Making Syrup with Pierre
On the land at the BESIDE Habitat Lanaudière project, there’s no shortage of sugar maples. But not just anyone can be a maple syrup producer — a lesson we learned the hard way last year. This time, we called on Pierre Forget’s expertise, and he taught us the basics of sweet success.
Texte—Marie Charles Pelletier
“The first time I ever tapped maples was on the night of Valentine’s Day. It was raining cats and dogs. I’ll always remember it. I was so carried away, I stayed in the woods until midnight.”
It’s been 25 years since Pierre Forget last made maple syrup. But the instant he opens his old photo album, it all comes flooding back.
After spending his youth in the forest for many years as a scout. Forget knew he wanted to work in the woods. He got a degree in forestry from Pembroke, and began working for the Québec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife, and Parks in Val-d’Or.
But the life of a civil servant wasn’t quite right for him. “If I had to describe myself with an image, I would say I am a tree trunk disguised as a person,” says Forget. When he was 22, he decided to become a maple syrup producer on the shores of Lake Simon in Petite Nation — public land was rented for a dollar an acre at the time (which works out to 40 cents per hectare).
Together with his father, he built the cabin entirely out of cedar logs collected in Réserve faunique de Papineau-Labelle. This is how La Coulée Sucrée was born, at almost exactly the same time as his first child, soon followed by a second — an eventful time, to say the least.
“When the sap started running, we were boiling around the clock. We were filling the pans every 15 minutes. We could burn eight cords of wood in 24 hours,” Pierre Forget remembers.
On the 40-hectare plot of land, there were 3,000 taps. “That sounds like nothing these days with all this advanced technology, but at the time it was something,” he says. The evaporators, as well as the cabin, were heated by burning wood rather than oil or propane. According to Forget, this is what gives the syrup a superior taste.
Forget’s two children learned to split wood and feed a fire when they were still very young. “Did we have a TV? No, we had work to do!” says the former owner of the sugar shack. Starting in 1981 — and for the next nine years — the young family lived in the shack for the sap season each year. In the trusses above the kitchen, Forget built a bedroom, accessible by ladder.
“I was 25 and I wanted a business that would make money,” he says. He estimates his hourly rate was around 25 cents per hour after a few years. And yet, he remembers it as the best family adventure of his life.
The profitability of his sugar shack was never calculated in dollars, but in beautiful moments: in childhood memories and sweet nostalgia. It is an immense richness he remembers 25 years later, spiles in hand once again.
Real maple syrop, according to Pierre Forget
You know it’s maple sugar season when the temperature starts to fluctuate, rising above six or seven degrees Celsius during the day and falling below zero at night. In winter the sap goes dormant, like a bear. It starts flowing again in the spring to feed the buds. That’s when you need to find out which trees are the sweetest maples, so as to reduce boiling time, energy, and combustion.
Some say you can determine whether it’s worth tapping a tree by tasting its sap, but for novices, a refractometer is more reliable. This tool allows you to calculate the amount of sugar in Brix degrees, the most common unit of measure for the density of syrup (one Brix degree equals one per cent sugar in a water solution). About 2.5° Brix in the sap is optimal, with the aim of reaching 67° Brix after boiling: this is how to obtain the much-desired liquid gold.
The taste of maple syrup is influenced by the soil, the environment, and the boiling time. Even over the course of a sugar season, it changes and evolves. When the golden syrup reached the perfect thickness and the pure taste of maple on the Forgets’ land, they’d put away 20 gallons. That was the closet syrup, the syrup that didn’t get sold. The stuff they kept for the family.
How to make maple syrup at home
On the land at the BESIDE Habitat Lanaudière project, more than 27,000 sugar maples have been identified. But quantity doesn’t guarantee quality: a first unsuccessful experiment last year convinced us to call on Pierre Forget this time. He agreed to teach us the basics of syrup making, from collection to transformation.
- a drill and a wood drill bit (8 mm)
- spiles or tapping spouts
- a hammer, to drive in the spiles
- buckets with covers
- a large boiling pan
- paper or cotton fillers for both sap and syrup (coffee filters work as well)
- a candy thermometer
- bottles or Mason jars to store the syrup
– 1 –
Identify the trees.
In the summer, trees can be differentiated by observing their leaves, fruit, buds, and bark. By the end of winter limits us to only the last two on this list. Pierre Forget tells us that he brings his binoculars to better spot the buds 18 m up.
Sugar maples and red maples are the ones to tap, since the other species of maple are not sweet enough. Red maples are distinguished by their soft buds, which look a little like a bunch of grapes. The buds of the sugar maple resemble a nail; the end is pointy and hard. These are the maples of choice.
– 2 –
Drill a hole.
Find a spot where the bark is clean and exposed to the sun (this helps the sap to flow faster). Use the drill to make a hole in the sapwood of the tree, about 4 cm deep and at a slight upward angle to allow the sap to flow out.
The tree must be at least 20 cm in diameter. It’s possible to drill a second hole for every additional 20 cm (so a tree that’s 40 cm in diameter could support two taps).
Keep in mind that every cut is an injury. It’s important not to drill too close to older holes, so as to allow them to heal. Leave at least 5 cm between holes, and vary the height of the taps from one year to the next.
– 3 –
Insert the spiles.
It’s important to hammer these in gently so as not to split the bark.
– 4 –
Collect the sap.
Hang your buckets from the spouts. Keep the buckets covered to avoid rain, insects, or pieces of bark falling into the sap. The sap should be collected at least once a day to ensure it doesn’t spoil or freeze.
– 5 –
Filter the sap.
Before boiling the sap, pour it through a paper filter or a piece of clean cotton to ensure there’s no debris.
– 6 –
Boil the sap at a rolling boil.
The sugar content must reach 67 per cent, a density achieved by boiling it at 4 °C above the boiling point of water. Use a candy thermometer to take the temperature of the soon-to-be syrup.
Note: although it hovers around 100 °C, the boiling point varies according to atmospheric pressure. To identify it, boil purified water and measure the temperature with the thermometer.
– 7 –
Pour into sterelized bottles or Mason jars.
Pour the syrup through a new paper or cotton filter to remove minerals and reach a nice smooth texture.