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Arnold Coombs

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Organic Maple Syrup Expert

Here, Coombs Family Farms' Arnold Coombs explains the benefits of organic maple syrup, the process used to produce it, and offers creative tips on how to put it to use in your kitchen.

Arnold CoombsQ: How does organic maple syrup differ from syrup produced using non-organic methods?

A: The basic manufacturing process is the same, however, how we farm is what is different. All Coombs Family Farms organic maple syrup is made without artificial flavors, preservatives or thickeners. Our organic maple syrup is Quality Assurance International (QAI) certified and carries the USDA organic seal. Inspectors visit the farm yearly and walk through our woods to evaluate our tapping procedures. QAI certifies that sustainable forestry practices are followed. The seal ensures trees are not over-tapped for short-term gain and that we are not drilling too far into the tree. QAI certification also means that no pesticides are used on the farm, approved buffer zones are in place and appropriate cleaning procedures are followed.

During the boiling process a defoamer is often used. This is because the hot syrup will often boil over the pans. The inspector will also make sure the defoamer is organic and used properly. Once produced, the syrup needs to be filtered and stored properly to meet organic standards.

Q: What is the process organic maple syrup goes through from tree to table? How long does this process take?

A: The sap is extracted from the Sugar Maple tree in very small amounts. One tree may give us enough sap to produce 32 oz. of maple syrup for the whole year. We drill a small hole into the tree and snuggly tap a spout into the hole. When the weather warms up (above 34 degrees or so) the sap will slowly drip out into a bucket or plastic tubing. When the sap comes out of the tree it looks like water and has a slightly sweet flavor. It is about 2% sugar. This sap is taken to the sugarhouse where it is boiled. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Time varies depending on the size of the evaporator. Small evaporators produce a gallon an hour whereas larger ones produce 150 gallons or more an hour. Once the syrup reaches the proper density (about 66% solids) the syrup is drawn off the evaporator, filtered and stored in containers.

Q: What are the best conditions under which to produce organic maple syrup? What signs do you look for to know that it’s time to tap a tree?

A: The best weather conditions to produce maple syrup are freezing nights and warm days. We get these in the spring, usually in March and April. A perfect weather day (which does not happen often) can produce as much as 40% of the year’s crop. When the daytime temperatures start getting into the upper 20’s and lower 30’s, that’s when sugarmakers take to the woods to tap their trees.

Q: Organic maple syrup is available in different grades. What do these grades mean? Are different grades better for certain purposes (i.e. cooking vs. eating) than others?

A: All maple syrup grades are determined by color. There are five USDA maple grades, including three Grade A’s (light amber maple, medium amber maple, dark amber maple) and two darker syrups, Grade B maple and a commercial maple grade. Not unlike wine, all have distinct flavors and tones. Contrary to popular belief, maple syrup grades do not indicate a difference in quality or purity but pertain to how the syrup will be used. As a rule, the darker the color, the stronger the pure maple flavor.
• Grade A Light Amber – A very delicate maple flavor
• Grade A Medium Amber – A stronger, yet mild maple flavor
• Grade A Dark Amber – Robust maple flavor, great for cooking, grilling, and on oatmeal, pancakes, waffles, glazes, etc.
• Grade B – The heartiest maple grade, and a perfect ‘secret ingredient’ for adding deep, dark flavor tones and subtle sweetness to your favorite gourmet recipes.
Q: Besides putting it on pancakes, what are some great ways to put organic maple syrup to use in the kitchen?

A: Although most people typically think of pancakes and waffles when they think of pure maple syrup, it is truly a kitchen-cupboard staple and can be used with a variety of sweet and savory dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have many easy and delicious recipes available on our blog, The Maple Kitchen, at http://www.coombsfamilyfarms.com/blog-home/website.

Q: What is one little-known fact about organic maple syrup/organic maple syrup production?

A: I read a lot and I’m always looking for interesting facts about maple syrup. Here’s one I discovered lately while scouring Wickipedia: Scientists have found that maple syrup's natural phenols – the beneficial antioxidant compounds – inhibit two carbohydrate-hydrolyzing enzymes that are relevant to Type 2 diabetes. In the study, 34 new beneficial compounds in pure maple syrup were discovered, five of which have never been seen in nature. Among the five new compounds discovered is quebecol, a compound created when the maple sap is boiled to create syrup.

Q: Are there any health benefits to using pure maple syrup?

A: Pure maple syrup has only one ingredient and it is a natural sweetener. According to the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, one tablespoon of pure maple syrup is only 50 calories, about the same as a tablespoon of refined white cane sugar. However, maple sugar has a low glycemic index value (54), according to the original Glycemic Index of the University of Sydney. A glance at its nutritional composition reveals that it also contains minerals such as manganese (100% DV), riboflavin (37% DV), zinc (18% DV), magnesium (7% DV) and calcium and potassium (5% DV). Corn syrup and honey have higher glycemic indexes and contain more calories than maple.

Another a recent study by the University of Rhode Island conducted for the Canadian maple industry has found that there are more than 20 compounds in pure maple syrup that contribute to better health. The study identified antioxidant compounds that are reported to have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-diabetic properties. Additional research has found that one-quarter cup of pure maple syrup contains more calcium than the same amount of milk and more potassium than a banana.

About Arnold Coombs 
One hundred percent pure maple has been a way of life for seventh generation farmer Arnold Coombs practically since the day he was born. On the way home from the hospital, his mother stopped in so newborn Arnold could meet his father, Robert Jr., who was busy sugaring during peak maple season. At the age of three, he started riding behind the tractor while his dad and granddad, Robert Sr., tapped trees. As a shy ten year-old, he came out of his shell giving maple tours to out-of-towners. Now, Arnold’s teaching his own boys, Max (22) and Addison (20) what was passed down to him.

That’s part of what it means to be a seventh generation maple farmer. From Thomas to Jethro, Asa, Fred, Robert Sr., Robert Jr., and now Arnold, one hundred percent pure maple has been a way of life for the Coombs Family since 1840.

Arnold maintains that key to longevity and sustainability at Coombs Family Farms is environmental stewardship. Arnold takes seriously his commitment to the maple industry, small independent farmers, and above all, the forest. His grandfather, Robert Sr., always said, “There are no shortcuts to creating pure maple syrup—do right by the forest and it’ll do right by you.”

As General Manager of Coombs Family Farms and Bascom Farms, Arnold is a champion for small family farms and advocate for the maple industry. Arnold currently serves as the chairman of the Vermont Maple Industry Council. He is a member and past director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, and a member of the Organic Trade Association. Arnold graduated from Champlain College with a degree in Business.

“There are no shortcuts to producing pure maple syrup. Maple farming is not just our livelihood, but also our way of life. I’m proud to support other small maple farmers who share the Coombs commitment to quality, environmental stewardship, and sustainable forestry. It’s not just the right thing to do—it’s what has to be done.” – Arnold Coombs, Seventh Generation Maple Farmer, General Manager of Coombs Family Farms and Bascom Farms.