“The first we ever boiled was March 1 and this year it’ll be Feb. 28. Other guys boiled back on Feb. 10. It’s just one of those years for everybody to talk about,” said Terry Hoover, president of the Waterloo Wellington Maple Syrup Producers.
Roughly 100 people gathered for the first official tap of the season at Shady Grove Maple Farm in Breslau last Friday, where there was plenty of that sweet stuff to go around, along with the traditional pancakes and sausages, of course.
“I think we only had 50-60 last year. It was a great turnout and on top of that the sap actually ran. That was way cool,” Hoover said.
As everyone gathered around a large tree in front of the house bundled in winter coats and mittens, Hoover welcomed the crowd to the maple syrup farm.
“I’m a little surprised. I thought with a group of politicians it’d be a lot warmer,” Hoover joked. “But at least it’s not minus-20 and it’s a gorgeous sunny day.”
He noted they should be calling this year’s first tap the last tap because it’s so early that most producers have already finished tapping. That’s not to say it’s going to be a shorter season, it just started sooner.
Local politicians chipped in with their best wishes before helping with the ceremonial first tap.
“It’s great to be here today and we’re always excited for the first tapping ,” said Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz. “Coming here I was thinking Kitchener-Waterloo gets to end the season with Oktoberfest, but we get to start it with the tree tapping. I wish you all the best over the next few weeks and I hope the weather cooperates.”
Regional Chair Ken Seiling noted the importance of maple syrup to the local agriculture and that when we think of farming we shouldn’t only recognize livestock and crops.
Dan Goetz, owner of Shady Grove and host of this year’s tap, greeted everyone as well. He’ll also host the tap next year because the first tap switches locations every two years.
“It’s a special time of year for us producers. Welcome to the farm. We’ll go down and have pancakes after the tapping and a little fellowship and away we go. Let’s have at it,” Goetz said.
The Elmira Maple Syrup Festival unveiled the winner of their new maple syrup competition to be Maple Tap Farm from New Dundee.
“Along with the producers we got a list of names and we got 12 samples in and brought in two judges, professional maple syrup judges. That is actually a thing. We spent the greater part of Wednesday going through all the samples,” said festival chair Drew McGovern.
Part of the prize is they’re going to supply the syrup for the festival, which is approximately 160 gallons.
Hoover says this year’s maple season is off to a great start. They had a run way back at the beginning of February, but that was just too early to tap. He says they sort of started last Saturday, but on Sunday with a beautiful 10 degrees the sap was flowing all the way until 4 a.m.
“We had a bumper run. We get about three of them a year. So we’ve already had one, which is great. We were boiling all day [Monday] just to get caught up,” Hoover said.
He says this is the earliest start to the season he’s ever seen. And as for the quality of the syrup, it will be excellent as per usual.
“I mean it’s Ontario syrup. The quality is always the best. It’s better than anywhere in the world. Last year the sap was very watery the first couple of runs. The sugar content was 0.5, which is extremely low, so you have to boil and boil and boil to get any syrup. This year it’s right on schedule or slightly higher. We had 2.5 and we average 2.0 so we were happy,” Hoover explained.
The long range forecast is a bit of a concern with three days straight of 14-degree weather predicted with no freeze at night. The nighttime freeze is essential for maple syrup producers. Regardless, he expects it will be a normal year so long as they get the freeze and thaw.
Last season the trees were frozen solid for the first run. This led to a bitter taste in the syrup. And there’s a science behind that.
“According to the scientists the tree produces a natural antifreeze, which it stores just under the bark to protect the tree in extreme cold. What happens when we have that January thaw and stuff starts to move, the tree flushes that antifreeze out naturally and then when we tap the tree in March that antifreeze is gone,” Hoover said.
Last year the trees were frozen solid until March when the sap started to run, so that antifreeze came out in the sap, causing the first run to taste bitter. Then it got flushed away and everything was business as usual.
“And last year was the first time I had seen that in 15, 20 years. Again, it was an unusually cold winter last year. It’s amazing how the trees bounce back and we had a fine year,” Hoover said.
Drought can cause some concerns to the trees, but despite having a dry summer, the fall was wet and the trees seem to be in good shape for another tasty season of syrup.
“The first run this year tasted fantastic.”