Think all maple syrup tastes about the same? Well, not according to a panel of top maple syrup experts who recently declared the amber liquid being tapped at Simcoe County’s Windlee Farms best-in-show at the 2018 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. What was so special about it? Density, clarity, colour and, of course, a fresh flavour that syrup-master Peter Lorriman has been working on perfecting for years on his farm in Tiny Township (population, 11,787).
“We were pretty excited, because we’ve done the Royal for three years. The first year we didn’t do very well and so we learned from that,” Lorriman recalls, “Last year, we got fourth and we learned from that, too, and this year we were first in our class, so I guess it shows we’re doing something right.”
Windlee’s class is “amber” maple syrup, the largest of four categories (golden, amber, dark and very dark), that refer to both the colour and flavour profile of Canada’s signature pancake topping. Even within the categories, there are subtle flavour profile differences that are generally attributed to regional micro-climates. In other words, maple syrup has a “terroir.”
“When people ask me which is the best syrup, I compare it to wine and, you know, some people like a white wine and some people like a red, so we say taste it and then make your decision,” explains Lorriman. “And each bush is like a different vineyard, ‘cause ours is on a north-facing hill and, you know, somebody in the valley might have different soil type and a different taste to their syrup.”
Lorriman bought Windlee, a 150-acre farm overlooking Georgian Bay, in 1992 and his family has been making maple syrup ever since. Actually, he grew up making it with his parents, so he’s just keeping up the family tradition. He built a sugar shack and invested in equipment that increases efficiency in the collection process, which allows him to start boiling the fresh sap within 24 hours of collecting—a key factor, he thinks, in his winning flavour profile. Maple syrup producer guidelines suggest the syrup should go to boil within seven days, but Lorriman thinks it starts to ferment and change flavour after one day.
Although the competition is stiff—Windlee Farms beat out 11 other syrup producers in the category—it’s a friendly contest, since everyone in the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association is happy to share techniques with one another. A rising tide floats all boats, as they say. Members also work together to produce events and festivals, such as the springtime “Maple Weekend” (April 6-7), an Ontario-wide celebration of all things maple. There, Windlee Farms not only teaches visitors how to make award-winning syrup, it also features the “Critter Carver” and his chainsaw wood crafts, plus a “Birds of Prey” session with a falconer.
“It’s our fifth year doing it in Ontario,” he explains. “We actually got the idea from New York State which has been doing it for 15 years and some producers get, you know, five, six thousand people coming out to their Sugar Shack. Last year, on the first day, we probably got three or four hundred people. The next day we got about 200. So we’re starting to build it, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
But, given that he brought home the gold for Tiny Township and a lot of curious people are bound to want to get a taste of this sweet success, it will likely be a banner Maple Weekend at Windlee this year.