Over the last several years the boys and I have learned to enjoy the debut of spring by working in the brisk sunshine over a hot fire and the warm, sweet steam of boiling maple sap! All of the restless knots of winter work themselves out in the most marvelous of ways – physical labor in God’s creation…and a sweet reward at the end. : )
Maple syrup making is one of a few unique ventures in which only those of us who are foolish enough to live in the sub-arctic northern hemisphere can participate. Of course, if you live in Vermont, up-state New York, Maine, or (cue angelic choir music) Canada you can claim all superiority and expertise in the art of making maple syrup. In Michigan, though, there is still plenty of maple sap to go around and plenty of cold nights and vacillating spring days to bring the sap to our buckets. It isn’t uncommon for neighbors to drive down our muddied road and see kids slurping sap tubes from ancient maple trees like little fairies at a forest soda fountain : )
While I’m not going to go into the detail of a how-to for making maple syrup – YouTube has that covered with about 400,000 video tutorials (which is where I learned) – I thought it’d be fun to share some lessons-learned for those of you who may be curious to try your hand at robbing nature of it’s second-best golden nectar (first-best is found here).
Hmm…I think that the first lesson is:
1. It’s OK to Start Small – that’s good news! If you’ve got a couple of Maple trees that you’ve been harboring a grudge against while you splurt Aunt Jemima on your waffles some mornings, then put an end to it! Grab the following, and you’ll be well on your way:
a bucket, washed-out milk jug, etc
drill & drill bit
Spile (OK, gonna have to buy some of these)
plastic tubing (best price around!)
(whole kit found on Amazon, yay!)
2. Be Prepared
Last year I was caught off-guard by an early warm-up in the weather. This got the sap flowing early, and I missed about 2 weeks of sap collection. Don’t wait to gather your supplies. Do it NOW for next season, then when the temps get to 40s in the daytime and still below freezing at night – Tap Those Trees!
3. Surface Area Matters!
Our first year, we used a large stock pot to boil the sap in over a wood fire. It was a large container, but the problem was the diameter. The goal is to get as much water to evaporate out of the sap as quickly as possible. For that, you need as much surface area as possible. After spending days watching a boiling pot…boil. I was finally able to upgrade to a large stainless steel water bath (think Old Country Buffet cast-off). This pan is about 5 inches deep and has about 11 square feet of surface area! This simple change in equipment has allowed us to cut our boiling time down by 75% – effectively quadrupling our syrup production in equal time.
4. Feed Your Fire
As I noted above, making maple syrup is all about time. That’s where the cost comes from, not the equipment or supplies, but how much of life someone has had to give to the product! Unless you’re retired, a trust fund baby, or a recent lotto winner, you probably don’t have unlimited time to boil down sap into the liquid gold you’re going for. In addition to a large surface area to enable evaporation, another key to speed up the process is a consistent, hot, efficient fire. I’ve used a smoke stack (6″ galvanized duct pipe) to keep oxygen drawing through the fire and as much hard wood as I can get a hold of.
5. Oh My Nitre!
Nitre and Sugar Sand are symbiotic evil twin gremlins of the sugar shack (there’s a picture for ya). Both of these substances present as a result of boiling the natural minerals found in the wonderful Maple sap. Nitre will show up in flakes on the evaporator pan (think calcium deposits). Sugar sand will appear as the syrup cools after bottling. You may have seen sugar sand as a haze suspended in, or at the bottom of, bottles of finished syrup. So how do you combat these gremlins? Well, the professionals force their syrup through layers and layers of pressurized filters. That’s a bit out of my league, and I’m still fighting this battle. As of this season, I’m filtering our sap right out of the evaporator, then filtering again before bottling. I’m also trying to be careful not to bring the syrup to boil any more than I have to while finishing it. Boiling will always create more sugar sand.
6. The Art of Finishing Well
There’s life application in making maple syrup?? Yep! but isn’t that true in pretty much everything worth endeavoring? While the bulk of the work of maple syrup production is on the front-end – tapping, collecting, hauling, and of course boiling the sap from 4-6% sugar content to around 60% sugar content; the real art of syrup making comes in the last few moments. The sap needs to be watchfully brought to 219 degrees & 66-68 brix (density). After struggling the first two years to get our syrup to be the best consistency, I finally bought a hydrometer. Using the hydrometer to measure the density (brix) of the syrup, as well as making sure I am using a calibrated thermometer have been key to achieving that lovely, palette-coating consistency of high-quality maple syrup.
Check out this awesome illustration of the evaporation process which will turn your sap into high-value maple syrup!
“Variation in Sugar Content of Maple Sap” by Fred Taylor
AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT STATION
University of Vermont and State Agricultural College
some thoughts, Nathan