The Sault Star: No buddy of ours

Buddy sap … the dreaded burnt Tootsie Roll taste and smell that marks the end of the maple syrup season.

Maple syrup producers in the Algoma region dread its arrival each year, because, if undetected, it can result in an unsaleable batch of maple syrup.

Researchers are now investigating the exact chemical compound that makes up the buddy sap in hopes of one day developing a simple field test to determine its presence.

George Willoughby, a small maple syrup producer on St. Joseph Island and member of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA), knows all about buddy sap as he started making maple syrup in 1967.

“You were encouraged to have a Centennial project and mine was to make maple syrup in my grandfather’s sugar bush,” said Willoughby in an interview with The Sault Star.

The retired airline maintenance engineer, who operates Marg & George Willoughby Maple Products, describes the business as an enjoyable experience.

“It’s something I like to do and the profitability is not my intent,” he said.

Willoughby describes the end of the maple syrup season as “when the daytime temperatures go up to over 10 degrees and you get into the double digits.”

“The buds on the trees start to awaken and eventually you end up with this buddy sap,” he said, adding that other indicators are a reduced sap flow and a lower sugar content.

“It’s quite common to make darker syrup at that juncture, however once it goes buddy, it’s unpleasant and unsaleable,” said Willoughby. “At the same time, you don’t want to quit too soon because you’re giving up revenue.”

The islander, who uses a Vermont-style sugar operation with wood-fired boiler, has 625 taps that produce about 50 litres of raw sap in a day. Each season he has about 10 boils which result in about 50 to 55 litres of syrup each time.

“The way I operate is towards the end of the season, when my syrup is darkening up and still has good flavour I’ll quit boiling,” said Willoughby about the season that typically runs for about six weeks from late February to mid April.

But last year, he was not so fortunate. “Last year I did have a batch I had to abandon because it was too late in the season. It was a victim of buddy sap.”

To ensure future success for syrup producers, OMSPA has begun to tackle the buddy sap problem by partnering with researchers at Agriculture Canada and Fanshawe College with the support of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions.

Since May, project lead and Mitacs researcher Eloy Jose Torres Garcia, a Colombian microbiologist and biotechnology undergraduate student at Fanshawe, has worked with a team of researchers to pinpoint the buddy flavour phenomenon and identify a biomarker to serve as the basis for developing an early warning field test.

“The basis of the research we’re doing is trying to figure out what the chemical signature is in the maple sap in order to find the biomarker that could indicate the presence of the buddy flavour,” said Garcia in an interview with the Sault Star.

According to Garcia, the research involved maple syrup and sap samples from the entire province of Ontario as the OMSPA provided 282 samples of sap and 62 samples of syrup.

“We had to figure out what maple syrup is made of and what the different reactions are that can happen when you’re boiling the sap to produce syrup,” he added.

He said, to date, research has determined that the buddy off-flavour is the product of a nitrogen compound within the tree.

According to Garcia, the maple syrup flavour is a mixture of hundreds of chemical compounds.

“We need to figure out, from all of those chemicals, the one or two that are involved in that process,” he said.

To determine the biomarker, Garcia said his team must find the molecule that causes the buddy flavour or at least isolate the one that indicates a problem is coming.

“We have reduced our research to 20 to 30 molecules that we think are candidates to be the biomarker,” said Garcia.

Once the buddy sap biomarker is determined, Garcia’s team hopes to develop an easy way to use field test, similar to that of a home pregnancy test. He said developing a field test is possible, but “it’s going to take time to get that point.”

As for Willoughby: “Any research that gives us more information by which we can make good decisions, is a good thing.”

“If a person could find the marker or test that determines when you should shut the tap off would be highly desirable,” he said.

But for Garcia, just knowing that all the sap flavours are related to nitrogen compounds is a huge discovery.

“That’s a big, big advance,” he said. “Because when we started in May, we didn’t even know if we could determine something like that.

“What can be more Canadian than maple syrup?”

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