Tapping chemists to solve maple syrup’s buddy mystery

‘Buddy’ is no friend to maple syrup producers, costing the industry millions of dollars each year across eastern North America.

Buddy is as old as maple syrup, and it’s not friendly. This burned-Tootsie-Roll taste can ruin syrup flavour and is undetectable until sap is processed — far too late for small producers to recoup costs.

The annual cost of buddy, which the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA) estimates can reach into the millions, is a lot of liquid gold for small producers who are forced to sell buddy product at highly reduced rates. To avoid the risk, some producers stop production too early in the season, missing the opportunity to make high-quality syrup.

As a result, producers can sometimes lose as much as 10% of their annual income.

Is there a solution to this sticky problem?

A field test would help producers, but research was required.

Eloy Jose Torres Garcia, a senior Fanshawe College undergraduate and Mitacs intern, led a team of researchers at Fanshawe and Agriculture Agri-Food Canada with the mission to solve this age-old problem.

“Buddy wastes time, fuel, and money,” says Eloy Jose, a Colombian microbiologist and biotech undergrad. “Companies can’t afford to throw away an entire batch. If you can develop a test for it, you can save a lot of money.”

Before a buddy test can be created, the research team had to isolate the problem.

Eloy Jose, also a Colombian refugee, wonders why Canadians don’t take their maple syrup as seriously as Colombians take their coffee. “To me, it’s crazy that most Canadians don’t know anything much about maple syrup. Where I come from, everyone knows something about coffee,” he says.

While canucks may not all be maple syrup connoisseurs, syrup producers take buddy very seriously, even if their methods aren’t particularly scientific.

The existing science on buddy sap dates as far back as the 1940s and 50s, with very few recent studies, explains Eloy Jose. “As big as the industry is, not a lot is known from a scientific perspective.”

Of course, research is expensive. And technology hasn’t been able to help, until now.

A new partnership between Mitacs and the OMSPA provides independent producers with access to important research findings, like what causes buddy sap, potentially saving the industry millions.

“There is a reason why this essential work has never been done before,” explains Bob Gray of the OMSPA. “It is very difficult to do, requires state-of-the-art equipment and some very smart chemists to tease out the answers.”

Bob is owner and operator of Kemble Mountain Maple Products, a small family maple business in southern Ontario. He has served as Research Committee Chair for the OMSPA for nearly a decade. Bob rallied interest among the OMSPA’s 600+ small maple business owners to support the three-part buddy study, all under the guidance of Dr. David Miller, a world-renowned chemist at Carleton University.

Sap samples were collected throughout last year’s maple season from two different maple bushes in Ontario. They were then forwarded to Dr. Justin Renaud at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in London, Ontario, for chemical analysis using mass spectrometry. The results suggested that a chemical precursor could be identified with more research.

The buddy mystery all boils down to chemistry

Chemical changes occur when the buds begin to show or ‘bud out’, and not all trees ‘bud out’ at the same time. “The intent of this study was to see if it was possible to identify a chemical precursor to maple sap becoming buddy,” says Dr. Miller.

It’s all about microclimate.

“Trees on a south-facing slope will ‘bud out’ sooner than those on a north-facing slope, and many sugar bushes have both. So, the research was focused on the transition to ‘buddy’ and the identification of its precursors.”

Climate change requires that the industry incorporate more scientific processes. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to determine when we can expect the end of the season to occur, based on traditional past experience and calendar dates,” says Bob.

The final stage of the study will focus on developing a paper-based test, similar to a pregnancy test, to identify the buddy sap precursor outside of the lab. That test could also help industry giants who purchase sap in bulk.

Isolating a big problem with micro-scale clues

“The problem with buddy is that no one knows what makes it happen. It’s just a flavour, and there’s heated discussion about where it comes from,” explains Eloy Jose.

First, they had to pinpoint whether the buddy phenomenon stemmed from the tree or the production process. The evidence suggests that an excess of nitrogen compound produced in the tree during late spring could be the culprit.

Next up, is the identification of the specific compound.

Bob Gray coordinated the collection of sap and syrup samples throughout the entire maple season, from 11 regions across Ontario, as far north as Sault Ste. Marie.

“Geographic location can have a huge impact on flavour,” says Bob. “Flavours depend on a lot of factors like soil type, your trees, and the methods of syrup production utilized. But of course, everyone’s maple syrup is the best,” he jokes.

“The sap can look good and smell good, until it’s boiled and thickens into syrup,” he explains. “Then it tastes like a burned Tootsie Roll and it keeps getting worse the later you go into the season. You can’t mask the taste by mixing it with better quality syrup.”

The industry’s strategies to nip buddy in the bud vary. Bob’s own tradition was passed down from his long-time mentor many years ago, and relies on the local frog population. “When it gets warm enough for spring peepers…” says Bob. “The third night you hear them calling, that’s when you stop collecting and processing sap, or you get buddy.”

There’s probably some science to that, he adds, “but not everyone has frogs.”

According to Eloy Jose, the industry is all about tradition over science. “Those traditions are kept very close to their chest,” he adds. “They have done this for years in their families, so you become a trustee to them. Maybe that doesn’t have value as a researcher in science, but as a human…”

Breaking down a mystery, with science

The research team tested the molecules in the trees before the spring tap and then again at harvest in March. For the first time, they were able to flag the nitrogen compounds and precisely measure sugars, determining that buddy starts in the tree.

That alone, is a groundbreaking discovery. And the team proved just how important microbiology is to maple syrup production.

“Everything has a smell or flavour created by a chemical compound, molecules that we can smell and taste,” explains Eloy Jose. “Of those hundreds of compounds, just one can give you a good or bad taste.”

Moving beyond buddy

“This research has provided groundbreaking results for an important Canadian industry — one that typically wouldn’t have the funds to conduct this level of science,” explains Dr. Renaud, Eloy Jose’s supervisor at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Mitacs was able to build this important connection between Fanshawe College, the OMSPA, and a talented researcher. That’s an absolute win for everyone involved, and an entire industry.”

“Giving college students the opportunity to work on research will give them an instant boost and show them a path towards life after college,” says Dr. Renaud. “Honing your research skills within the walls of academia is incredibly rewarding, but being able to apply those skills beyond our walls can open up possibilities and chances for innovation outside of the classroom.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada for their support of the Accelerate research. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from the Government of British Columbia, Alberta Innovates, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.