Posts Tagged ‘maple syrup’

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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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!

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.