From Bitter Cold, a Sweet Reward

Farmers and producers wish, hope and pray for optimal growing conditions, from the soil to the weather, for a good yield and better flavor. When it comes to Ohio maple syrup, the kind of weather producers hope for, however, is not the kind others look forward to but must endure to savor the goodness poured over a thick stack of pancakes.

“In October, we want good cold weather followed by two or three months of freezing temperatures and a decent amount of snow pack on the ground,” said Bob Welder, a Farm Bureau member who runs Creekside Maple in Geauga County. “That means moisture which produces more sap.”

Welder is among Ohio’s 900 maple syrup producers who in total create about 100,000 gallons of syrup in a typical maple-sugaring season. On his 10 acres, Welder taps 1,600 maples, which in recent years has produced enough sap for 450 gallons of finished syrup. Every drop helps put the state among the top five maple producing states in the country.

“It’s not rocket science,” he admits of the process he’s followed for more than 40 years. “We take the sap, boil off the excess water and get the sugar content where it needs to be.” While the method is straightforward, everything leading up to it is labor intensive and a typical sugaring season, from tapping to boiling and bottling, will command his attention for six to eight weeks beginning in late February.

The sap at Creekside Maple is collected using a combination of methods but the majority is collected the old-fashioned way, in buckets that must be filled and carted back to the sugar shack. Twenty-five percent of the trees are hooked up to a tubing system, a network of lines tapped into the trees. Sap is drawn with the aid of a vacuum.

As the sap arrives, Welder uses a reverse osmosis process designed specifically for the maple sugaring industry to remove water from the raw sap before it hits the gas-fueled evaporator. “About 75 percent of the water can be removed,” he said. “So even before it begins to boil, the sugar content will be higher.” It’s a more efficient process for producing syrup, with less boiling in a shorter amount of time, “and the difference between going to bed at 10 p.m. instead of 3 a.m. during sugaring season,” said Welder. Finished maple syrup has a sugar content of 66 percent, which he dubs the “sweet spot” for near perfect syrup. “Thin syrup (containing too much water) has a tendency to spoil,” he said, “and syrup that has too much sugar in it will crystalize.”

Sugar and black hard maple species produce the highest volume of sap and the sweetest while common silver and red maples (soft maple species) yield less sap with a lower sugar content. In producer’s terms, it will take more sap to make syrup. “Thirty gallons of sap from a sugar maple will create a gallon of syrup but it will take about 50 gallons of sap from a red maple to make the same amount,” Welder said. The maple stand at Creekside reflects a combination of both types of maples and Welder blends the two saps, which in his opinion produces a buttery-flavored, silkier syrup.

Once the trees begin to bud and the promise of spring looks bright, the sap flow decreases and maple season winds down. Welder takes a short but well-earned break until May. “Then we get into the woods and thin out non-maple species to open up the canopy,” he said. “That gives the sugar maples an opportunity to expand and fill the voids.” Come the following January everything needs to be in working order, so as winter approaches he’ll make sure the lines are clean and leak-free and the evaporator is ready to fire up for the next season where the reward is always sweet.

Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.

Shades of Sweetness

By law, finished maple syrup is graded by color, not taste, but the hue tells a lot about the flavor you’re about to pour on your waffles or pancakes. Early season maple syrup is labeled Grade A, white amber in color with a delicate flavor profile. By mid-season the temperature warms and the resulting syrup is a medium amber color, still Grade A, with a more robust maple flavor and what many prefer as table syrup. The final flourish of Grade A syrup is dark amber and has a more pronounced flavor and is preferred by cooks who use maple syrup in their baking and cooking.

Sweet — and good for you, too!

Maple syrup contains as much calcium as milk and is an excellent source of potassium. It’s fat free, cholesterol free, low in sodium, contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and is the lowest in calories of all the natural sweeteners.

Creekside Maple
16767 Swine Creek Road Middlefield, Ohio

Source: Ohio Maple Producers Association

More information on Geauga County maple syrup events, programs, pancake breakfasts and Creekside Maple’s 2013 spring open house. Events throughout the state of Ohio.