Maple 2015: The Rush

I’ve written about our backyard maple sugaring exploits previously, and our system hasn’t changed much in the last few years.  You can see those previous posts for a plethora of pictures and videos, and of course I’ll throw in a few here in this post as well.   This year has been a poor one for maple syrup (Thanks Obama!):  it’s warmed up much later than usual, and the frigid winter meant that it took a while for the trees to thaw out.    We boiled once on March 21st – making 1.3 gallons of syrup out of 50 gallons of sap, but we took the weekend of March 28th off.  Teaser hook:

finished product

finished product

Last week the sap ran fast and furious, and come Saturday we had 123 gallons of sap in the barrels in my barn.   We had the fire started at 7:30am, and had brought roughly 35 gallons of sap to a boil by 7:45am.   My father-in-law kept the fire raging all day, and we plowed through the dirty work of standing around watching sap boil off.    Frigid 40mph wind gusts didn’t really help our cause, but we managed to get the job done just in time for dinner around 7:30pm, bottling 3.5 gallons of syrup!    We’ve finally managed to solve the filtering issue that drove us nuts in years past:  the wool cones have been working great for us.

For those new to the process, here’s a quick summary:

1) In early march, I clean all the equipment:  I have 26 taps: old school galvanized tin buckets and spouts, along with 3 50-gallon plastic barrels to store the collected sap.  The sap is kinda like milk in that it “spoils” eventually in warmer weather, but that hasn’t really been a problem for us in the past:  we boil weekly, and it’s almost always cool enough that the sap has no problems sitting for a week.  The first week, our barrel was frozen – we had to chip sap-ice off the sides to boil it.

2) I tap the trees:  7/16th inch drill bit and an 18V cordless drill.   Then I tap the spout into the hole with a hook on it and hang the bucket.   If it’s a warm day, the sap will start flowing right away.  The key is cold nights and warm days to get the pressure differential in the tree cranked up, and to really get the sap flowing.   The trees store the sugar in their roots during the winter, and transport the nutrients up the tree come spring.

3) a tangent on that note:  have you seen that there are now companies selling “maple water” kinda like a competitor to coconut water?   As someone who makes maple syrup, this is amazing to me: a master class in marketing.   Maple sap is basically sugar water – it’s not sticky tar like pine sap.   You can drink it, and it has a slightly sweet taste.   So the geniuses behind maple water said, “Hey – why should we bust our asses boiling off all the water to get maple syrup (you have to boil roughly 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup) – we’ll just sell The People the unadulterated sap instead!”  If you can get $2.75 per 17 ounces (or less!), that’s roughly $20/gallon.   Wholesale maple syrup sells for about $40/gallon.  But there’s one catch: we need to do the conversion! You can sell 40 times as much sap as you can sell syrup!   So you can sell $20 x 40 = $800 worth of sap, branded as “Maple Water,” or you can sell 1 gallon of $40 syrup.  It’s no wonder why Maple Water is being marketed heavily.  Throw some true buzzwords like “gluten free, all natural” etc etc on there, and you have a winner.

4) back to the story:  so I tromp through the snow and slush every day to collect the sap by pouring it into 5 gallon plastic buckets and lugging it back to my barrels.  On a good day, the good taps will provide about 2 gallons of syrup.  Those days and those good taps are few and far between.  This year, I’ve been seeing more like 1/2 gallon per tap on most days.   I try to tap on a side of the tree where the sun will shine, as warmth seems to help the flow.  I’ve been somewhat mystified this year by a few trees that I have with multiple taps where one tap will produce 1.5 gallons in a day, and the other will be completely dry.   Now, when tapping, you can certainly hit “dead” wood that will be dry, but that’s not what happened to me: I have a few taps that were running, but are now prematurely dry.  Anyway…

5) On the weekend, we fire up the evaporator.   We have a cinderblock setup that I haul out in the spring and haul away after the season (it’s not quite that simple: cinder blocks are not built to hold up to the inferno of the evaporator: they crack – so I need to haul 1/3rd of them to the dump and replace them each year).   It’s set up on two old truck tailgates that provide a base.   We have custom made stainless steel pans with valves on them to draw off sap/syrup.

maple_evaporator

We add sap to the “back” pan – the bigger one, and release flow into the “front” pan as it boils down, re-filling the back pan with more sap.  Of course, the whole process is guarded by my layered k-9 defense team:  Brussels Griffon Sap Crew:

3 layers of Griff security

3 layers of Griff security

Eat some snacks, drink some beers, stoke the fire, rinse, repeat, and eventually you get close to syrup.

hot hot hot

hot hot hot

With the hot fire on the evaporator, it can be hard to finish the syrup outside: it’s a fine line between “done” and “burnt” – as it bubbles up and burns very quickly at the end.   So when we’re almost done – we know roughly how much syrup we will be making based on how much sap we collected, and we know how deep that will be in our front pan – we pull it off into a lobster pot and finish it on the stove.

inside on the lobster pot

inside on the lobster pot

We use both a thermometer (syrup boils at 7 degrees above the temperature at which water boils) and a hydrometer which measures sugar content – just like a beer hydrometer but calibrated on a different (higher sugar content) scale – to evaluate when we have reached “syrup”.   Then we filter and bottle: the bottles have been boiled in water to sterilize them.

The end result, when all goes well, looks like this monster load of 3.5 gallons we made this weekend:

liquid gold

liquid gold

Our sap has had a very high sugar content in the past few weeks: we’ve been in the 35:1 sap:syrup ratio, while in prior years it has ranged from 40:1 to 50:1 at the end of the season.   With this week’s haul we surpassed last year’s terrible maple numbers, but this still looks like it has the makings of a soft season, as we likely have only one more week left.

-KD

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