Liquid Gold (part 2)

It’s Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!

Quebec, Canada is the world’s largest producer (80%) of maple syrup, followed by (in order) Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.  For most Maine farms, maple syrup production is a sideline, not a mainstay.  Balsam Ridge Farm’s main income is derived from its Xmas tree farm.

Evergreen seedlings. This is one small section of Balsam Ridge’s tree farm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Balsam Ridge’s venture into maple syrup production started out as a hobby, and kept expanding  to the medium-scale operation it is today.

Today Balsam Ridge taps 572 trees.  Although it still requires them to check the tap lines daily, their collection method is quite a bit more efficient than at Thunder Hill.  After the tap is inserted into the tree, it’s connected to gravity-fed, vacuum-sealed  PVC tubing which connects to a larger pipeline that snakes through the woods, down the hill into a pump, which in turn feeds it through more pipework right into the sugar house. There are two different tap lines serving two different areas of their woods; each tapline is about 1000′ long!   The Alaska pipeline might have “black gold” but Balsam Ridge’s pipeline contains “liquid gold” – many gallons of maple sap, collected drip by drip.  The owner of Balsam Ridge, Dewey Lloy, took us into his woods to demonstrate how taps are drilled,  inserted and connected to the pipeline.

Dewey Lloy, owner of Balsam Ridge, is equipped with all the tools he needs to tap maple sap: drill, hammer, spigot, pvc tubing, and a special tool to cut, separate and hold the tubing.

Owner Dewey Lloy, grasping a new spigot and tubing, shows how he will join it to the existing tubing network

Using a special tool, he cuts an opening into the tubing network to allow insertion of new tubing from a new tap. The tool also joins, clamps and seals the new tubing in place.

Now that the new tubing is secured to a main line, he can insert the tap

Drilling the new tap line, Mr. Lloy is careful to avoid areas of the tree that were tapped in years past.

Gently hammering the tap into the drilled hole

Now the new tap is connected to the tap line and will join the extensive tubing network to a central collection area

Note the various taps and tubing on multiple trees snaking their way through the woods to a central collection area. The taps and tubes will be removed when the 3-to-8-week sugaring season is over. (click to enlarge)

At the bottom of the hill, the gravity-fed taplines, filled with sap, reach a central collection area. This is then pumped to the main sugar house.

A close-up of the central collection tanks and pump that takes the sap to the sugar house

Another view of the collection center and pump

The sap at the bottom of the hill is pumped to this vat just outside the sugar house.  From here it travels inside the sugar house to the evaporators.

The Balsam Ridge sugar house.  The dense steam is from the sap boiling in the evaporators inside. At the tables on the right, guests enjoy a pancake breakfast with lots of – – you guessed it – – maple syrup. By the end of Maple Syrup Sunday, Balsam Ridge will serve thousands of pancakes to the public. (click to enlarge)

Inside the sugar house, the evaporator does its job, but on a large scale.  To increase efficiency so less sap will be lost to evaporation, they use reverse osmosis. The evaporator itself is oil-fired, which means the firebox doesn’t have to be continually stoked or watched, nor do they have to spend time cutting, hauling and stacking wood over the summer months.

Unfortunately I don’t quite remember if this is the huge holding tank for the evaporator or part of the oil-burning furnace

Lower half of chimney, which allows hot air and steam to escape

the chimney goes up, up, and out through the apex of the roof of the sugar house

part of the evaporator

Looking down into the evaporator, you see the three stages of boiling sap. The rightmost channel is sap that just started boiling, and still retains its clear color; the light amber color in the middle means the sap is a bit more cooked and starting to thicken; the leftmost channel is sap that has boiled the longest and is now a deep color, and just about the right consistency for maple syrup

Once the sap in the final channel reaches the proper temperature, color and consistency, it goes into this small holding tank to cool slightly, and await filtering

The syrup is filtered in small amounts from any small tree matter and to ensure a clean, clear syrup

I forgot what this machine does, but it has something to do with condensation and reverse osmosis!

A small amount of syrup is poured out into a bucket, to see if it is truly ready for grading and bottling

A small sampling of syrup is put into a clear glass bottle for grading for color and quality

Dewey Lloy, the owner of Balsam Ridge Farm, checks the sample bottle from the latest batch by comparing against other already-graded samples to get an idea of how to rate its quality and color. This batch was rated Grade A, Dark Amber.

The final step: bottling the still-warm syrup, sealing, and labeling. Then it’s off to the Balsam Ridge retail shop next door.

The increased efficiency of their evaporator means that they get a 4:1 ratio out of their sap-to-syrup production (for every 4 gallons of sap, they get 1 gallon of syrup.  From their 572 trees, they will get 150 gallons of syrup this year.  By contrast, the smaller and less sophisticated evaporator at Thunder Hill produced 1 gallon of syrup for every 10 gallons of sap, for a total output this season of only 35 gallons of syrup from 350 trees).

The Mr. Lloy said that his evaporator’s efficiency and size is only in the medium range.  On full-fledged sugar farms, the evaporators are much more complex, with many more bells and whistles, and super efficient, boosting production significantly.  The equipment costs are in the many tens of thousands of dollars.

Due to the increased efficiency and steady temperature of Balsam Ridge’s evaporator, they do not need to add fat to the fire to keep it from foaming or boiling over.  Therefore their maple syrup is both kosher and pareve.  They also whip  their maple creme on a dedicated machine, so that too is kosher and pareve.

Besides their retail store which sells their syrup (choice of light, medium or dark amber, all grade A) and maple creme, on Maple Syrup Sunday they make thousands of pancakes throughout the day so people can sample their syrup in a meaningful way (the pancakes are not kosher).

So is maple sugar always kosher?   My conclusion is that unless there is a hechsher (rabbinical certification) on the syrup you buy from a store, the only way to be sure it’s 100 % pure maple syrup with no additives is to visit a sugar house personally to observe production (the FDA does not require listing additional ingredients if the amount added is less than 2%).  In the case of smaller sugar houses, having a mashgiach to certify their product as kosher as a way of increasing marketability isn’t really practical, since their supply is in any case so limited and is usually sold out within days, and is barely profitable as it is.  Because production methods vary from sugar shack to sugar shack, unless you buy syrup with a hechsher or rely on the more lenient batul ba’shishim l’hatchila precept that allows for the addition of a small amount of additive, the only way to assure that syrup is 100% kosher and pareve is to personally visit a sugar shack on Maine Syrup Sunday on the fourth weekend of March.

I hope to see you next year!

(If anyone wants me to supervise, check out my “Bait Mooser” hechsher!)

The Moose-K

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by miriam f on May 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I just read this post today! thanx for the tour and descriptions of the complexities that go into the syrup that we use in our house. (super-incredible, G, I commend you.) I will look for the Moose-K! m.

    Reply

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