Glenn Janzen is part of a small – but growing – group of Island producers used to seeing their product evaporate – literally.
Janzen is one of many Island maple syrup producers in a burgeoning gourmet cottage industry. His Beneath The Bark Sugar Shack on his 100 acres in Black Creek produced around 35 litres of maple syrup last year, and he is in the midst of another successful season this year.
While maple syrup production is generally associated with eastern Canada, Janzen said the bigleaf maple on the Island is a strong producer of sap, and the resulting product offers a unique taste.
“People try and transfer what they know on the East Coast to here; it doesn’t quite work,” he notes as he walks toward one of the 200 taps currently drawing sap on his property into 16-litre jugs.
It takes somewhere between 70 to 80 litres of sap to turn into one litre of maple syrup, he explains. While all of his maples vary in sap production, one of his best-producing trees has a tap that will fill a jug in one day when the flow is on, but that’s a rarity.
“If we get four litres a day, if we get that across the board, that would be great.”
Tapping trees on Vancouver Island is different than in Ontario and Quebec, he explains. Tapping season beginnings in January through March, whereas in eastern Canada, it begins in April.
“Ours is much earlier, as sap won’t flow through a frozen tube,” and adds there is a very precise time in March to know when to stop tapping.
“When you look at the buds of a tree … the buds are just starting and if they are too plumb, the chlorophyll that is developing gets into the sap, because the sap is going up and down in the tree to feed the leaves. When we get too much chlorophyll, it gets a funny taste, and we just stop – they do the same back east. That’s one thing you can transfer.”
This year, the taps went in on Jan. 26 on his property. Janzen says some Island producers start as early as December. Sugar is generally about one per cent or less in the sap, but if they can get two per cent, “we’re happy. (It’s) about half of what they get back east.”
As a result, his sap spends about twice as long in the evaporator in order to boil off twice as much water, which caramelizes the sugar, producing a darker, rich-coloured syrup.
Janzen characterizes the flavour profile of his syrup as “sweeter caramel with a touch of molasses.”
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One of Janzen’s friends and neighbours, woodlot owner Harold Macy, was the forest manager at the University of British Columbia’s research farm in Oyster River in the early 1990s. Along with a colleague, he wrote and delivered a program called Master Woodland Manager to allow private forest landowners management tools and new alternatives to clearcutting their forests.
He notes one module was Non-Timber Forest Products which included ornamentals, medicinals, handcrafts and edibles.
In the edibles section was maple syrup, a project he had been pursuing for several years at UBC. He explains the ‘pay it forward’ mandate was that in exchange for the knowledge and tools, participants would return to their home communities up and down the Island and pass on what they had learned.
Thanks to the popularity of the program, the Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival at the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan has developed into an annual event.
“We also lobbied and received the classification of maple syrup as an acceptable farm crop for farm status, a first in B.C.,” he adds in an email.
A few years ago, Macy reached out to Janzen – who was one of his students – and asked if he wanted an evaporator. It was originally being used at UBC, then made its way to Salt Spring Island where it was used for about 10 years.
“It ended up here and it’s just way more efficient to use and it allowed us to produce a volume that we can share now. I don’t feel bad selling it; I don’t hoard (the syrup) anymore,” he says with a laugh. “This is our third season with the evaporator.”
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Creating maple syrup takes time and patience – the small-batch process is not for those who want to see an instant product.
Following sap collection, the filled buckets get poured into a reservoir – in Janzen’s case, it is an old steam kettle from a commercial kitchen.
From there, the reservoir is connected to run into a float tank, where the sap preheats and eventually makes its way into the evaporator.
“If you drop cold sap into (the evaporator), it will kill the boil,” explains Janzen.
The sap sits in the evaporator until it reaches 50 per cent sugar. As a product, syrup is 67.5 per cent sugar.
Once it reaches the correct sugar content, the product is taken out of the evaporator and into a smaller evaporating pan indoors on two burners on a cookstove. The stove provides a more controlled heat, and as such, once the syrup reaches the correct sugar level, it is filtered, heated once more, then bottled.
“It’s nice to have enough to share,” Janzen notes and he places more wood in the fire for the evaporator.
“What struck me right away 15, 18 years ago, there was a significant amount of people that said we do (maple syrup), but just for us. There’s still that. There actually are a lot of people who do it. Homeschool groups come (for tours of the sugar shack), and some of the parents look at it and say ‘we tried and we got a thimble – it’s so much work.’ ”
Janzen realizes his maple syrup is priced higher than those from Quebec and Ontario, but his production is significantly smaller, and his syrup spends more time in the evaporator which enhances colour and flavour.
“I’ve had one or two people from Quebec who’ve said this isn’t maple syrup because they make maple syrup. I’ve run into 20 people or more at the market from Quebec who says: ‘wow, this is good.’ There’s the number one clear, and the amber but I like the darker stuff because it has more flavour.
“This has been compared to their end-of-the-season run, just when they’re getting down and cleaning out the pan, there’s sugar there that has been there so long that it’s so caramelized.”
A carpenter by trade, Janzen bought a sawmill and began supplying wood for a local flooring company when he and his family first purchased the property in 2000. At the time, he dabbled in maple syrup production but a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis two years later sidelined his ’sap-sucking’ for the time being.
“Fatigue was my main disabler,” he says.
Now, with his son David assisting the operation and his wife Sharon (who runs Alderlane Farmhouse Bakery) as support, Janzen decided returned to the “active, low stress” operation.
For more information and where to purchase the syrup, visit Beneath the Bark Sugar Shack on Facebook and Instagram.