DOAG: AS MAPLE SEASON NEARS, PRODUCERS MEET TO TAP EXPERTS’ ADVICE


 

AS MAPLE SEASON NEARS, PRODUCERS MEET TO TAP EXPERTS’ ADVICE

 

January 24, 2017

 

LEBANON - With the start of the maple sugaring season likely only a few weeks away, more than 100 producers gathered last Saturday to discuss ways to improve the quality and quantity of their syrup at a meeting of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut (MSPAC).

 

Featured speaker Dave Butler, a Vermont producer who works for Leader, a  manufacturer of sugaring equipment, spent nearly two hours taking questions about the countless challenges and complexities of making syrup.

 

Though his job and as a judge in maple syrup contests, he said he sees too many producers making syrup that is either bland or off-tasting for a variety of reasons.

Chief among the pitfalls producers face is having their syrup tainted by the stale, moldy taste of bacteria transferred from their equipment.

 

“Bacteria in your sap can affect your color and it will definitely affect your flavor, Butler said to the crowd assembled in the Lyman Memorial High School auditorium.  “We can’t put a product out there that’s going to turn somebody away.”

 

Much of his presentation focused on the critical need to keep sap evaporators, reverse-osmosis systems and storage tanks clean of any leftover sugar or impurities. Butler ran through a litany of techniques to prevent the formation of  contaminants during and after the sap-boiling process, including:

 

· Meticulously rinsing sugar residue from evaporators and other equipment with hot water after every use.

“What grows in sugar?” he asked the crowd.

“Mold,” came the reply from dozens of voices in unison.


· Using stainless steel storage tanks instead of plastic.

“Plastic harbors bacteria,” said Butler. “I don’t care how many times you wash it or bleach it – they’re terrible to clean and they’re a bacteria trap. You have an enclosed poly tank, you might as well have a greenhouse for bacteria.”


· Cleaning metal filters used in the finishing process with sterile water.

“Inspect them with a flashlight,” Butler said. “And you have to dry them. Any leftover moisture can create bacteria and the syrup will pick up that flavor very, very quickly.”


· Keeping ash from wood-fired evaporators fire to a minimum.

“Anything that’s airborne in your sugarhouse can become part of your syrup,” Butler said.

 

He also spent considerable time discussing the nuances of using hydrometers, a long glass tube used to measure the density of the syrup and its percentage of sugar. Connecticut producers follow the USDA standard of at least 66 percent sugar.

 

The hydrometer tells the producer whether a batch of syrup is too “heavy” and needs to be diluted, or too “light” and needs to be boiled more. Butler advised that sap must be heated to between 211 and 219-degrees to ensure a hydrometer is functioning optimally.

 

“Your hydrometer is very temperature dependent,” he said. “So you have to test every single batch. I lost as much as 10 percent volume because I was heavy on a couple of barrels last year.”

 

MSPAC President Mark Harran said interest in maple production has seen a steady increase in Connecticut in recent years, and is starting to draw a younger audience of enthusiasts.

 

Saturday’s meeting also featured tours of a new sugarhouse installed just outside the high school as part of its Agriculture Science & Technology program. It was tended by Dylan Jarvis, who graduated from the program six years ago.

 

He said sugaring is part of the curriculum of a natural resources class that typically draws about 15 students a year.

 

“They collect sap from a farm down the road and bring it here to boil it,”  Jarvis said, noting that most of the syrup is used at a pancake breakfast held at the school.

Overall, Harran said the maple industry is estimated to be growing by more than 10 percent yearly across the U.S. and Canada.    

 

“We’re seeing about a million new taps a year,” Harran said. “But in Connecticut we tap less than one-tenth of one-percent of our eligible trees,” as opposed to 4  percent in Vermont and 33 percent in Quebec, Canada, home to many huge producers.  “That explains why Quebec sells 7 percent of all maple syrup sold in the world.”

 

The Connecticut Dept. of Agriculture is aiming to get more trees into production through a pilot program that allows the leasing of maple trees in state forests.

 

Nathan Heath of Killingworth, who attended the meeting with his teenage son and sugaring partner Elliot, said he leases a few hundred maple trees from the state in Cockaponset State Forest.

 

Heath has been making syrup as a hobby for about a decade, and typically produces about 60 gallons a season.

 

“We put a sign out in front of the driveway and it all sells out,” he said. “Actually, between all the friends and family that want it now, I might not even put a sign out this year.”

 

The Dept. of Agriculture and MSPAC publishes a brochure every year listing sugarhouses that are open to the public.

It is available at:

http://www.ct.gov/doag/lib/doag/marketing_files/brochures/2016/2016_Sugarhouse_Guidepdf