How I learned to love 44 pound buckets of sap.
Growing up, sugaring was a rite of spring that I became familiar with from a distance. I fondly remember my Dad taking the boys, and Gramp, out to the sugar houses in Vermont to watch the boil, and for the treat called sugar on snow. We’d be amazed that this amazing sweet could come out of trees. Unimpressed, my grandfather would tell us how, as a boy, he would tap telephone poles for motor oil. If one of us 3 boys showed any sense of acceptance at this silly notion, he’d make the movement of casting a fishing pole, reeling us back to reality with a “gotcha”, a grin, and a puff on his pipe. There was always a story. There was always another fish to catch.
When we moved onto this property in central Maine I was certain it had lots of ash, pine, cedar, and the occasional birch tree. But, I did not think it had much in the way of sugar maples. Until fall that is. Then they started popping out of the background of pine and fir like a mummer on New Year’s. (OK, google it if you have to, I’ll wait).
Ready? OK, get on with it.
I was on a quest to make sweet syrup from our trees. But to make certain I didn’t end up tapping ash trees, I wrapped 15 maples with flagging tape. That takes the guesswork out when it’s time to tap 6 months down the road.
My friend Ron, who frequently laments my overengineering nature, gave me a bottle of what he produced cooking maple sap over a chimera while juggling Bud Lite’s. I was amazed. First at his ability to drink that much Bud Lite, and second, it was his reminder that people have been making syrup for thousands of years over a simple wood fire. True confessions, I’m not a good follower of keeping it simple. But I’m a product of my Dad, so sweating the details on any new endeavor was baked into my DNA. Over the years, for me, doing it right became a de facto sign of respect for all those that had done it before.
After visiting a couple hundred web postings I had my plan for a block arch evaporator to make my first batch. A few trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot produced an assortment of cinder blocks, stove pipe, and a few scrounged parts allowed me to build it in an afternoon. I was happy how it looked and as I shared it with folks in the know, my confidence grew. My goal was to end with at least a gallon of syrup. Half for us, and half for friends and family. Anything else would be a gift. Anything less would force me to have a performance review with the maple trees at first bud break. For the first time since we retired to Maine, I couldn’t wait for February to arrive.
By Halloween, it was wrapped tightly in a double layer of tarps, and the stack was sealed up to keep as much moisture out of the cinder blocks until it was time to sugar. Exploding cinder blocks were not in my plan.
It’s now mid- February and we have a forecast of temps in the 40’s or 50’s. Time to unwrap my handiwork and add a couple foraged upgrades. My friend Larry found me an old wood stove door and a piece of sheet metal. The stove door I would use to manage the fire’s draft or add more firewood. The sheet metal I hoped to use as a spot for me to rest my sap warming pots so I wasn’t adding cold sap to my pans. A few more cinder blocks closed up the front, and we were ready to get the first boil going.
Working through the process in my head also encouraged adding a set of handles to one of the steam pans making it easier to lift a pot of boiling sap off the arch. I wish I had done all 3 pans, but it was a test. At $10 per set per pan I wanted to be sure it worked. (It worked.)
Now it was time to consolidate sap buckets. Including the lid, these 5-gallon buckets are $5 at Tractor Supply. Make sure they are food grade. Some folks use gallon milk jugs, 2.5-gallon water jugs, metal pails, I have even seen a mason jar. Whatever it is, it needs to be wicked clean. I sanitize my buckets, tubing, and spiles in StarSan. It is a no-rinse sanitizer from the brewing industry. We’ll talk about that more in an upcoming blog on a recent brewing project, Sun Dog IPA.
While I may be getting up there, I didn’t think much about carrying the buckets from the trees. After the first 6 or 7 one hundred yard trips I was thinking about it constantly. Quickly found that two half-full buckets made it tolerable. Note to self: make a sled for next year. I early on decided that I did not want to do runs of tubing. Too much wildlife crosses behind our place. Plus I needed to get my 63-year-old butt up and out for mid-winter exercise. I spent more hours outside this past February and March that I have in the last decade. Sugaring will do that to a person. I have never been so taken with a project as with making maple syrup. Think of it. Maple sap for all its potential looks like a bucket of water (usually with some ice in it).
It’s March 4th. Light the beacon. It’s time to boil some sap. 53 gallons were collected and buried in snow to keep them partially frozen. At the most, you have 7 days to get your sap boiled or frozen for storage. It’s best to boil as soon as possible. But if you keep the sap packed in snow, things should be fine. Our temperatures were getting into the low twenties at night. Packing my buckets in snow kept them cold without freezing them solid.
With this type of setup, there is usually something to do. You are either skimming pans, adding sap to keep the pans full, digging out the next bucket of sap, or pulling out the next load of wood. I tried to stay on a 30 minutes routine of adding 8 to 12 pieces of wood to the fire in an attempt to get it burning steadily. Overall it went very well.
Kudos to Kathy, my wife, who has quite the deserved reputation for splitting wood. She’s a machine with an ax. There are 4 cords of organic, free range, non-gmo, wood out back to prove it. She made me a stack of 1/3 cord seasoned ash split small all tarped up next to the arch before the snow came. I did all 3 boils and still had a wheelbarrow full for the firepit at the end. On average this setup boiled off 6 to 7 gallons per hour.
In the end, it was a rousing success. The first boil after filtering produced 1.5 gallons of beautiful Grade A medium amber syrup. I was a happy camper on a sugar high after tasting syrup for an hour. I can’t wait for the next boil.
Despite the last 1325 words, the devil is in the details. While I did get some lovely syrup, I had still had two challenges to overcome. The first, a lingering hint of wood smoke in the syrup (which most folks seem to like, but it does take away from the maple flavor). And the second, the dreaded sugar sand or niter that can impact storage and how it looks. OK, I said it was easy. But it’s not always simple. More on the steps that happen once you are done the main part of the boil. Reducing, filtering, canning will be covered in the next post.