the room to just below 70 degrees. At that temperature, the syrup will stay relatively cool in the barrels. Your biggest struggle is to get the syrup through the hottest months of the year. Another trick is to rotate the drum occasionally, this moves the syrup inside the drum and should dissipate any moisture that forms on the interior metal wall of the drum within the residual air space, thus reducing the chance of spoilage if the drum was packed correctly to begin with.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

How Will You Store Your Maple Syrup?

Hopefully this is a question you are asking because of a bumper crop! But even in any year, if you have not sold all the year’s maple syrup and have some left in the sugarhouse or in a tool shed or in the corner of your garage, then you need to watch the inside temperatures of those buildings. In outdoor non-insulated structures, temperatures can elevate quickly and spoilage can occur. You may have thought that you covered your bases by packing syrup hot in a sealed container. But maybe not!

Let’s look closer at how syrup is packed and stored. Most syrup is stored in stainless steel barrels that were packed in February and March. The syrup went in to the barrels hot and each barrel sealed. Inside a thirty gallon drum there will always be a little room for air no matter how carefully you pack. The drums then cool to and fluctuate with the ambient temperature of the time of the year and soon the syrup inside takes on the same temperature. Steel transfers heat and cold well, but 30 gallons of syrup is a lot of volume and will remain cold for a long period of time due to its viscosity and mass. However, when outside temperatures warm to 80 degrees and above and stays hot, the steel on the outside of the drum heats up quickly often forming a layer of condensation between the warm steel on the outside and the cool syrup on the inside. When this moisture gets into the air space inside the barrel molds can form. This is the same thing that happens to jugs when they are not heated to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, and if the product is not above 66 Brix, syrup can even ferment.

The best solution for keeping your syrup in tip-top condition is to build a cool room. You notice I did not say cold. A walk in cooler would be the best case scenario but most producers cannot afford such a luxury. Take a small space big enough to hold several drums of syrup. This could be a closet or a small room inside a building. Insulate the room and install a window air conditioning unit through the wall. When temperatures go over 80 degrees F for any length of time, fire up the air conditioner and brings the room to just below 70. At that temperature, the syrup will stay relatively cool in the barrels and always trends towards being colder than the outside temperature. This strategy should get you and your syrup through the hot months, then once the daytime temperatures cool off into early fall, you are out of the woods!

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension