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2019 Maple Syrup Season Planning

Primal Woods Our Purpose

Michigan Maple Syrup, The Making of

If you like knowing not only where your food comes from, but also the “why” of decisions made regarding its production, read on for the unvarnished, inconventient truths.  Primal Woods exists to achieve The Purpose, it is a vehicle for achieving The Purpose.  Decisions made need to be consistent with and support achievement of The Purpose, though maintaining that consistency may at times be inconvenient, which is to say, maintaining consistency to The Purpose may make profitability far more challenging.  I want to take a moment here though, to write about what will not change.  To change some aspects of the Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup business would, in my opinion, run counter to the business’ “reason for being,” as documented in “The Purpose.”  Since I have repeated myself so often, I’ll stop trying to drive home the importance of The Purpose.

What Will Not Change | Michigan Maple Syrup

Buckets

We will stay with buckets for sap collection.  The option is tubing.  The point of tubing is of course to reduce costs; at the expense of the people who would otherwise have the work of tapping trees, collecting sap, de-tapping, cleaning of the buckets, etc.  To go to tubing then, is not in keeping with the “Build a Community of Value” or the “Be Generous” elements of The Purpose, as I interpret them.  Not to mention the fact that tubing stays up year-round, impacting movement of White-tail Deer on the property, and basically making the woods look like an Intensive Care Unit.  No thanks; that would not be in keeping with the “Contribute to Community Health” element of The Purpose, which I interpret as inclusive of the health of the environment.  Besides, when people envision maple syrup, they see buckets.  The downside to buckets; increased production costs.

Beech-Sugar Maple Forest Ecosystem

The ecosystem includes many other tree species, but Beech and Sugar Maple are dominant.  We will not create a Sugar Maple monoculture, a so-called “sugarbush.” I could go on and on as to why not, regarding all of the benefits of the existing ecosystem, an ecosystem which pre-dates European settlement, by a long, long time.  But I will say that it is my firm belief that maple syrup is like wine, insofar as its taste reflects the diversity of the woods and the complexity of the soils that the trees grow in, and from.  I’ve noted for example, after relatively harder winters, the 2014 and 2018 seasons recently, that there is the detectable flavor of butter in the syrup.  (It’s also interesting to note that the Beeches and Oaks masted in the falls of 2013 and 2017.)  A less diverse ecosystem than currently exists, would produce a less complex flavor profile in the syrup.  That’s my two cents.  I will add though, that a monoculture is much more susceptible to pests and disease; to go to a Sugar Maple monoculture is to invite its destruction.  The downside to not developing a Sugarbush; reduced productivity (in terms of volume) and therefore, increased production costs.

Wood-fired Evaporation

An option oft employed within the industry to increase sugar concenration in the sap, is reverse osmosis, aka RO.  Last year I had a visitor to the Sugar House, and he asked me about RO, which I had included in my original ramp-up plan.  He mentioned the question of its effect on the flavor of the maple syrup; my interest was peaked and so I dug into the issue.  The study that I based my decision on was “Effects of Sap Concentration with Reverse Osmosis on Syrup Composition and Flavor, A summary of experiments conducted at the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center.”  One might assume that this research is industry-funded.  Actually, we don’t have to make the assumption, one of the authors represents the “Sugar Processing Research Institute, Inc. (S.P.R.I.) is an independent <yeah right> non-profit research institute supported by its international members who are international sugarcane and sugar beet processors, sugar refineries, suppliers to the sugar industry and companies that use sugar or sugar by-products.” ‘Nuf said.

The most notable finding was a significant color change, which the study subsequently refers to consistently as “slight.”

The authors conclude, “Broadly, the results of these experiments indicate that the use of RO at any concentration level has no substantive impacts on the composition, properties, or flavor of the syrup produced.”  Uhhh, no.  Light transmission is the means by which the “Grade” of pure maple syrup is, and has long been established; 0-24% is now Very Dark-Strong Taste, 25-49% is Dark-Robust Taste, 50-74% is Amber-Rich Taste, and 75-100% is Golden-Delicate Taste.  Note that each grade spans 25%, and from the image of Table 1, the light transmission through the syrup produced from RO-concentrated sap was reduced by 11.8%, that is almost half a grade darker than syrup processed from raw sap.  The study authors go on to say, “Although color differed between the syrup made with the two treatments, the relative quantity of volatile flavor compounds did not differ significantly between syrup made simultaneously with raw sap and the same sap concentrated to 8%.  This suggests that producing syrup from sap concentrated by RO to 8% sugar does not significantly affect the overall development of flavor in maple syrup.”  In defense of the authors, they had some taste-testing performed, which I would say was at best, inconclusive.  The short story is, I’m not buying it, the study conclusions that is, and therefore unless additional truly-independent research becomes available, we will not be using RO.  You can’t build pure maple syrup grading, including taste, around color (light transmission), and then tell me it doesn’t matter.  And I’m sorry, the change was not “slight,” as the authors maintained; half a full grade is significant.  As a secondary consideration, RO requires gobs (that’s a scientific term) of electricity.    The downside to ruling out RO; increased production costs.

I don’t think I need to point out what is “inconvenient” about these decisions.  If you like our “why,” I would love the benefit of your purchasing decision!  Please visit the Shop, and tell your friends!  Now back to the story…

What Will Change | Michigan Maple Syrup

So here we are embarking on year six of our maple sugaring adventure … read on to get an early look at what’s up for 2019!  It all starts with having a well-document process.  Ugghhh.  There are folk who are great at the doing, and folk who are great at the documenting; rarely do you find both in the same package.  Two heads, and preferably more, are better than one.  Having said that though, we will look in on the process that has gone through several iterations already, and also have a look at the post I made in May 2018, “2018 Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup | Year in Review,” to find our opportunities for improvement.

What Didn’t Go Well | Michigan Maple Syrup

“What didn’t go well” included: 1) syrup filtering (problem solved), 2) sap systems freezing (interim corrective actions taken), 3) run-off water managment at Sugar House, 4) noise from the air compressor used in the filtering process, 5) scale build-up in the syrup pan, 6) equipment cleaning, 7) propane “plumbing,” and 8) firewood (lack of sufficient quantities on-hand, insufficiently seasoned, and rotted wood).  To those problems identified in my “Year in Review” post, I would add, 9) the offloading of sap from barrels (in or behind the Polaris Ranger 400), to totes at the Sugar House.  It is one thing to decide to have the additional manpower to support buckets, it is another altogether to waste their time.  Too, we intend to again ramp-up production; 2018 was up 8x on 2017, 2019 will be up 2x on 2018.  For 2019, 10) we will use 1,000 taps, by most yardsticks that still has us solidly in the “small” syrup-producer category, though this should bring us to about 200 gallons of syrup production, roughly 3,200 half-pint bottles of syrup.  There you have it, 10 opportunities, big and small, to support greater and more efficient production in 2019.

michigan maple syrup

I have highlighted in Red the areas in the Process Flow where attention is needed to rectify the problems, and increase capacity to 1,000 taps and 200 gallons of syrup.

Planned Improvements | Michigan Maple Syrup

michigan maple syrup

Sugar House Improvements

The biggest improvement is the extension of the Sugar House into the north bay of the former garage.  The intent is to create more space, and to separate the “clean” north side, from the evaporator on the south side.  The north side will be home to filtration, bottling, dressing, packing, shipping, and so on.  Only evaporation will be performed in the south side.  First up is the electrical work, followed by the installation of two windows, insulation of the walls and garage door, followed by drywall, paint, etc. The Sugar House will also be fitted out with a deep sink (for equipment cleaning), and make allowances for the propane manifold and exterior placement of the air compressor.

The south side of the Sugar House also needs to be improved, primarily to make overhead space for the Steam Away and the rail system; the rail system allows for pan, Steam Away and hoods removal.

A “berm” of some sort, an interim solution, will be found to prevent intrusion of run-off through the front of the Sugar House.

Other Improvements/Expansion and Summary

Another 500 buckets, lids and taps are required, together with two or three more sap storage totes, and a process and equipment for gravity draining the collection barrels to the storage totes.  Rounding out the improvements, a propane manifold.  Firewood is being delivered relatively early, and should have a few months of additional “seasoning” before the Michigan maple syrup season starts in February.  Of interest perhaps, I decided not to take any additional actions against freezing of the sap systems; we will run with the improvements made during the 2018 season.

I don’t know about you, but that looks like a lot of work to be completed before the end of December.  Of course putting my head in the sand won’t make the problems go away, so let’s get on with it!  To keep up with the daily action, Like and Follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

All the best, and a pleasant fall,

John

p.s. Don’t forget to put some Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup on your table! Shop

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3 replies
  1. Marcelle
    Marcelle says:

    What a thorough explanation and problem-solving approach! I’m totally geeking out on your spreadsheets and flowcharts. I also wanted to say that I appreciate your efforts to find solutions without sacrificing quality, even if it means increased costs for you, and therefore the consumer. So many people today are blinded by the price tag, especially when it comes to food, and have no idea how much they are giving up in quality, and in return, health. Thank you for sharing your “inconvenient truths”!

    Reply
    • John Newell
      John Newell says:

      Thanks Mom! I’ve scaled back from the post what we are taking on this year; too much to do, to little time! Basically, we will not be converting the north side of the garage to Sugar House use. Everything else we will do, including going to a thousand taps. At this point, selling what we have made trumps pretty much everything else.

      Reply

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