Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Making Maple Syrup

I'm only going to write briefly about running since I have had some form of the stomach flu for the last month and I'm not overly happy with my training.  Visions of posting a few 30+K training runs before the OUTRace season opens is falling by the wayside.  I'm not even sure where a wayside is, but you are likely to find my long training runs over there.

Making maple syrup is very simple.  Find a maple tree, take some of the sap during the Spring, boil it down and voila!  Maple syrup.  Now that you are an expert on maple syrup production, there are a few things you should know, in order to make the experience somewhat more pleasant.  In fact, why don't I touch on a few topics that will round out your expertise.  This will come in handy if you are obtuse enough to actually believe what I have written above...

Weather and mathematics both play a prominent role in maple syrup production.  As an example I recently struggled with, if you have a 1,000 litre plastic tote with 600 litres of sap and the temperature will drop from +7  at 16:00 to -15 at 06:00 the next morning, how thick will the ice be on top of the sap?  I'll give you a hint:  There was a strong wind all night...  The obvious answer is that you have to check it at 08:00.  Doing so would have shown the ice could be broken with a stick, but the pumping line was solidly frozen, so the status of the sap in the tote was irrelevant!

Sap Collection


Spile:  A spout that fits into a hole drilled into a (hopefully) maple tree
Tap:  The process of "tapping" a spile with a hammer, into a hole in the maple tree
%#*$@:  An expression used when hitting your thumb instead of the spile
Drop Line:  When using tubing (as opposed to pails), about 2 feet of tubing is formed into an arc that will fill with sap, preventing bacteria from travelling from the mainline to the hole in the tree.
Vacuum:  Using pumps to create negative pressure inside the lines and tubing.  This helps to draw sap over flat terrain and increases the sap flow rate.
Bleed line:  An open main line or tubing at the upper end of lines, to allow air to "bleed" into the line and avoid air locks.  Don't use bleed lines with a vacuum system (duh!).

If your Grand Design is to set up a few taps, then pails or tubing will suffice.  If you hope to tap 100 acres (about 10,000 taps), you're gonna need a bigger boat.  It takes about 2 hours to collect 100 pails, so the math indicates you will need 5 weeks to collect from 10,000 pails.  You will need to collect every day, during a good sap run!  So, tubing is best for more than 50-60 taps.

Collecting from pails is easy and frustrating.  Dump the sap from the pail into a gathering bucket (I used 20 litre pails) then from the bucket into a drum.  If you are in a maple bush, you will need a snowmobile, tractor or horses to haul the drum.  Sinking into 3 feet of snow and dumping 40 litres of sap on your crotch is both refreshing and frustrating at the same time.

Tubing is great in bushes that have a downward slope to the sugar shack.  Note to self:  Don't build the sugar shack at the top of a hill.  You can string about 20 taps on a single tubing line, but then the tubing line should be connected to a mainline.  A mainline is typically a larger diameter black plastic pipe.  You should support mainlines with high tension wire, to avoid undue sagging.  Sagging (aside from the drop lines) is not good for collecting sap, as it causes back pressure and reduces sap volume.  Try to avoid putting mainlines across roads and trails.  This can be done, typically with quick release couplers, but it is still a pain to disconnect a line, drive through and reconnect the line.

It is quite an art in establishing where to place mainlines and how to route tubing amongst the trees.  I obviously suck at it, since I tend to redirect lines almost every year.  I don't use vacuum as I don't have electricity in the bush, so I am forced to use slope for sap delivery.  Unfortunately, I don't have very much slope in some areas of the bush, so I tap "downhill" trees low to the ground and "uphill trees" sometimes as high as I can reach.  If I am standing on 4 feet of snow when tapping high, pulling the spiles at the end of the season can pose a problem!  The ideal mainline slope is 3% or more.  The tricky part of establishing lines is when a section has no slope for 100 feet.  The mainline has to start about 6 feet off the ground and "descend" to 3 feet above ground.

You will need to place a big container (I use 1,000 litre totes) at the business end of each mainline.  Try to have 2 or more mainlines end at the same point.  Hopefully these totes are somewhere near the sugar shack, as you will need to pump from the totes to the sugar shack reservoir.  Ideally, the pumping lines have no sags where sap can pool and freeze.  I have had pumping lines remain frozen, even when mainlines are merrily running.  I think the weather gods are involved in this somehow...

Sap Concentration


Reservoir:  A storage tank, typically raised above the evaporator, so that sap can be gravity fed into the sugar shack and then the evaporator.
RO:  Reverse Osmosis.  They used to use pig bladders for this!  Think of a closed box full of sap with a membrane that is pushed halfway across the box.  Only water makes it through the membrane.  The remaining water and the sugar remains in the unfiltered part of the box.  Bigger outfits can increase the sugar content in the sap from (about) 2% to 18% using RO.  This reduces the boiling time by over 80%.
Flowbox:  Similar to your toilet, a float in the flowbox controls the amount of sap coming from the reservoir.  Since the flowbox is coupled to the evaporator pans, the float drops down when the evaporator level drops and opens a valve that allows sap from the reservoir to flow into the evaporator.
Flues:  Trenches at the bottom of the sap pan.  The flames and hot gases from the firebox travelling between the flues to the chimney.  In essence, flues increase the surface area of the bottom of the sap pan, creating a much faster boil.  Some sap pans have a drop flue (the trenches are "below" the bottom of the pan) and some have a raised flue (the trenches are above the pan bottom).

If you plan to boil down the sap on your BBQ, most of this section is not overly relevant.  You will need about 5 tanks of propane for every litre of syrup that you produce.  I wish I was kidding!  Simply start boiling and add sap as the level in your pot gets low.  Try to boil down under a shelter, or you might be adding a lot of rain to your pot.  NEVER boil down sap inside your house!  Horror stories range from wallpaper falling off the walls to everything (floor, furniture, walls and ceilings) being coated in syrup.  However, you can finish boiling in your house.  This provides a bit more control over the flame and since you will need to boil for weeks at a time, a bit more comfort.

You have maple syrup when it reaches a temperature 4C above the current boiling point of water.  Water boils at 100C at sea level, during calm weather.  Altitude and air pressure greatly affect the boiling point of water, so when your sap is nearing syrup, boil some water and figure out the current boiling point of water, then add 4 degrees.

There are numerous methods of boiling down sap.  You can use a BBQ, soap kettle, cinderblock arch, or an evaporator.  Fuel can be oil, propane, natural gas, steam or wood.  Described below is the process I use, which happens to be a 2' X 6' wood fired drop flue evaporator.  The finishing pan is 2' X 2' and the sap pan is 2' X 4' with eight 5" drop flues.

So, if you have been paying attention, you now have sap in a reservoir situated near the sugar shack, above the level of the evaporator.  There is a 3/4" line with a shut-off, from the reservoir to the flowbox.  There are several different methods of boiling down sap until a batch of syrup is ready.  Some larger producers have automatic draw-off, in which the draw-off spout is automatically controlled to allow a flow of maple syrup.  Recall that I have no electricity, so some of the more esoteric gadgets never made it to my shack.  I rely heavily on a refractometer.

A refractometer is a device that measures the angle (refraction) of light bending through the sap or syrup.  As the sugar content of the concentrate (thicker than sap, not yet syrup) increases, the angle of refraction changes.  Once it reaches 66 Brix (66% sugar), I have maple syrup.  So, after years of experimentation, I have adopted the following process:

Boil down sap in the evaporator until the finishing pan is about 48 Brix.  Manually increase the sap inflow by pressing down on the float in the flowbox.  Once the level in the sap pan reaches the second weld point on the north wall, open the finishing pan valve and fill a 12L bucket with the 48 Brix concentrate.  Cease the manual flow of sap, then stopper the backwash coupler between the sap pan and the finishing pan.  The backwash coupler is a pipe that joins the sap pan to the finishing pan.  It travels outside both pans and reduces backwash (mixing of concentrate from the sap and finishing pans).  Pour the bucket of 48 Brix concentrate back into the finishing pan.  After about 1 hour, the finishing pan will have about 10 litres of syrup.  I pour off about 10L into a metal bucket at 65 Brix.  It is then poured into a maple syrup filter pail.  The filtering and loss of steam during bottling results in 66 Brix maple syrup.


Once syrup is drawn off the evaporator, pour it into a filter pail.  Inside the filter pail is a heavy cloth filter and a paper filter.  The pail also has a draw-off valve used to fill maple syrup containers.  This year I am using 500ml and 1 litre glass mason jars and 1 and 2 litre plastic maple syrup jugs.  I then add the batch number and date.  Once at home, I add our label and the grade.  Our label is "Mad About Maple" as the sugar shack is near a tributary of the Mad river.  We live about 25K from the maple bush and our house is also on the Mad river.

Needless to say, all the equipment must be washed thoroughly.  Sweeping the floor is tricky as air-borne dust heads straight for the evaporator.  I bring the filters home to be hand washed before washing them in the washing machine without detergent.

Making maple syrup is tricky when the weather is factored in.  An ideal sugaring day is when the daytime temperature is about 5C and about -5C at night.  Why?  Sap stays in the roots when it is below freezing.  It takes a sharp frost for the sap to descend from the branches back into the roots, or about -5 degrees.  When the temperature rises from below freezing to about 5 degrees, the sap moves up through the trunk (some leaks out of the tap hole) and into the branches.  If it stays below freezing for 2 - 3 days, there is no sap run.  Also, all the sap in the totes, reservoir and evaporator will freeze.  A frozen reservoir can take a long time to thaw (with no electric heating cables) and a hard frost can break the evaporator, so you need to empty it before a long freeze.  Might as well clean it at the same time.  Cleaning an evaporator in -10 degree weather (as I did this morning) is tricky, as everything (include fingers here) is frozen.  You can heat the evaporator to clean it, but you need to completely extinguish the fire before emptying the pans, or the pans will burn.  I find removing the embers with freezing hands is a win-win situation.  If the temperature stays above freezing for 2 - 3 days, there will be no sap run (aside from the first day).  The sap will stay in the branches, so there is no way for the tree to transfer more sap from the roots.  If the weather stays warm enough for long enough, the trees will start to bud.  The chemical composition of the sap changes during budding, the sap turns sour and it is no longer possible to make syrup from the sap.  As a note, if your sap starts foaming uncontrollably late in the year, the trees are probably budding.

I've mentioned before that I am tired after working the evaporator.  Here is a very rough schedule of what happens during a sugaring day:

Pump sap from a tote to another tote or the reservoir:  About 5 times per day
Adjust sap level in evaporator:  2-3 times per day
Add vegetable oil to the evap:  Once per hour (to control foaming)
Add wood to the firebox:  4 times per hour (an arm load)
Refractometer reading:  2 - 3 times per hour
Carry 40L of water:  Once per day (for cleaning) about 150 meters from the Mad river
Check lines:  About an hour total per day
Skim:  About 5 times per hour (remove foam and floating sediment)
Bottle:  1 - 2 times per day.  This takes an hour per bottling
Wash Evaporator:  About 10 times per day I wash the outside of the pans.
Fix lines:  About 30 minutes per day.  There is always something to fix!

I have 340 taps, which should translate into about 300 - 350 litres of syrup per year.  I tend to produce less, usually about 200 - 230 litres.  I think the land is too rocky.  I have more top kill (the tops of some trees die off) than many other bushes.  It is also possible that I have not had many "good" years so far.  The weather has been strange for the last decade.  Probably global warming, but January and February are milder and March and April are now cooler than in previous decades.  My hope/concern is that one year, I'll gather a huge amount of sap.  I don't have enough wood to make 300 liters of syrup!  I gather about 1200 liters of sap on a good "sap run" day.

Hope this helps anyone toying with making their own syrup.  A friend once asked what was the cheapest method of making maple syrup.  I think he was hoping that I would tell him to put up a dozen pails.  My reply was either install 100,000 taps or buy the syrup...


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Costa Rica and Maple Syrup

Can you believe there is only 1 month until the Spring Warm-up?  This fills me with immense foreboding as the racing season starts only two weeks after the Spring Warm-up.  I have signed up for Pick Your Poison 50K, Seaton Soaker 50K and Sulphur Springs 50K...  Then my season gets ugly.  Lee Anne and I are busy on June 17, which happens to be the Niagara Ultra.  Since I am attempting the Norm Patenaude award, that means I have little choice amongst the remaining races.  So, I am planning to run Sulphur 50K (May 27), Kingston 6 hour (June 3) and Conquer the Canuck 50K (June 10).  Notice the generous and ample time to recover between races?  6 days???  I need 6 years to recover from a 50K...

Lee Anne and I spent 8 days in Costa Rica with Lily (Lee Anne's daughter), Daryl and the grandchildren; Hannah and Griffin.  My incredibly naive plan was to run long many times, while in Costa Rica.  We woke up early the first morning and were running comfortably at 05:45, just before the sun came up.  Then something inexplicably horrible happened.  The sun came up.  The temperature went from comfortable to oven baking hot in about 15 minutes.  Did I mention the hotel was nestled on top of a small mountain?  I don't recommend running up a steep hill on a dirt road that could easily double as a frying pan.  Let's not forget the humidity!  Every morning I tried to run long and basically made it to 1 hour before pulling the plug.  Lee Anne ran for 3 hours each day, which is usually her warm-up, so she was also feeling the heat.  This lasted until mercifully, I contracted the stomach flu and could take a day off.  Our grandson Griffin was also sick, which sucks on a vacation.  The flu affected my ability to run for about 2 weeks.  I hope to run long tomorrow for the first time in a while.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country with some amazing national parks.  We rented a car for a few days, which although more expensive than taxis, was quite convenient.  While driving in CR, I figured out that licenses are either optional, or there is no such thing as a driving test.  Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and police made no effort to obey any of the signs or rules of the road.  When turning left onto an unlit major highway at night, make sure there is no motorcycle holding 3 people and no lights, on the wrong side of the road!

Although not our favourite style of vacation, we stayed at a hotel near Jaco beach.  We did get out to a couple of national parks.  The Carara national park was exceptional, with low-technical trails that meandered through a forest jungle.  Not sure of the correct name for the terrain.  We saw monkeys, parrots and a cute little boar.  We were able to hike for about 3 hours and saw some huge trees.  If you ever get to Jaco, take in Carara.

The other park was called Manuel Antonio.  Unfortunately, it included a wonderful beach, which attracted almost one billion bathers.  The trails were more akin to a country road and packed with people.  The beach was nice and we enjoyed swimming with the grandchildren.

The food was quite good in the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, although since Jaco is a tourist destination, the bigger restaurants had typical international cuisine and cost about the same as restaurants in Canada.

The timing of our trip to Costa Rica was ill-advised, as we only returned to Canada on February 28.  This cuts into my maple syrup prep time.  This was not overly critical as aside from March 1, it remained cold until March 6.  We will once again experience a cold snap, well into next week, so I have plenty of time for the finishing touches.  I set about 200 taps on March 1 and the remaining 140 on March 6.  The sap ran on Monday (March 6) until Wednesday, so I boiled down a small batch yesterday (March 8).

Making maple syrup is rather strange.  I would be hard pressed to isolate which chores are physically demanding, yet a day in the bush leaves me sore and exhausted.  On Tuesday I ran a 10K hill run, which is taxing, yet not overly so.  Then I boiled down for a few hours.  My back, shoulders and arms ached that night.  Strange.  Yes, I haul supplies 1K into the woods, stoke the evaporator, walk in a foot of snow, but nothing I would describe as hard physical effort...  Perhaps simply being active for 12 hours can do that to you.

I am now able to make a prediction as to my next project.  Today, Lily (Lee Anne's daughter) and Daryl sold their house in Toronto that I helped to build.  Daryl has promised that the next house will not be a ground-up project (virtually a new house), simply a major renovation.  Perhaps I will have recovered from making maple syrup by then.