BY ANDREW COPPOLINO | MARCH 2022
Kevin Snyder’s 65-acre wood lot, one of a couple from which he draws sap for maple syrup, looks like an immense game of “Cat’s Cradle,” the trunks of huge trees linked like giant fingers looped with string.
In this case, the “string” is a network of food-grade 5/16” green plastic gravity lines carrying maple sap via a vacuum system to a large stainless-steel collection tank that Snyder scrubs, cleans and polishes before each season. From there, roughly 10,000 litres of sap will be hauled by tractor and tank to the sugar house 900 metres away where it will be turned into thick and luscious maple syrup – some of the best in the province. It’s a process that Snyder, a fifth-generation farmer operating Snyder Heritage Farms in Bloomingdale and president of the Waterloo-Wellington local of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, has been involved in since he was a kid.
“I grew up with maple syrup production,” Snyder says. “I can’t remember a spring when I didn’t do this.”
Tapping into the season
Tapping trees, drawing sap (which is 98% water) and boiling it to make maple syrup requires a chain of fortuitous weather events. The sap runs best when the nights are cold (-5 C.) and the days relatively warm (5 C.), but changes in barometric pressure help as well. With those conditions, maple syrup production cab represent about 25% of Snyder’s operation. “It definitely takes all of my attention for six to eight weeks in the spring,” as he puts it. Between his two lots, the harvest and processing season yield an average of 1.5 litres of maple syrup per tap from the 3,500 taps in his trees. Some years there is only a third of that sap yield: it’s part of the vagaries of farming.
As I speak with him on the chilly last day of February, a team of three farmhands arrive to tap trees. “We start drilling holes and tapping trees and get them connected to the pipeline which gets the sap to the big collection tank. We installed the system in 2009, and it saves a lot of work.” The network of pipelines, according to the manufacturers, is good for 25 years before replacement is needed.
The maple syrup season usually runs from the end of February and into the beginning of April. Each year, each tree gets two new taps which, done properly, don’t harm the trees, some which can give sap for 100 years. There are five to eight taps per lateral green line which take the sap to the blue main line. “There’s been a lot of research about tapping,” Snyder says. “Shorter lateral tap lines are better.” The lines remain in place year-round, forming the cat’s-cradle loops and links in the sugar bush, although maintenance of the lines takes place continuously: a storm might send a branch crashing onto the lines, or Snyder might have to battle wildlife, he says. “Deer, coyote, wild turkey, maybe the odd raccoon, can nibble on the lines. Squirrels may occasionally chew on them.”
It’s a modern operation. The pipeline-vacuum system does away with romantic, idyllic – and relatively impractical – buckets hanging quaintly and nostalgically under each tap and the labour costs incurred in collecting the precious premium sap. “And because the system is under vacuum, you get a yield increase of 25% to 30%,” Snyder says. Understanding chemistry and fluid mechanics is part of modern-day maple syrup processing. “When sap comes out of the tree, it’s not pure liquid. There are gases in it.” Near the collection point, because the gases flow faster than liquids, which Snyder puns “take their own sweet time,” the two are separated and the sap is deposited into the stainless-steel collection tank.
Maple Syrup: Doing the Math
Producers use some math and a calculation known as the “Rule of 86” to determine the number of litres of sap required to make one litre of maple syrup: using a sap hydrometer, they divide 86 by the sugar content of the sap (which is usually 2%) the result of which is 43 litres of sap for 1 litre of syrup; if the sap registers at 2.5% sugar content, you’ll only need 34.4 litres for a litre of syrup.
Maple trees grow in other parts of the world, but they don’t have the climate to get the sap to flow properly, says Snyder. “Warm days and cold nights are definitely part of it, but air pressure plays a role. We want to see unsettled weather to get the trees to change. Changing air pressure outside the tree forces it to compensate and that’s when we get another run of sap.” Without the right conditions, the sap will stop. “Once I was cleaning the tanks out around noon and a thunderstorm came through around suppertime. The air pressure changed so much we got an unexpected half-a-run out of it because the pressure dropped so much,” Snyder adds.
During the course of production that sees those 40 or so litres of hard-earned sap converted into a litre of delectable maple syrup, it’s also experience and an educated palate that evaluates the best maple syrup, according to Snyder. Maple syrup can pick up off flavours from processing, musty filters and perhaps soap residue that occurs during tank cleaning and maintaining lines. “Maple syrup is susceptible during processing,” he says, noting the association hosts workshops to help producers. “We say be proud of your own syrup, but don’t be afraid to try someone else’s. If you have a problem but you’ve never tasted other syrups, you may not know. Comparing is important. Our association is helping everybody make better syrup.” It’s a case of the rising tide lifting all boats: there’s a camaraderie among producers, he says. “There are producers with 15 taps and ones with several thousands. They help each other, and you can always learn.”
Making the Grade
Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Black Maple and Silver Maple are the most common types of trees tapped for their syrup. As for those different types of maple syrup, the grading system is now a universal North American one based on the percentage of light that passes through the syrup: Golden (delicate taste; >75%), Amber (rich taste; 50-74.9%), Dark (robust taste; 24%-49.9%), and Very Dark (strong taste; <25%). Maple syrup sold in Ontario must have be a minimum 66 brix, a measure of sugar in a solution. “The nice thing about the grading system now is that it has flavour descriptors like coffee, so you have delicate, rich, bold,” says Snyder. “It’s close to what the characteristics of the flavours are too, and it helps consumers pick their syrup. I believe it’s a better system.”
At Snyder Heritage Farms, they can produce all four grades, but those grades depend on the time of the season with the majority of their syrup being Amber. Interestingly, maple syrup will change in flavour over the course of the season. “Like wine, the character of the syrup is related to the soil the trees grow in,” says Snyder. “I believe southern Ontario has some of the best syrup because we have some of the best soil, and I would even say Waterloo Region.”
Increased Demand for Maple
The care and evolution of maple syrup production by farmers is in good part responsible for its continued popularity. Snyder notes that sales for his maple syrup have gone up, which he says is the result of consumers wanting to see and know a bit about the person who produces it and then buy directly from them. “I believe the demand has increased as consumers are looking towards more locally produced foods. Maple syrup is one of the purest sugars you can get. We think it’s common, and to us it is because we produce it. But you go outside of North America where they don’t produce it and it’s phenomenal how little it is known.”
Like hockey and curling, maple syrup is a quintessential part of a Canadian winter. In southern Ontario, the sugar season is the new year’s first harvest that sweetly signals the beginning of spring, a rite of passage that Snyder has participated in his entire life. “I love making maple syrup. I’m addicted. It’s part of me and it’s the same with other producers I know,” he says.
“You don’t realize how Canadian it is until you talk to someone from a non-producing country. I had agriculture students from England here a couple of years ago. They understood farming, but they were flabbergasted and going, ‘You tap trees, you get sap, and you make maple syrup?’ I said, ‘That’s right!’ We take that for granted.”
Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.