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Grading syrup old method vs. new method

Dave Klish

A few years ago the maple industry adopted a new grading system. Before that, thru the maple producing world there were several grading standards, states and provinces in Canada each had their own grading system. This confused the consumers, if someone bought a particular grade they really liked, and then bought syrup from another area the names and standards of the grades might be quite different.

With the new grading system this has all changed, now syrup made in one area is graded the same as any other location that makes maple syrup. Along with this change came some new technology. The old method of grading (gauging what color the syrup is in) was done primarily using “temporary grading kits”. These kits were manufactured every year and had an expiration date, generally under 2 years. The reason was that the samples in the kit darkened with age. Those samples were not even maple syrup, but rather glycerine with some burnt sugar to add the exact amount of color to define that grade. Each grade bottle in the sample kit was the darkest a maple syrup sample could be to be graded with the name associated with that color. Soon after the new grading system was introduced, with all grades based on the percentage of light transmission for grading the color (several other points I will cover later) a company invented a test instrument to read the % of light passing thru a sample and this instrament was within price reach of even small producers. It utilizes a small “cuvette” made of glass into which the maple syrup being graded is put, with a full line on the cuvette. Not filling it exactly to the line, not slightly under or over will result in an erronius reading. Once filled the test instrament is turned on. A push of a button turns it on and another push (there is only one button) shows on the the screen that the reference sample should be inserted. This sample is a cuvette filled only with 100% glycerine, supplied with the test kit. That cuvette is inserted, the cover is closed and the button is pushed again. In 3-4 seconds the screen shows 100%, indicating 100% of the light from an internal bulb has passed thru the glycerine. This test is done with every test, because the amount of light from the bulb will vary as the battery in the instrament slowly loses strength. The instrament screen will also indicate if a new battery is needed. After the glycerine sample gives a 100% reading, the instrament is opened, that cuvette is removed and a cuvette containing the sample of syrup being graded is inserted. The button is pushed again and 3-4 seconds later the screen displays the percentage of light that passed through that sample of pure maple syrup. From there it is simple. A sample passing 100-75% of the light is golden color, delicate taste, 74-50% is Amber color, rich taste, 49-25% is Dark color, Robust taste and less than 25% is very dark color, strong taste.

Then comes the other requirements for that batch of syrup to be graded according the those stated above. One test is that the taste must fall within the norm for that grade of syrup, another is that there must not be any off aftertaste. Another point is that the syrup must be clear (filtered so it sparkles). If all of these are met, that batch of syrup can be labeled at the grade indicated by the % of light transmission. If a sample fails any one of those tests it must be sold as process grade, which can not be sold the the end consumer, but rather to bulk buyers who have the ability to process the syrup for other uses, such as cereal coating, flavoring in various products and other uses too. The only exception is if a sample is not crystal clear, it can be heated and filtered again. In that case it needs to be tested again, because every time syrup is re-heated it gets darker.

Hopefully this helps more than confuses those who read this post. I find the biggest advantage is the simplicity of getting the color of the syrup for grading. Before, using the temporary grade kits we had to fill a specific sample bottle then hold that up to bright natural light in a test tray to compare it with th official samples in the kit. The test tray had a window cut out of the sides of the wooden tray to allow the natural light to pass thru. Then it was sometimes a guessing game if the color of the syrup was lighter, the same as or slightly darker than the official grade bottle. Days with less than bright natural light (and we have a lot of them in maple season) also made reading the grades more difficult. This new method removes that.

With all of those factors, there is one other factor that is not related to the grade of the syrup. that is “where was the syrup made”? The soils and weather patterns where the trees are makes a big difference, much like fine wine, pure maple syrup from different areas has a different taste, even though it is the same grade. That is where we are very lucky and also why as I buy maple sap from other producers to supplement my sap needs, I do not buy it from those who are not close to my location. My area “according to reports from my repeat customers” seems to taste better. Years ago I ran out of syrup and had to refer my customers to a couple of other producers who were 15-20 miles from me, all of those customers returned to me in the following years, saying the other syrup, while good, was just not the same. They preferred my syrup. We are blessed indeed!

While we are a small producer, we still serve a large area. We have customers who order from all over the United States and while I don’t ship overseas, I have gotten reports of several of my customers who have shipped it to friends and business associates in other countries. We sell a lot of our syrup locally, from the sugarhouse and from our 1 retail outlet, plus a great demand on our website for our syrup to be shipped to customers and to their relatives. Business is good.

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Packed more syrup

Dave Klish

Wednesday and Thursday we packed more syrup. I had 1 barrel labeled Golden but after heating and filtering it again, it had gotten darker and had to be labeled as Amber, Rich taste. Each time syrup is heated again, even though it is not boiled, it gets darker and in the process the maple taste gets more pronounced.

While I have very little call for Golden syrup, I still like to have a little on hand in case someone wants to order it, but I will not have any more golden syrup until at least the 2020 season. Even then, sometimes I get very little golden, making much more Amber and Dark. That trend may be more evident in the future because of what I boil in compared to the number of taps I have. As I’m getting older I find the steep hills on my leased trees are getting to be too much, and thus I’m not going to tap that lease this next year.

The landowner however says he is planning to tap and collect the sap from there, starting in 2021 but he will not be boiling. I offered to boil the sap on shares, he gets a % of the syrup and I keep the rest. The % he gets will depend on the sap sugar % when he delivers it. The higher the sugar, the higher the percentage of the syrup made he gets back, or the more I pay him for the sap.

In the 2020 season I might possibly not get any Golden syrup. The biggest reason is because I still have an evaporator big enough to process the sap from about 1500-2000 taps but I will only have about 450 taps on it, plus I usually get sap from 1 or 2 other producers to boil on shares. If the landowner of the lease I’m not gong to work does start collecting and bringing that sap to me, I will likely be able to make some golden.

The biggest factor on what grade of syrup is made is how long any particular drop of syrup spends in the evaporator and a big evaporator for the quantity of sap to boil means the evaporator is boiled fewer hours to use up the sap and then it sets in the pan until the next day, sometimes more, before it is boiled again. When an evaporator can be run hard and long is when the most light colored syrup is made.

For me however this is not usually an issue, by far my highest demand is for Dark syrup, followed by a much lower call for Amber (and as stated above, an even lower call for Golden)

2013 was the last year I had my largest number of taps. That year I had 1320 taps plus I had 4 other producers who brought sap for me to boil on shares. This past season I only had 725 taps and only one other producer brought sap (the others had built a sugarhouse and gotten an evaporator of their own). The producer who brought sap now boils on his own small evaporator and only brings sap when he has too much to boil on his own evaporator.

In 2015 I also bought outright sap twice from an Amish producer who had to stop processing before the season was over because of other commitments. I bought 820 gal 2 times near the end of the season (820 is all I can haul in one load)

If I wasn’t planning to be getting sap after one more year from the landowner of my old lease I would sell my evaporator and buy a smaller one.

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Good temperature to bottle

Dave Klish

The outside temperatures have cooled so it is much more pleasant to pack more syrup. In the hot weather it gets extremely hot packing more syrup in the sugarhouse (no air conditioner). This week we have at least a few days cool enough to get more syrup put up. When boiling syrup we only pack enough in jugs to meet our sales needs for 4-5 months out and the rest gets put in stainless steel barrels (SS BBLS), then in May we top the inventory off so we don’t need to do much additional packing in the heat of summer. This is because, when we take a SS BBL we pump the entire barrel of syrup into a finisher (a 2′ x 6′) pan with propane tube burners to heat it up to 205-210F, then we filter it and pump it to the bottler. In the bottler (it is water jacketed) the electric heating element brings the syrup back up to 185-187F by heating the water surrounding the syrup and holds it there while we dispense the syrup into the jugs and bottles we need for retail sales. This work is far more enjoyable when the outdoor temperatures are under 70 or 75 max than when it is hotter out.

This week we are expecting temps of under 70 on 3 of the days, and some rain too, making it a good time to work in the sugarhouse.

Aside from maple work, my wife Joan, and I are busy harvesting some of the fruit we grow, for us, family and many of our friends and neighbors. We are still picking straw berries (day neutral), and lots of Asian pears. We recently picked the last of our peaches, we had a great year for many of the fruits we grow. With 3 varieties of peaches we harvested them from the first week in August and finally finished picking the last variety last week. Asian pears spread out longer than that. I’m not sure how many varieties we have but the earliest was picked in early September and out latest will be sometime in November.

About our peaches, I’m sure glad Joan refused to believe we could not grow peaches in Oneida, NY (according to our local Co-operative Extension fruit expert) back in the 1980’s. We have had bumper crops many years since. The biggest issue is that the trees only survive about 8-10 years, as they get that old, even though I brace and prop up the main branches and thin the fruit heavily, the weight of the remaining fruit eventually breaks the limb off, one by one until the tree dies. Thus we plant another tree or more each year. In our front and back yard we have 19 fruit trees, plus 2 fig bushes. The first fig finally got harvested yesterday, and my wife came into the house saying she was sorry. When I asked her what she was sorry about, she said she picked a fig and it was in her mouth so fast she had eaten it all without saving half for me. That’s OK, another looks like it will be ready tomorrow, for me (on my birthday). We have likely about 80-100 more coming, maybe more, as long as they have time to ripen before a hard frost. Figs are new to us, the one Joan ate yesterday was our first ever. It looks like figs start as the bush grows, rather than all of the fruit starting about the same time. Looking at the bush (planted in 2018) there are figs in all stages of development, from almost ready to harvest, and some are still just starting to show. No way we will get all of them, will just get the earlier ones to have gotten started. We have no frost forecast yet, but in the past our earlier frosts have been in the 1st and second week in September, out latest first frosts have been in December. However usually a frost comes around the full moon in October, from there we get warm spells and then more frost, back and forth before winter takes hold.

In our blueberries, we had what looked like it was going to be our best year ever (the bushes were planted in 1982, ’85 and ’87. As harvest started we had more berries on the bushes than ever before but just 3 weeks in we had to close. It seems the extreme heat of the summer over ripened the berries faster than pickers could keep up with them. when we closed the bushes were still heavily loaded but the berries had gone to mush. This is the first year we’ve ever experienced that.

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We bottled more bourbon barrel maple syrup

Dave Klish

Last week we bottled our most recent batch of bourbon barrel aged maple syrup. I just hope I guessed right on quantities to pack in each size. Since I introduced a larger size last year I have not yet gotten a good feel for how many to pack in each size. I found that the larger size was more of a winner than I had envisioned. On the first batch as I bottled 2 sizes, I filled too few of the new larger size (the 375ml), doing about 3x as many in the 200ml size. The 375ml outsold the 200 for online sales to repeat customers, I ran out of the 375.

When I ordered a new shipment of glass I was told the major distributor I buy from would not get more of the 375ml in for about 6 months. I then tried searching the net for other sources. The only one I found was in California. I then tried to order from them, but discovered they would only sell by the whole tractor trailer load. That amount would have ensured I would never run out again, but there was no way I could buy almost 50,000 bottles of just 1 size. Just the first reason being the cost, secondly, I would need to build a new warehouse, the truckload was in a 53′ trailer, loaded to capacity.

I then informed my regular distributor about the deal to see if they would buy it, but they don’t even buy a full trailer load of just 1 size. It seems their loads are full load but comprised of a few sizes. Thus I had to wait.

When my distributor did get the 375ml (12.7 fl oz) back in I ordered enough to last me almost 2 years so I’d be in stock as I needed them. With the popularity of the 375 it seems that 2 year supply (so I thought) will only last me 1 year. I have enough left to pack my next bourbon barrel aging barrel, a 15 gal bbl., which will be ready about early December. Then I will be ordering a new shipment of glass to pack a batch to be ready (Sept 2020) about a year from now.

For the local sales of bourbon barrel aged maple syrup, while sales are strong, the balance of sales are opposite how the online sales are. Locally I sell 3 or 4 of the 200ml for each 375ml sold, online the best I can determine with just 1 year of offering the larger size, I sell about 4 large for every 3 of the small size (and that includes 2 customers who bought a full case (24 bottles) of the small size and so for no body has ordered a full case of the large size (12 bottles). My guess is that some might as Christmas orders start coming in.

On other matters I’ve decided not to build the addition this year that I had planned earlier, the weather was just way too hot for me. I don’t do well in temperatures above about 75F and we had way too many days in the 80’s to high 90’s. In my younger days I used to work thru that even though I didn’t like it, I find I can no longer do that.

For the 2020 season, I will be doing fewer taps too. Last year I tapped both around my sugarhouse (about 350 taps) and also at my last remaining lease (I only got 475 of the possible 7-800 tapped in 2019) . For 2020 I will expand the taps at my sugarhouse, adding between 50-100 more taps, all on vacuum. The advantage is that all taps will flow right to the sugarhouse, on the lease I’m dropping I had to haul sap from 7 miles away and I also had to fuel the vacuum pump 2x a day. Another thing is that my land is far easier to walk, being fairly level, the lease had about 2/3 of the taps on slopes that were so steep I often had to hang onto trees to pull myself up, and in snow shoes that was a super hard climb.

The land owner at the lease is about 10 years younger than I am and he plans to retire in Dec. 2020. He then plans to tap his own trees. I told him I would buy his sap to process, either outright or on shares. Either buy the sap or process the sap and I keep a percentage and he gets the rest of the finished syrup. I guess time will tell on that end. In the meantime I had a very good year in 2019 and might have enough syrup in barrels to fill my sales thru the 2020 season with just my taps producing for my syrup supply in 2020. If I do think I’ll need more the producer I sold another lease to makes excellent syrup and I can buy full barrels to add to my supply. He makes far more than he sells retail and has to sell a large amount to the big packers in Vermont and New Hampshire.

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Bottling the next batch of bourbon barrel aged maple syrup

Dave Klish

Today I will be bottling the next batch of bourbon barrel aged maple syrup. Yesterday I pumped it from the bourbon barrel, where it had been for over 6 months, into the finisher. I then heated it and left it to set to boil off any alcohol that might be in it. This morning I’ll heat it again, to about 205-210, then filter it and pump it into the bottler. Then we bottle it into glass flasks. I just need to guess how many of each size to bottle because the next batch will not be ready until early December.

I’m glad the high heat weather has moved out. I’m guessing we will get some warm temperatures again this fall, but I really like waking up to high 40’s and low 50’s.

I guess it’s time to get going, my brother in law is helping today and I prefer I get there before he does. We should be finished before lunchtime.