Producer Visit: Riverside Maples

This spring’s early warm temperatures meant maple sap started flowing by the beginning of March, so we took the opportunity to visit Lester Wideman and his family at Riverside Maples in Mount Forest, just over 100km northwest from the Co-op. Riverside’s maple syrup is available in 1L bottles at the Co-op in various grades.

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The Wideman family’s three generations operate several farms in close proximity. They produce chickens, beef, dairy, and maple syrup. They are part of a Mennonite community. Lester and his wife have 11 children and 27 grandchildren, many of whom were at the farm together when we visited.

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They collect sap from a number of woodlots, including the main bush with 50 acres of sugar maples and other hardwoods. Attentive woodlot management ensures a healthy, productive forest that produces sap each spring and fuel for heating their homes and firing the evaporator. Riverside uses a pipeline system to collect sap from over 4,000 individual taps.

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The pipelines are attached to a vacuum system that augments gravity in bringing sap from across the woodlot to a central collection point located below grade so it doesn’t freeze. The sap is then pumped up to very large stainless steel bulk tanks which hold the fresh sap before it is hauled to the sugar house at Lester’s farm.

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The large evaporator, made in Quebec, combines 4 key elements to create syrup: Fire box; Sap pre-heater; Evaporator pan; & Air plenums. Lester’s grandson was in charge of constant monitoring of the evaporator while we were there.

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The fire box fits 4 foot lengths of firewood and is re-filled every half hour. Ceramic insulation is used to minimize heat loss.

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Inside the evaporator pan, sap flows from the holding tank through a series of baffles. As water evaporates, the density of the sap increases until it becomes syrup. The change in density creates a natural flow thorough the series of pans over the fire box. Air is pumped into the pans to increase the roiling boil, reducing the boiling time by increasing the surface area of liquid & reducing energy consumption. The Widemans do not use a reverse osmosis system to force water out of the sap before evaporation.

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Lester pours off a bucket of syrup to test the density. It takes 40L of maple sap to produce 1L of maple syrup.

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The hot syrup is pumped through a series of paper filters to remove fine particles of sand that naturally occur in maple sap.

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In the bottling room, the hot sap is packaged, sealed, graded, and labeled in mason jars and other containers by the younger generations of Widemans.

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The grading table was full of freshly-packed bottles, ready for the Co-op.

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Maple syrup is visually graded by colour ranging from extra light to dark. Ontario is currently transitioning to share a common standard with other regions which will have 4 grades: golden, amber, dark, and extra dark. The grade doesn’t denote a quality but rather a flavour profile and is dependent on many factors including how the weather affects the sap run each spring. This year’s mild winter and higher spring temperatures are creating more amber and dark syrup than average. Lester has noticed a trend in customer preference for darker syrups, so this is good news for his syrup production this year.

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The Wideman family was very welcoming, giving us a full tour of their operation including a wagon ride to the bush with lots of friendly guides. We are happy to work with the Widemans to bring their delicious maple syrup to your family in Hamilton!

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