Posts Tagged ‘evaporator’

Maple Syrup Season

McAllister's Sugar Shack and Farm Stand, Waterford, Maine

McAllister’s Sugar Shack and Farm Stand, Waterford, Maine

Because Maine’s famous Maple Syrup Sunday falls the day before Pesach this year, I will already be back in my hometown.  On Maple Syrup Sunday, sugar shacks throughout Maine open their doors to the public for tours of their farms and syrup-making operations.  Besides free tastings (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried boiling maple syrup ladled on snow), they often have pancake breakfasts (not kosher) whose proceeds go towards local charities.

But the sugaring season started about a week ago, and it’s already possible to buy freshly made syrup from sugar shacks and farm stands, albeit without the bells and whistles associated with Maple Syrup Sunday.   Yesterday  was such a beautiful sunny day, I decided to visit 3 different sugar shacks and purchase syrup from each, since in any case the sugaring season is short and ideal weather conditions (cold nights and warm days) will not last forever!

You may be wondering, “Why go to more than one sugar shack?  Doesn’t all maple syrup taste the same?” but like wine, maple syrup varies in taste, quality and grade based on the location of the trees, weather, and technique.  Early in the season, the sap is lighter in color, with a more delicate, mild flavor (“Grade A Fancy: Light Amber).  A couple of weeks later, the sap’s color changes from light to medium amber, and is more viscous (Grade A: Medium Amber).  Towards the end of the season (2 – 6 weeks long, depending on weather conditions), the syrup is Grade B: Dark Amber with richer, more flavorful body – – a bit too strong for pancakes but suitable for use in baking.  Once the days warm up sufficiently for buds to appear on the maple trees, the season comes to an abrupt halt, as the formation of buds alters the quality of the sap dramatically.  Not only is the flow of sap greatly reduced, but it becomes bitter instead of sweet.

When I went to McAllister’s sugar shack in Waterford ME, I was pleasantly surprised by how light-colored the syrup was.  But unfortunately the price was prohibitive  – – $80 a gallon! – – so I settled for a quart for $20.  The proprietors – – like most sugar shacks, a family business and extension of their farm – – had been feeding the wood-fired stove and tending the evaporator for hours.  Steam rose in great billowy clouds to the top of the pine board interior of their large cabin-sized shack, perfuming the air with the scent of sweet maple.

Steam rises to the ceiling  from the evaporator in Mcallister's Sugar Shack

Steam rises to the ceiling from the evaporator in McAllister’s Sugar Shack (click to enlarge)

One of the men adds logs and stokes the fire that heats and boils the sap in the evaporator, eventually, turning it into syrup.

One of the men adds logs and stokes the fire that heats and boils the sap in the evaporator, eventually turning it into syrup. (click to enlarge)

The other two shacks I visited were not nearly as appealing.  One fellow’s trees had already budded, and his syrup was thick and dark as molasses.  It was fine for use in baking, but not so tasty for use on pancakes.  The other was producing the medium amber syrup, which is the most common grade available, but it could not compare to the syrup from McAllister’s shack.

When I returned from my syrup shopping excursion, my husband and I went on a hike through the woods on a snowmobile trail.  Although we heard several snowmobiles in the distance (they are really just glorified motorcycles on skis), none came our way.  The snow is melting quickly now with only about 4 slushy inches left on the ground – – we were glad we had carried our hiking poles to keep from slipping and sliding.  Although there are still ice fisherman out on the lakes, I keep wondering when I am going to hear about the inevitable shack that plunges into the water because its owner waited a little too long before spring melt to remove it.  Spring mud season is coming!  My Muck Boots stand at attention by the front door.

Muck Boots are de rigueur in Maine during mud season.  They are worn by farmers, woodsmen, and homemakers alike.  They are made of heavy rubber and neoprene and are completely waterproof (and are quite comfortable).  They are worth every penny - - you just hose them off when they get covered in mud and they are as good as new.

Muck Boots are de rigueur in Maine during mud season. They are worn by farmers, woodsmen, and homemakers alike. They are made of heavy rubber and neoprene and are completely waterproof (and are quite comfortable). They are worth every penny – – you just hose them off when they get covered in mud and they are as good as new. They also keep your feet nice and warm in cold weather.  They can take all kinds of abuse and seem to last forever.

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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

Liquid Gold (part 1)

A view of snow-capped Mt. Washington on the way from our house to a sugar shack (click to enlarge)

Our original plan had been to visit 3 different sugar shacks (there are over a hundred sugar houses open to the public throughout the big state of Maine on Maple Syrup Sunday, annually held the fourth Sunday of March), but Google maps and our GPS did not take into consideration that many dirt roads in Maine are closed in winter.  So after driving about 15 miles on a dirt road, only to find that we should have approached our destination from the other side of the mountain because the end of the road from our direction had not been plowed all winter and was therefore completely inaccessible, we limited our itinerary to two places, Thunder Hill Farm in Waterford and Balsam Woods Farm in Raymond.

The cold was biting, yet the sun shone and the skies were clear – perfect for sap-tapping.

The sugar shack at Thunder Hill. The yellow tarp was added out of consideration for the many expected visitors, offering a minimum amount of protection against the bitterly cold, windy day. (click to enlarge)

Even though Thunder Hill is a smaller operation and off the beaten track, the promise of their maple syrup attracted quite a few visitors on Maple Syrup Sunday.. Everyone is dressed for the so-called “Spring” weather!

I was happy we chose Thunder Hill Farm.  Although they have taps on 350 Sugar Maple trees, their equipment is fairly old-timey and their output is very small – a real family operation done more for love than profit.  The very gracious Bells, a husband-and-wife team with two strapping sons, derive most of their income from raising Scottish Highland Beef cattle.  They had parked two of their steers (who were not the Highland Beef breed) near the sugar shack so they could revel in the visitors’ pats and attention  (they looked like oxen to me, but Mr. Bell politely informed me that “ox” refers to a steer that is over 4 years of age.  Live and learn).

It’s a good things cattle are stupid creatures, because in addition to jugs of maple syrup, Mrs. Bell was offering samples of her maple-syrup cured beef brisket simmering in a crockpot nearby. It smelled heavenly, but it hinted at the fact that these two might not be long for this world . . .

The Bell sons ran the sugar operation.  One brother would get up at 6 a.m. to start the day out in the woods, checking and maintaining the taps, and as the day warmed up and the sap began to flow, he’d collect that by pouring the sap into a large sealed vat mounted on the back of his pickup truck.  He’d then drive the truck  to the shack, where brother #2, who started during the afternoon shift, would pour the sap into the evaporator, stoking the wood-powered contraption to boiling temperatures and ensuring it would stay at even temperatures for the many hours needed to turn the sap into syrup and bottling it – usually til 2 a.m.  The sap had started running two weeks ago, and they had been at it ever since, already going through 5 cords of wood so far to keep that fire burning and the sap boiling.  (To give you an idea of how much 5 cords of wood is:  if we use only wood to heat our entire home through the whole 4 1/2 months of winter, we will use a total of 3 cords of wood.)  Although their evaporator is a pretty impressive piece of equipment, it’s not  the most efficient one made.  Of the 350 – 400 gallons of sap they’ll get from their trees (it varies year to year depending on weather conditions), they’ll only yield approximately 35 gallons of syrup.

This exhibit at Thunder Hill shows how the Bells tap a maple for its sap, where it collects in the blue jug below.

They pour the many blue jugs full of sap into this large container mounted on the back of their pickup truck, and drive it to the sugar house

Stoking the firebox that feeds the stainless steel evaporator.

Steam and condensation rise above the evaporator that holds the boiling syrup.  Note that there are three channels.  The first channel is where the sap is poured; it is clear.  The second channel is for sap that has boiled a little longer; it is a very light yellow.  The third channel’s sap is at the final stage of boiling, and the sap inside is an amber color.

Close-up of the evaporation tank

I asked the son if he uses butter to prevent foaming and over-boiling.  “Nope,” he replied.  “For one thing, I don’t overload the evaporator, so there is plenty of room for the sap to boil.  For another, I babysit it all night, so it never boils over or foams up enough for me to need to add anything extra.”  Their syrup is 100% pure maple syrup:  kosher and pareve!  After the sap turns to syrup, it is run through a filter, and bottled immediately thereafter.  The Bells don’t bother to grade their syrup, because their output is so small and anyway, “It’s top quality, so we’re sure it’s grade A.”  In larger operations, syrup is graded (A or B, with A being the clearest and with highest sugar content) as well as graded for color (light amber is milder; dark amber is a more intense flavor.  The intensity of color usually increases as the season progresses).

Sugar Maple sap is clear, thin liquid, and looks and tastes like nothing more than, surprisingly, water.  It’s truly miraculous to think that this thin runny stuff turns into liquid gold, not to mention how the heck someone (Native American Indians?) figured out that by cooking it for hours and hours, such a tasty treat would result.

Every day Son #1 checks the taps not only for output of flow, but for color.  The minute the color of the sap at the tree site changes from clear to a light yellow or amber, sugaring season is officially over.  The cause of the change is warmer night temperatures.  Once the outside temperatures start to warm up, maple buds form on the tree branches.  Not only does the flow decrease dramatically or cease altogether, the sap that runs is bitter and useless for sugar production.  A good season can last 6 weeks.  Last year’s season was especially bad – only 2 to 3 weeks.  This year, despite complaints that it’s been a bitterly cold spring, it’s been great for the maple trees, and the season  will be at least 8 weeks long, with a  bumper crop of running sap.  Even if a cold snap reappears after a warm spell, once those buds have formed, it’s too late to resume tapping.

We made our way out of the cozy, steamy sugar house to the barn cellar, where Mrs. Bell was selling Thunder Hill maple syrup in a variety of sizes.  It’s not cheap – a half-gallon is $30 – but after we calculated the man-hours involved cutting, hauling and stacking the wood, the cost of the evaporator and other supplies, and the extreme care taken in syrup production, we couldn’t figure out how the Bells could do anything more than break even.  Clearly for Thunder Ranch, maple sugaring was a labor of love and a cherished family tradition that they were generous in sharing with others.

Some of the different sizes of maple syrup bottled at Thunder Hill Farm.

Just as I was leaving, Mrs. Bell tried to entice me with a sample of her maple creme.  I asked her how it was made and with what ingredients.  “Just maple syrup,” she said, sharing the recipe.  “You take maple syrup and heat it to 239 degrees.  Then you must cool it down very quickly – – we use snow.  Then you whip it in a mixer, and it turns to a creamy consistency.”

Because their operation is so small, Mrs. Bell doesn’t have a special whipper for her maple creme.  “I just use the paddles on my kitchen mixer.”  Okay, so her maple creme wasn’t kosher.  But it meant that at a larger sugar house where no anti-foaming additive is used, maple creme could theoretically be made on a dedicated machine and therefore kosher and pareve.

We thanked the Bells for their patience in explaining everything maple, and opening their sugar shack on Maple Sunday.  We were on our way, 1/2 gallon of mellow Thunder Hill syrup in hand, to Balsam Ridge Farm for a taste-test comparison, and to learn even more about maple sugar production, this time on a much larger scale!