How Wheelers Make Maple Syrup
The earliest confirmed record of maple syrup production at our sugar bush dates back to 1868. Over the years many things have changed but many have stayed the same. Every Spring, during March and April, the Canadian winter weather starts to warm up to above freezing during the day and the sugar maple trees come to life and impart their sweet sap. We simply have to drill a small hole into the tree, collect the watery maple sap, and boil it to concentrate the natural sugars to make Pure Maple Syrup. Visitors can explore part of our sugar bush in action on one of our many Hiking Trails.
Our production grows with our family and Wheelers Sugar Bush is now one of the largest producers in Ontario with over 20,000 trees tapped. Over 400 kilometres of pipeline is used to transport maple sap to the Sugar Camp where it is boiled into pure maple syrup. The latest in equipment and technology is used to produce maple products that meet the high quality standards that Vernon expects of every litre of maple syrup that carries the Wheelers label.
Gathering Maple Sap
It takes at least 2 weeks to get all of the trees tapped. Predictions have to be made about when the weather will warm up enough for the sap to run to be sure the trees are tapped in time for the first runs of sap. You don’t want to miss the first runs of sap but you also don’t want to tap too early and have the holes starting to dry out earlier than they would have if you had waited. “Tapping” means drilling a 19/64 inch diameter hole 1 – 1.5 inches deep, depending on the tree size and bark depth, into the maple tree. A spout is lightly tapped into the hole to collect the drips of sap from the tree and into the pipeline to be carried to the sugar camp. The syrup season can be anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks, depending on the weather. When the buds on the trees begin to open the season is over, regardless of the weather that comes afterwards. When the buds open up, the sap changes, no longer making syrup that would be edible. Shortly after the sap stops running altogether and the tree starts to heal over the tap hole.
The pipeline system used in the sugar bush is much like the network of veins that carries blood through the human body. Just as blood travels from networks of smaller veins to larger veins to get to the heart, sap travels from networks of smaller pipeline into bigger pipeline to get to the sugar camp. Sap is comes from the tree through a 19/64 inch diameter spout into a short section of 5/16 inch tubing called a dropline. The sap then flows into a 5/16 inch lateral line, which connects into a more rigid pipeline called a mainline. The 1 inch or 1 ½ inch mainline transports the sap either to a pumping station to get an extra push to the sugar camp or directly to the sugar camp. When the tree releases the drop of sap a vacuum system helps draw the sap to the sugar camp.
When planning the pipeline layout, terrain plays a very large factor. The mainlines in particular must be installed with at least a slight slope to allow gravity to help bring the sap to the sugar camp and prevent pooling of sap in the lines. The gathering station, whether the sugar camp or a pump house, is situated in the lowest areas, with the pipeline strategically installed to bring the sap to those locations. Currently, there are three pump houses, in addition to the main pump room in the sugar camp, at various locations in the sugar bush to service those areas and pump the sap to the sugar camp. Pump houses have a storage tank with a vacuum pump and sap releaser.
Converting Sap to Syrup
A reverse osmosis machine is used to remove about 50% of the water from the sap. Selectively permeable membranes separate pure water from the raw sap, resulting in a sweeter sap that is then boiled in the evaporators.
An added benefit of using this technology is the production of large amounts of pure water. We use this pure water to clean our evaporators and the reverse osmosis machine. We even use this water to flush the toilets in the bathrooms during maple syrup season!
In efforts to reduce our impact on the environment and produce the best maple syrup possible, in 2015 we upgraded our evaporators. Our new state of the art boiling system has reduced our fossil fuel use by 97%. The system was designed by Vernon and Mark, and manufactured by CDL which is a maple supply company from Quebec.
We boil the maple sap on one large stainless steel evaporator and switch back and forth between two stainless steel finishing pans. The large machine has a 6’ x 18’ boiling capacity. It is fueled by burning wood pellets. The wood pellets are a renewable energy source as they are made from the sawdust from a hardwood flooring company. The evaporator is self washing which can be done during the night which reduces man power and eliminates the use of cleaning chemicals.
The majority of the boiling is done on the large evaporator but getting the maple syrup to reach the exact density required is completed on the finishing pan. The two 3’ x 6’ finishing pans are mirror images that are used interchangeably, eliminating the need to shut down for cleaning.
We use two filter press units to filter our syrup, similar to what is used in a winery. It removes the sugar sand, which clarifies the syrup. Sugar sand or “nitre” is composed of minerals form the tree that come out of the sap during the boiling process.
Finished maple syrup is either put into 140 litre stainless steel barrels for storage or pumped into this room where it is hot packed at 85°C (185°F) into retail containers for sale. There are no additives or preservatives in pure maple syrup.
Maintenance of Pipeline
Once the maple season is over, each spout is removed from the tree. The network of tubing is cleaned by flushing out the lines with compressed air and water sent out by a tubing washing machine at the sugar camp. The tubing is washed, small sections at a time, with a person going to each spout as the water flushes through, scrubbing out each spout with a little brush. It takes at least two weeks to get all of the tubing washed. The hole is left to heal naturally and the spout is looped around and plugged onto the connector to the lateral line, where it remains until the following year.
Repairs have to be made to the pipeline on a continual basis. Branches and trees fall on the lines. Bears chew on mainline to mark territory. Chipmunks and squirrels chew lateral lines simply because they love to chew. On occasion, lightning will strike a mainline, traveling down the support wire and melting a section of the mainline.