Evaporating our maple syrup over a wood fire is not the easiest way to concentrate sap... but we feel strongly that it’s the best. It is the traditional manner which has been used for hundreds of years, as well as being sustainable and carbon neutral. It also forces us to spend more time in our woods, culling diseased trees, maintaining our trails, and observing the health and beauty of our sugarbush throughout the year. We love working in the forest while creating the biomass fuel necessary to produce our syrup, and the fact that it is good for the environment is just syrup on the flapjacks. That, and we (along with many others) firmly believe that it just tastes better!
Rugged Ridge Forest Documentary
After having worked in many sugar shacks at many different scales, our sugarmakers have noticed that the way one processes syrup creates different qualities in the finished product.
These days, maple syrup is generally made in one of three ways. It is either steam processed, oil fired, or wood fired. There are a few outfits experimenting with electric resistance heat and vacuum, but for the most part few have adopted this technology yet.
Steam processed syrup is a new and quickly growing chunk of the maple syrup market. Many of the largest, industrial sugar shacks have switched or are considering the switch to steam. It is performed by using an oil fired steam boiler to heat the steam to temperatures above 212° F. That steam is then conducted through a system of pipes resembling a radiator in the pan with a very large surface area. Steam is very easy to control the temperature by adjusting the pressure the system is under. This way sugarmakers can dial in the temperature with which they cook the syrup.
The benefits of steam are that it is easy to control, relatively fuel efficient, and you are unlikely to burn a pan because the steam cooks at such a low temperature.
The detriments of steam are that since it cooks at such a low temperature (Between 220-260°Fahrenheit), the syrup never caramelizes. For the most part, steam rigs produce lighter syrup, with the color often looking more yellow then golden. The lack of caramelization also affects the flavor. Steamed syrup has a much more subtle flavor. Though it is still sweet and made from maple sap, the “mapley” flavor is much less pronounced, so much so that industrial maple packers have resorted to blending steamed syrups with oil and wood fired syrups to enhance the flavor. This lack of flavor was so pronounced, that when our head steward worked at a steam processed bush, he would find himself buying syrup from other oil and wood fired bushes because of his disappointment with the flavor. When Josh set out to setup his own sugar shack, he vowed that he would never sacrifice flavor for ease.
Oil fired syrup is produced on an evaporator pan with an oil burner blowing under the pans. The syrup is cooked at a temperature between 1200 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to good caramelization, and a classic mapley flavor. It is as easy to control as flicking a switch and dialing a thermostat. The fire can be instantly started and stopped to accommodate hiccups in production, and these days, oil is relatively cheap! Most medium and large producers are oil fired.
The benefits of oil fired syrup are good flavor, ease of use for the producer, and that it’s relatively cost effective.
The detriments are that medium and large producers will burn thousands and thousands of gallons of oil per season producing their crop. These days oil is relatively cost effective, but if the prices rise substantially, producers are at the mercy of the markets to control their costs of production. Also, in this day and age where we are more aware then ever of the environmental cost of oil consumption, from global warming to protecting our water sources, we at Rugged Ridge prefer not to have that much oil on our consciences as we strive to feed our family and community a natural, organic, nutritious, and sustainable product.
The Traditional Way
Wood fired syrup is the traditional method for producing maple syrup. We log our woods of diseased, poorly formed, and undesirable stems while taking great care to protect the residual stand from damage. The woods roads are well maintained to allow good access while preventing erosion. From there, we buck and split the wood large for reduced handling, and when the season arrives, we start a fire under our pans that is big and hot. The syrup cooks at a high temperature, comparable to oil (1200-1800 degrees F). In addition to the caramelization flavor imparted on the syrup, occasionally wisps of wood smoke creep around the edges of the pans or puff out the front of the evaporator when we open the door to stoke the fire. These small volumes of smoke get caught in vortexes of air and steam over the syrup pans and kiss the surface of the syrup, imparting an extremely subtle, yet delicious smokeyness to the syrup, increasing the complexity of its flavor and really setting wood fired syrup apart from the other methods. It is not overwhelmingly smokey, but very mapley, complex, and delicious. It is the way syrup has been produced for hundreds of years, and the flavor is so good, that we see no reason to change.
The primary benefit of wood fired syrup is that we firmly believe it tastes the best. The caramelization, complexity, and mapley flavor tend to be the strongest on wood fired rigs. In addition to the flavor, it is also sustainable, renewable, and abundant in our sugarbush. In order to maintain the health of our forest, it is imperative to cull diseased trees, open the canopy for desirable trees, and produce a variety of timber and non timber forest products to support our farm, while improving the conditions for different varieties of trees, fungi, and animals. Additionally, by burning wood, we are liberating ourselves from our dependance on oil. It is hard to control where your oil comes from, and often times by buying oil you are supporting political regimes which contradict our national security, are putting fragile environments at risk of development and spills, and contributing to global warming from carbon dioxide emissions. While we are not entirely oil free just yet, by not processing our syrup with oil, we are saving thousands of gallons of oil a year from being burned, and we believe that every drop counts.
Some will point out that burning wood contributes carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is technically true, however it is important to consider that the carbon dioxide released by wood fire is carbon dioxide which has been in the atmosphere in recent history and sequestered during the life of that tree. This differs from fossil fuel, in which the carbon has been sealed away from the atmospheric carbon cycle for many millennia, allowing life as we know it to evolve under these atmospheric conditions. For this reason, many consider burning wood for energy to be “carbon neutral” in terms of its affect on global warming. Our fuel source is also right in our back yard, protecting us from swings in energy prices and keeping our supply chain local.
A Labor of Love
The down side to processing our syrup with wood is that it is much more work! Our wood is harvested on site, which is very physically demanding and labor intensive. It then needs to be bucked, split and stacked. We palletize our fireword in order to reduce redundant handling, but there is still plenty of heavy wood to move. When the day comes to boil our syrup, our fire needs to be carefully built, maintained, and shut down (there is no on/off switche to flick, or thermostat to set). We are at a high risk of burning our pans if we make any mistakes. We have to clean up wood detritus after every boil, and we need to feed the fire every fifteen to twenty minutes. Thus wood fired requires constant attention and manipulation.
But it is our firm belief that the benefits of wood fired syrup clearly outweigh the costs. We love the time spent in our forests, working in our woods at different times of year, and producing a high quality, traditionally produced syrup. We hope you realize the benefits of wood fired syrup and make it a point to seek it out in your grocery cart.
Thank you for taking the time to understand what sets our process apart, and we hope you thoroughly enjoy our product!