How do you solve a problem like 'buddy'? With a pregnancy-like test for maple sap

A researcher is working on a new test for the maple syrup industry that would warn producers that bad syrup lies ahead. 

'Buddy' is an off taste in syrup that isn't detected until late in the process

In Ontario, the syrup industry is a $70 million annual business. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

A researcher is working on a new test for the maple syrup industry that would be like a pregnancy test, but would warn maple syrup producers a bad batch lies ahead.

Currently, maple syrup producers can't be sure what causes an off flavour called "buddy" — named because it usually comes out as the tree starts to show buds — which gives syrup a taste similar to a burnt Tootsie Roll.

The sap seemingly comes out of the tree fine, but when boiled down to make syrup, the taste emerges and marks the end of that season.

Producers have relied on a variety of other homespun indicators like the call of woodcocks, peeping frogs, or the height of wild leeks to try to estimate when tapping time is over.

Eloy Jose Garcia, a biotechnology student at Fanshawe College in London, Ont, studied 282 samples from trees across the province this year to try to pinpoint exactly what was causing the faulty flavour to emerge. 

He said they found that it's a combination of nitrogen and sulphur that get pulled into the tree as it starts to bud, partially from leaves rotting on the forest floor. 

"There is new chemistry in the tree," he said.

Because producers don't notice the flavour until the sap is boiled, they can waste time and money to produce syrup that they can't sell.

"When the producer is boiling the sap to get the maple syrup, those compounds interact and they have different chemical reactions and those reactions at the end are responsible for that flavour," he said.

The research is part of an internship program at the college sponsored by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada.

Now that the chemical problem has been identified, Garcia hopes to be able to come up with a test that could be given to producers. 

He said it would be simple, like a pregnancy test, and let them know before they start boiling sap that it will produce bad syrup.  

"The hope is that any producer can go and test a small strip with a little solution and something would change colour."

He said that could allow a producer to stop collecting sap completely or just from parts of their forest.

Potential game changer

Ray Bonenberg of Mapleside Sugar Bush in Pembroke, Ont., and treasurer for the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA) said buddy is a tough problem to guess. 

"It depends on topography, microclimate, type of season, age of trees, amount of sunlight; there are so many variables and we're always trying to out-guess them," he said in a release. 

Bonenberg said that precise test would be a game changer for the industry. 

"I'd be able to monitor the sap as it comes into my machinery, every hour on the hour, and make an accurate decision about when to shut things down," he said.  

Members of his association helped by sending in samples during this year's syrup season.

With files from Kimberley Molina