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Maple sugar season straddles six weeks in sugaring states when winter turns to spring. The business supplies ample food for thought.
Harvest traditions evoke homey scenes: the crusty New Englander ... rock-ribbed, spare, silent ... tending his maple woods by one-horse sled. The sap is gathered by the pailful and hauled in vats to the sugar house, where steam rises from the maple sap boiling pans.
Practiced eyes keep watch as the water boils off to turn some 40 gallons of sap into one gallon of the golden brown syrup. Fresh sap is up to 98% water.
To sell to wider markets, the business has a few new twists.
What has grown most is the extent of maple trade, not the annual production. The steps in producing and processing sap are the same as before. And the same as were learned from the Indians ages before that.
Markets now are more diverse, which requires more knowledge and specification of the steps. Technology has evolved, but not the scale of technology.
Collection methods have progressed from catching drips in a pail to pulling sap with high-vacuum to tanks through networks of plastic tubing. More sap is collected with less tending.
Water removal designs have added reverse osmosis and heat recovery schemes. Water is removed using less fuel.
The new collection systems helped Canada’s Quebec Province cope with its deeper snows than New England’s and rise to be the supplier of 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup. Vermont, the largest U.S. producer, makes 7 percent of the world’s supply.
More regulation has been a boost for the maple trade. Regulation is not the fight you may guess. Strict practices build the value of the product.
First, what are the qualities that make pure maple syrup so appealing? The aim is to retain and package these features to maximize the continuing value of the maple trade.
Maple syrup has two top attractions: its distinctive flavor and translucent amber brown color.
The flavor of pure maple syrup comes from a wide variety of volatile organic compounds that nature puts in maple sap. Their names are chemicals, such as vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde), hydroxybutanone and propionaldehyde.
All things on Earth are in essence chemicals. Snow, maple trees (their cellulose and sap) ... pure maple syrup – all begin with the ties that bind atoms together in exact patterns.
The State of Vermont has 30 pages of regulations designed to maintain the reputation of the words “Vermont Maple Syrup.” The value of “Vermont” on the label is built by trusty practices and lost by faulty ones.
The rigor that is necessary is evident in the titles of rules:
● definitions of terms
● enforcement; inspectors
● license required
● color and density standards
● certified gauges
● adulteration; filtration
● containers and equipment
● penalties (fines of not more than $5,000 or jail for not more than one year, or both).
The color of maple syrup is a story in itself. Syrup from the first sap collected each year has the lightest amber color and the subtlest flavor.
The sap collected in mid-season yields Grade A medium amber syrup and, slightly later, Grade A dark amber, each with a progressively stronger taste.
Sap late in the season, before the trees bud out, yields Grade B dark amber, the strongest in flavor. The start of budding adds an unwelcome buddy taste to products and ends the sugar season. Nature does the chemistry.
Which grade is best depends on the intended use and personal taste.
Maple grades now correspond to instrument readings of % light transmission.
Canada’s maple business works much the same way, with one major difference. Available supplies are managed with a quota system coupled with a maple syrup reserve.
The supplies each spring depend on the daily temperature cycles from day to night and when the trees bud. In good years, Canada puts syrup in reserve to sell in lean years.
The program maintains higher prices in times of plenty and a reliable supply when production is low.
Technical, regulatory and bureaucratic elements help the maple business meet the needs of world commerce. The recipe developed and the product made work well.
John Bartlit, New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water