Artisanal Sugarbushes and the Tastes of Maple
by Noel Vinet of Sainte-Clotilde, PQ
Often in life our choices are based on our values, our financial resources, our availability, our passions and much more.
Maple production is a rather special world and everyone can find their place, both the very large producers with more than 50,000 taps and even 100,000 taps, making it their principle source of revenue, and at the other extreme, the artisanal sugarbush with only a few hundred taps.
The equipment will be quite different but equally efficient. The artisanal maple producer is passionate and thrills his associates by producing very tasty excellent quality syrup. He never stops innovating in the transformation of maple products and in the use of maple syrup in the kitchen to embellish various dishes.
How many maple producers still today collect maple sap in a bucket or with horses or by gravity?
Very few you say… well, think again, there are hundreds and hundreds.
Did you know that: The sugar content (the Brix) in maple sap collected in buckets is much higher than maple sap coming in through tubes.
In fact, the Brix (sugar content) in buckets is often more than 3, while by tubes, it is about 2 Brix.
Also, with buckets, when the temperature falls below the freezing point at night, ice forms on the surface and when the ice is removed, the sugar content (Brix) is higher; it is a natural concentrator, your natural reverse osmosis device!
We operate our small sugarbush with a gravity tubing system for collecting the maple sap.
Our 900-some taps already keep us quite busy, but we have the fortune of benefiting from a cold mountain air current at the heart of the Appalachians that always allows us to keep our collected sap cold in a natural way.
Thus, we can keep the sap in our stainless steel reservoirs and boil every two days to maximize the yield of the evaporator.
This feature inspired me to undertake a very special project!
Already being a “horseman”, why not bring to life for our grandchildren the joys of collecting maple sap with horses, and voilà, the project was underway!
1st step – Make a ramp in the sugarbush
This ramp, as in the past, will allow the maple sap to be emptied by gravity directly into the reservoir in the sugar cabin.
2nd step – Target which maple trees to tap for buckets
To get to our sugarbush, we go through a “tunnel” bordered with maple trees that had never been tapped to this day, so the choice was not too hard to make.
To complete this “run” of maple trees with buckets, we also tapped some maple trees in our sugarbush that are on an opposite slope and could not currently be tapped due to the gravity tubing system.
We will also have some 100 taps with buckets that theoretically could be visited with the horse every two days during the sugaring season… as long as Mother Nature is on our side!
3rd step – Choose a horse
Even though we already have two horses on the farm, my choice was the acquisition of a beautiful 4-year old Belgian horse, still experiencing life for the first time.
Raised in the fields, he quickly became acclimated to the farm with his two companions.
4th step – Basic training of the horse
Before putting time into harnessing, we needed to put time into groundwork!
The daily routines of entering and exiting the horses in the stable are the ideal moments to educate and train your horse with different voice commands and ground maneuvers.
Day after day and week after week, you thus have the chance to show your horse good ways of doing things, and he will do them automatically when the harness is on his back.
Now it is time to put the harness on him.
Take the time to adjust your harness well and especially the collar, so his shoulders do not get injured while working. Do not hesitate to ask for advice as needed from an experienced person. You must give special attention to the adjustment of the bridle.
The groundwork, with the harness on the back of the horse, allows him to become familiar with the action of your hands on the reins and to obey different voice commands.
5th step – Training the horse with the sleigh
The first snow has already fallen and the tank for collecting maple sap has already been installed on the sleigh.
It is thus time to attach the horse to the sleigh to become familiar with all the new equipment.
Once the horse is attached to the sleigh, it’s all forward… or maybe not!
To the contrary, take the time to remain stopped, not just for two minutes, but for 15 to 20 minutes… that is the secret!
This method that seems so commonplace is the very foundation of all your work with your horse… oh yes!
As a trainer in the horse world for years, multiple experiences with horses have taught this to me and the old-timers knew this well-kept secret!
The longer you remain stopped, the more your horse will learn to work calmly, without haste and without sudden movements… and God knows, that is what you are looking for when collecting maple sap.
Now, we can go forward with our horse.
Now, you still have to teach him the voice commands so that later, you will be able to get off the sleigh, pick up the sap from the buckets, and make him start and stop by voice, without being on the sleigh… just like our elders did.
With a little patience and some help from an experienced driver who will stay on the sleigh while you command your horse from the ground, you will get there rapidly.
Remember to always use the same simple routines with your horse, day after day, and the two of you will make a formidable team.
You now need to find a sleigh suitable for a sap collecting tank, and then choose the appropriate harness for your horse.
In the past most maple sugarmakers used just an ordinary sleigh with two runners…
The tank was installed on the sleigh. This tank had a special shape. The bottom was wider than the upper section so the sap did not spill out of it when the horse was pulling it through the sugar bush.
The shafts of the sleigh were a little bit special, they were called dragging shafts.
Steel plates were installed under the shafts to protect them and they were always sliding on the ground. They had to be installed under the front part of the runners…
So when the horse was turning, first the shafts were turning under the runners and then by pulling the shafts, the sleigh went in the right direction!
One of my friends always says “K.I.S.S.” meaning “Keep it simple stupid”, and this is what it was and it worked for a hundred years like that!
Now you have to decide about the harness to use and fit on your horse.
With those shafts, farmers, horseman and sugarmakers used a breast collar type of harness but the hames had no long traces, they had only short traces and a peg at the end, and the peg was inserted into the end of the wooden shaft on each shaft.
Your two wood shafts became your traces, so you didn’t need traces at all!
No need to repair traces anymore!
When first using that kind of harness with this type of shafts, I immediately realized that when collecting the sap in the maple sugar bush, you never get stuck between trees with this outfit because the two shafts are always close to the horse when pulling the sleigh so a tree can not get stuck between the shaft and the horse, as often happens with regular collar harness having traces.
Simple and reliable equipment was used by our past maple sugarmakers.
Now, wish us good luck for the next sugaring season. Even though we have thought of everything, Mother Nature is going to shake it all up as usual!
Remember the spring 2014 sugaring season, when there was so much snow that it was necessary to remove snow twice by hand from your tubes before sugaring, and once sugaring had started, the buds appeared on the trees in the middle of the sugaring season as the sun beat down. Not easy!
Remember the 2015 sugaring season, when in the middle of the season, intense cold reigned and froze all the tubing day and night, day after day!
That is what it is like to be an artisanal maple producer; we must make arrangements with nature.
For everyone who is an artisanal maple producer, do not hesitate to send us photos of your setup to: firstname.lastname@example.org
An artisanal sugarbush, marrying the present, the future and the past!
Have a good sugaring season!