Thursday, January 9, 2014

Brix deficiencies prompt syrup-producer response

Maple syrup producers in Waterloo and Wellington are determined to pull up their socks after their reputation was besmirched by low-brix-count batches offered for sale at two auctions last year.

The first auction in April left a bad taste in the air because a number of the first pails for sale tested below the minimum 66 brix to qualify as maple syrup.

Bidders were cautious and prices remained disappointingly-low throughout the auction.

Things were better, but still not perfect, for the next auction in September. There about three per cent of about 600 samples drawn for testing by an independent third party at the auction fell below 66 bris.

The issue was the hottest topic and got a thorough examination during the annual meeting that drew more than 100 producers to the annual meeting of the Waterloo and Wellington Maple Syrup Producers Associations at St. Jacobs Thursday.

Paaul Bailey
Paul Bailey, risk identification and management co-ordinator for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Foods program for foods of plant origin, said it could have simply been an issue of how producers drew samples to submit for the testing.

He said official testers in Quebec and Vermont draw their samples from the middle of barrels to overcome the issue of “layering” of syrup that sinks the sweetest to the bottom and the lowest-brix-count syrup rises to the top.

He said Vermont officials use a turkey baster to draw samples from the middle of containers. Quebec officials turn the barrel on its side and take the sample from the bung which is located at the mid-point.

Lorne Brubacher who bought some of the low-brix product at the auction said when he took it home and mixed the contents, he found the brix count topped 66.

Bruce Gillilian of Vermont said there are many unintentional mistakes producers can make that result in syrup that is either not sweet enough or too sweet.

Bruce Gillilian had producers' attention
Many relate to the reliability of the testing equipment producers use. For example, he said hydrotherms are so notoriously unreliable that he doesn’t sell them from his Leader equipment stores.

The paper inside hydrometers can slip up or down to result in a faulty reading; he recommended creating a benchmark line inside the hydrometer case, or somewhere in the sugar shack, so producers can check whether the paper has slipped.

Temperature adjustments are also important; he offered to send a laminated chart to anyone who asks, a chart that shows the minimum brix level required at every temperature.

He said simply taking a reading from a pail 10 or 15 minutes after the syrup has run out of the evaporating pan could throw the reading off because the syrup may have cooled from 212 (boiling heat) to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.

Whatever the reason, Waterloo-Wellington president Fred Martin said producers and the directors and staff of the Elmira Produce Auction Co-operative are determined to ensure top quality for upcoming auctions.

The manager of the auction warned producers that any syrup that falls below 66 brix will not be sold as maple syrup, but as a maple product.

The organizers might also allocate low-scoring pails for sale at the end of the auction when there will be less impact on bidders’ willingness to bid.

Martin also urged the producers to offer their syrup in stainless steel containers. A large percentage at last year’s auctions were in food-grade plastic pails.

The syrup was auctioned at wholesale, not in consumer-ready retail packaging. Many of the buyers were dealers who will probably blend and further process what they bought before putting it into retail packages.

The Elmira auctions began after the first-ever auction in 2012 at Lucknow proved popular with both producers and buyers.

Martin said if producers do a good job of developing standards and meeting them, the Elmira auction could become “a big win-win for both producers and buyers.”