Monday, May 12, 2008

Sap Season Not So Sweet

Maple Syrup
Harvest in Quebec this spring is suffering from weather extremes

Alex Roslin
Monday, April 21, 2008

The Montreal Gazette

The sunny days of spring might be a happy time for most Quebecers, but André Pollander is glum.

The weather has changed too fast from winter cold to spring warm, and Pollander’s sugar bush in the Eastern Townships has just about given up the ghost for the season.

Pollander’s 500 maple trees on his 20-acre farm have produced just one-third of their usual production this year before the sap has stopped flowing.

The cupboards are nearly bare of syrup in the boutique of his log-cabin-style Cabane à Sucre Pic Bois, nestled in the forest in Brigham. The harvest is so poor he won’t have a single jug to sell to retail customers after he sets aside what he needs for his restaurant and family.

The story is the same across most of Quebec, which produces 76 percent of the world’s maple syrup.

Spring temperatures must hover around freezing for a few weeks for the sap to run best, ideally alternating between 6 degrees Celsius during the day and -6 degrees at night.

The period when that happened this year was cut short by an extra-long winter and the quick rise of the mercury in April. Quebec’s 7,500 producers were also hurt by a massive winter snowfall that left some areas inaccessible, while ice storms froze the ground and tree roots, reducing sap flow.

Dianne Rhicard, coowner of the Owl Hoot Maple Farm in Stanbridge East, said production at her operation was only 470 gallons of syrup this year, instead of the usual 600.

It’s the same sour story at the Gaby-Pierre Maple Farm in Sutton, where coowner Gabrielle Tanguay said the harvest is 30 percent below the usual 1,500 gallons.

After an equally miserable harvest in 2007—one of the worst in 40 years—Pollander has a radical solution he thinks could help solve the industry’s misfortunes: recognizing hand-made, old-fashioned syrups like his own as a special brand.

He advocates a new industry-accepted “hand-made” or “produit du terroir” label to meet a fast-growing demand for premium maple syrup and related products like maple butter and pie.

Pollander said his own sales of such products have grown 20 to 25 percent annually for the past eight years, and such labeling would encourage many other small maple farmers now producing for personal consumption to sell their wares on the market and make up the supply shortfall.

Go to most large maple syrup farms across the province, and you’ll see long plastic tubes crisscrossing the forest to collect sap from thousands of maple trees. The sap is filtered and distilled by high-tech devices like reverse osmosis membranes and microfilters in order to boost the sugar content from two or three percent at the outset to 67 percent in final syrup form.

Mostly gone are the days when maple farmers would lug pails full of sap and stoke wood fires to evaporate it.

But some hardy souls stick to the old, labour-intensive method, and they say it pays off dramatically in taste.

“People who have never tried it say, ‘Wow, wow. What about that!’” Pollander said.

Indeed, his product has a light body with hints of flowers and almonds, while a store-bought brand is distinctly thicker and has a sharp, smoky taste. “The real maple flavour has been lost,” he said of syrups produced by the modern method.

Pollander is a fifth-generation maple farmer whose great-great-grandfather settled in the Eastern Townships in 1813. His sugar shack was named second-best in the province in a La Presse review.

He said maple syrups can come in as many different flavours as wine, influenced by region, climate, rainfall, soil conditions, type of maple tree, even the direction the tree is facing. Pollander thinks producers can benefit by promoting those differences.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Quebec’s agriculture ministry agree. They sponsored a study of syrup flavours by “sensory evaluation experts” and came out with a Flavour Wheel for Maple Products. It identifies 13 “flavour families” like vanilla, floral and fruity, plus 91 sub-categories, including firewood, roasted dandelion root, marshmallow, butter and honey.

The wheel also offers tasting tips akin to those for wine aficionados: “First, smell the syrup by taking three quick sniffs.” It advises a “small sip,” swirling the syrup in the mouth and concentrating for “about a minute” on the full range of flavours.

“It’s very similar to wine,” said Roger de Winter, an organic maple farmer in Sutton. “(The flavour variety) is just incredible.”

Pollander said today’s mass-production method depletes syrup of much of its flavour. Reverse osmosis, for example, is used in order to save energy costs by drawing out water before distillation is completed in oil-fired evaporators.

Some producers believe the process affects the flavour. “Osmosis removes the taste. The product doesn’t taste like anything,” Pollander said.

De Winter, who uses osmosis himself, agreed it “probably changes the flavour” if used too much on a batch of sap. “But with the cost of energy, I don’t think people have much choice if they are a large operation.”

Also affecting the flavour, Pollander said, is the widespread use of tubes to bring sap from trees—another labour-saving technique. He said the tubes are difficult to clean, and residue from past seasons and soap sometimes remains.

Pollander acknowledges his idea of premium labels is likely to be a tough sell to the handful of large producers that supply most of the Quebec’s swelling export market—worth $217 million last year. They buy and blend syrup from dozens of smaller farms and aren’t likely to be interested in a more complex classification system, he said.

At present, syrup in Quebec is graded only by its colour—with the clearest “extra-light” syrup qualifying as highest grade and commanding the top price.

The lightest syrup is generally produced early in the spring when sugar content in the sap is highest, which means it doesn’t need to be boiled as much to bring the ratio up to the required 67 percent.

Sap tapped later in the season can have 50 percent less sugar, which means extra boiling is needed. That, in turn, tends to leave the syrup darker and more caramelized, Pollander said.

Yet, he said many new customers prefer the lower-grade, darker variety because it has a more pronounced flavour, but he explains that taste is actually caramelized sugar, not maple. “They don’t know what they’re tasting,” he said.

Will Pollander’s idea catch on? De Winter said industry recognition of old-fashioned production techniques would be “very difficult to manage,” but he agreed the present system is flawed.

“That’s what mass production is. It lowers the cost but at the expense of quality.”

[TAGS: Maple syrup, Eastern Townships, André Pollander, cabane à sucre]

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