Is Maple Syrup Always Kosher?

Have you noticed  that being Jewish is complicated?

Maine Maple Syrup Sunday takes place annually, the fourth Sunday in March.  All the maple sugar houses throughout Maine are open to the public.  Informal tours are conducted of “sugar bushes” – the maple trees – with attached taps and buckets, which collect the sap that starts to run once the days get warm and the nights remain frozen.  The sticky liquid sap is brought to sugar houses – also known as “sugar shacks” – – and boiled down for hours and hours until it’s just the right consistency for maple syrup.  An average tree produces 40 quarts of sap, and it takes 40 quarts of sap to make just one quart of syrup!

I thought it would be fun to learn about the process first-hand, sample some syrup, and perhaps buy a jugful for my pancakes.

But first I called my home town’s kosher hotline and asked, “Does maple syrup need a hechsher (kosher certification)?”

“It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s better if it does,” was the answer I received from the hotline helper.

I was not satisfied with this answer, because I know that syrup producers add a small amount of fat to the boiling sap, which prevents it from boiling over.  Could they possibly use lard? Vegetable oil? Cream? Butter? And does the butter make it milchig? Chalav stam?  Is the amount of fat so minute that it is considered to be batul ba’shishim, the halacha that states that if an ingredient is 1/60th or less of the total ingredients, it is null and void and is considered to “not exist” in the list of ingredients?  I know the 1/60th rule works in accidental cases (let’s say a drop of milk dripped into a huge pot of chicken soup – the soup would still be kosher).  But that’s in accidental cases – not l’hatchila (planning the 1/60th to begin with, on purpose).

I asked to speak with the rabbi in charge.

He told me that  butter can be used without a hechsher only if it is made from 100% cream – that certain chemical additives or dyes may not be kosher and so butter requires a hechsher otherwise.  But as to the rest – he excused himself and admitted that he simply didn’t know much about the process, and mirthfully added that he was appointing me as his “delegate” to check out maple syrup production first hand, and report my findings.

Like I said, it’s complicated being Jewish.

Maine is a very large state, and the sugar shacks are widespread throughout the state.  Fortunately for me, the Maine Maple Producers Association put together an interactive map, so it was easy to choose which sugar houses to visit.  Three are within 10 miles of my home.

I started making a few calls to the heimish syrup producers (though truthfully, I doubt there is any sugar producer in Maine who has heard of the word “heimish”). It turns out that very few people use lard as an anti-foaming agent.  One fellow uses butter, but he couldn’t tell me which brand of butter.  Another guy told me he uses only organic butter, but he didn’t know for sure if it was free of additives.  The last place I contacted was most interesting, though until I get there and try it for myself, I can’t tell you if it is the most tasty.

Balsam Ridge started, as most of these places do, as a hobby for its husband-and-wife team.  They started by tapping only a few trees, and boiling whatever they got in a large metal pot in their wood shed, producing enough for one or two jugs of syrup for themselves.  They started giving away small vials to their friends, whose enthusiasm led them to increase production.  They bought a big wood-fired evaporator and started cranking out enough syrup so that they could sell a few jugs to passersby.  The downside was that the larger evaporator took hours and hours to boil the sap, and it’s not like you can walk away from a giant vat of boiling syrup. The wood fire needed constant tending and stoking.  The syrup had to be constantly supervised so that it wouldn’t boil over, and a small amount of fat was added to prevent this – – until it got to just the right point (7 degrees above the boiling point of water) and the right thickness and consistency.   It then needed to be immediately filtered and bottled in sterilized containers.  Many nights they would finish past midnight and they were just plain exhausted.

So a couple of years ago, they bought a giant evaporator that is oil-fired, and can boil 50 gallons of sap an hour.  No more midnight sap boils for them!  Because the 2′ x 8′ evaporator is so large, and completely enclosed,  there is little fear of the sap boiling over; they no longer add any fat or anti-foaming agent to the syrup.  So while they don’t have kosher certification, this is one example of a syrup product that is not only kosher, but pareve and truly pure syrup.  But how does all this automation and modernization affect the taste?  Hopefully your Faithful Reporter will let you know after Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!

P.S. I also submitted a query to the OU’s “Webbe Rebbe” online, and got a reply from Rabbi Gold, who I spoke with on the phone to discuss syrup production. He says there are some (including the Nodah BYehuda) that allow for leniency in regards to batul ba’shishim l’hatchila, so it could be that all syrups, even those with questionable fats, could be considered not only kosher, but maybe even pareve.  However, the OU’s official policy is to not give a hechsher on those using the 1/60th l’hatchila leniency.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sam rothman on March 30, 2014 at 2:02 am

    Do you live in Maine year round? Where do you daven?

    Reply

    • To my knowledge the only regular Shabbat minyanim are in Portland and Bangor. Thete is also an Orthodox shul that is open and operational every Shabbat throughout the year in Old Orchard Beach but they usually do not get a minyan except occasionally in the summertime. That said we welcome guests who would enjoy spending Shabbat with us in Maine who are okay with the lack of minyan.

      We are not there fulltime. We spend
      Jewish holidays and commemorate yahrzeits in a more established Jewish community than our neck of the woods can offer, plus we like to spend lots of family time with the grandkids and our children, none of whom live in Maine.

      Reply

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