Saturday, February 26, 2011

Maple Syrup

As a general rule there is nothing good about the end of winter. All the snow banks turn brown and ugly, the roads all turn to slush during the day and then freeze into ruts at night. All the winter sports like skiing and ice fishing have lost their charm and it is too early to think about spring sports. There’s nothing much to do except wait it out. Cabin fever has set in and you are about to go crazy, you have to get out of the house!
Just at the right time to save your life, maple syrup time arrives. At the start of the season you still need snowshoes to get into the wood lot to tap your trees, and by the end you can stroll through in tennis shoes to gather your taps and buckets. Before you know it the season is over, the buds have started to pop on the trees and it’s time to start thinking of spring. But, while it lasts, sugaring season is the best thing that can happen to a long winter in the North Country.
The process of making maple syrup can be a lot of fun for the whole family, kids love being out of the house and helping throughout all the steps of sugaring.
To get out and take part in this ages old tradition you need very little. At the bare minimum you need a maple tree, a spile or tap of some kind, a container, a pot, and a heat source. On the other side you can spend tens of thousands of dollars equipping a modern sugar bush. For most people somewhere in the middle is the right place to be.
To start you need to identify the right trees to tap. If you aren’t sure what a maple looks like check the leaves in the summer or fall. You are looking for a leaf like the one on the Canadian flag. The bark is gray and rough, but not patterned like tire tread, that is ash. A maple has to have at least a 10” diameter to be big enough to tap. A tap can be anything used to transfer the sap from a tap hole into a container. The Native Americans used hollow sumac sticks. I have used everything from irrigation fittings to copper tubing. But, the best thing to do is buy a few spiles from a sugarbush supplier. A local feed or farm store might have them as well. The traditional metal taps work just fine, but if you are planning to tap a lot of trees it will pay to go to a plastic spile and tubing.
When you are taping the tree try to drill the tap hole on the south or southwest side of the tree. This is the side that will get the most sunlight throughout the day and run better. You can use a bit and brace to do a few trees or a cordless drill to tap the whole forest. My little operation only calls for a bit and brace. Drilling the tree and setting the taps is one of the most fun parts of the job, and my kids love to help with this. I usually drill the hole then let one of them clean out the shavings and set the tap. On a warm day it will only take a minute before the sap starts to run. One of our favorite things to do is catch a few drops of sap on our tongues right from the tap. Maple sap tastes like the coolest freshest water you will ever taste with a little hint of sweetness.

After you have set all your taps and hung your buckets comes the hard part, waiting. It seems like it will never happen but the steady plunk…plunk…plunk in the pail soon becomes a blop…blop…blop.

It may take all day and half the night, but eventually you will get a bucket full of sweet maple sap. Everyday when I bring the kids home from school we rush to check the buckets to see how much sap we got. With the few trees that I tap in our yard I can just carry two five gallon buckets around to collect the sap, larger operations use watering troughs. I keep a barrel in the garage to store the sap until we have enough to boil.
It takes around 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The hardest and most labor-intensive part of making maple syrup is boiling down the sap. This is where you can spend some money. The sap needs to be boiled to 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. It takes a long time to boil 40 gallons to that point. I have tried everything from the kitchen stove to the BBQ grill to camp stoves and turkey fryers. What I finally settled on was a wood stove with a stainless steel pan on top of it. There is any number of ways to set up an evaporator, it can be as simple as a pot over a fire or as elaborate as a 4 x10 divided pan fired by propane. The long and short of it is you need a lot of heat and a lot of surface area to boil a lot of sap.
Once you figure out how to heat your sap you can slow down a bit, there is nothing so relaxing as sitting next to a wood fire all weekend checking your pan and shooting the breeze with friends and family. The smell of boiling maple sap is like nothing you have ever smelled before; the steam that rolls off the pan seems to be filled with wholesome goodness. It opens your senses and takes you back to a simpler time like a time machine. You could be doing this in your backyard in the middle of a big city and that smell will whisk you away to Vermont in a second.
As the sap gets lower in the pan you slowly add more to it, doing this all day until all your sap is in the pan. As the last of the sap boils down you need to keep a very careful eye on the temperature. If the level gets too low for the area of the pan it can scorch in a flash. At this point I pour the sap/syrup into a large pot and move into the kitchen. On the stove you can keep a closer eye on it and control the temperature better. This is a very critical time; once the syrup reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water then you have syrup. Real maple syrup does not look like the stuff in the super market; it is much thinner and usually not as dark.
When you reach the syrup stage remove it from the heat and strain it to remove any sugar sand or other impurities. I then put it back on the stove and heat it up again for canning or bottling. I just use the classic glass canning jars, but you can get all kinds of fancy containers from the supply companies.
Now comes the best part, get everybody together that helped throughout the season and have a big old country breakfast, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
This may sound like a lot of work for a little payoff, and it would surely be cheaper to just go to a store to buy it, but there is something about eating something you made or grew yourself that makes it so much better. I know that when my little girls grow up and have kids of their own, they will tell stories of the times they helped Daddy make maple syrup, and leaving a legacy like that to be passed down is the sweetest reward of all. .