Season a sweet one for maple syrup producers


By Barb McKay


This is the time of year that winter-weary Canadians have eagerly awaited. Warm sunshine is bringing out the buds on trees and shrubs and sap that has been running out of maple trees for weeks now is bubbling away in steel vats, thickening into sweet maple syrup.


Indulging in pancakes dripping with maple syrup is as much a part of being Canadian as playing hockey and Ontario alone is home to more than 400 producers.


Peter Neve operates the Sugarhouse Studio near Cargill and is currently in the process of bottling 700 litres of liquid gold. In his 20 years of making maple syrup, he says this season stands out.


“It’s all guess work. You look at the weather networks and look for signs in the bush. This year the weather networks were way off. It looked like it was going to be a horrible season, but for me, it is probably the best season I’ve had in 20 years.”


Neve said the best sap production comes from warm days and cold nights, which is what Bruce County experienced this year. Some producers, he said, were still boiling sap into last week.


Neve, a retired teacher and principal, became interested in maple syrup production after he and his wife Daryl, a retired physical education and outdoor education teacher at Kincardine and District Secondary School, purchased their farm. They were introduced to the business by a neighbour and started making syrup in a turkey roaster on a barbeque.


Neve said he could tap a couple thousand trees on his property but limits collection to 600 trees to keep it within the scope of a hobby.


“It is a lot of fun, but it is a commitment,” he said.


The Neves built their sugar house and started out using old fashioned methods, some of which they have maintained. Two beautiful French Canadian horses helped collect sap buckets from the bush and are still used to pull firewood out of the bush to heat the sap. Neve used to use buckets to collect the sap from his trees, but the process of retrieving the buckets took hours. Now, he runs lines to the sugar house from the trees and uses a vacuum system to draw the sap through the lines. He has installed a heat exchanger which produces steam to pre-heat the sap. The syrup also goes through a filtering process, which Neve said is a crucial step in production.


The amount of sap required depends on the type of syrup that is being produced. Neve produces mainly light and medium maple syrup and some amber, all of which are premium syrups. It takes 30 to 35 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of light syrup and can take as many as 60 gallons to produce one gallon of dark or amber syrup. Neve will occasionally make batches of dark syrup, which is used in cleansing diets and to flavour foods such as chocolate. Industry regulations dictate that maple syrup must contain at least 65.8 per cent sugar and good quality syrup contains 67 per cent, which is what Neve produces.


Sugarhouse Studio sells most of its maple syrup right from the farm gate but has regular standing orders and most syrup is sold by the case. Every year for the past 15 years two cases are shipped to the Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa. A staff member had visited the farm and had enjoyed the maple syrup and taken some back to the Embassy with him. The chef there took a liking to it and has put in an annual order.


Neve is looking for individuals to help out with the business and this spring worked with a young man from France who came over for a cross-country tour. The arrangement worked out well as the man is an electrical engineer and made improvements to the vacuum system.


Neve has no plans to grow Sugarhouse Studio physically, but always has a critical eye on the operation.


“Every year I try to improve and make my syrup better, and that has happened,” he said.