Project Maple 2011

We’ve now completed our second weekly boil of Project Maple 2011, upgrading our production significantly from 2010 by tapping twice as many trees.  When we moved into our new house in Nov 2009, the leaves were off the trees and I couldn’t identify all of the maples.  This year, I got 25 taps in, although they’re not all sugar maples (the red/swamp maples still produce boil-able sap, it’s just lower in sugar content).  Surprisingly, this has led us to a new problem – the sap is running so hard this year that I’m running out of storage space.  Last weekend we boiled 50 gallons down into 1 1/4 gallons of syrup, and this weekend we had 100 gallons which we boiled down to 2 1/4 gallons of syrup.  Yes – the sugar content of the sap varies throughout the season, and you can notice that even in one week our yield (ratio) declined slightly.  We only have 2 50 gallon storage tanks, so we basically reached our current capacity over the past week.  Check out how fast the sap was running last Thursday – this is relatively unusual – it usually drips once every few seconds, but it was actually flowing last week.  The combination of cold nights and warmer days was the perfect sap storm. Listen to the sweet “ping”:

We also have a new evaporator setup, with new pans procured by my father-in-law, Dad Dynamite, a new under-plate system to keep the fire out of the mud, and a new chimney system.

What 'chu lookin at?

Oscar takes his job guarding the entire setup very seriously. If anyone sets foot within a quarter mile of our evaporator, he sounds an unholy alarm that triggers a sympathetic response from Mr. Griffey.  Unfortunately, Mr. Griffey was out of the Circle of Trust on account of his persistent foraging in the woods for animal poop, so he was tethered:

outside the Circle of Trust

Our new pans have threaded pipe holes on them, which we fitted with food grade stainless steel ball valves to transfer the sap from the larger back pan to the smaller front pan, and then from the front pan to the lobster pot so that we can finish it on the stove.

Evaporator 2011

We finish on the stove-top inside because it’s easier to control the heat, and the line between “syrup” and “hot foamy boiled-over mess” is a very fine line indeed.  It happens in a matter of seconds.

The process in itself is not inherently complicated: the goal is to boil the water out of the sap.  What starts as clear sap gets darker as the water boils out and eventually becomes syrup.  Here’s an intermediate picture of the rolling boil, where you can see the color starting to darken:

Although the main task is standing around, the process is physically exhausting, mostly because you can’t just walk away.  It’s essential to keep the fire burning under the pans, and to make sure that there is enough sap in the pans that they don’t dry up and burn.  The first week, we boiled 50 gallons and spent 6 hours outside and another 3 hours inside.  We pulled the near-syrup off the stove a bit too early and had to do too much work inside.  This past weekend, boiled 100 gallons of sap, and spent 11 hours outside. We only needed another half hour or so inside, as we pushed the limits a bit outside to get further in the process.

Rewinding: once all of the sap has made it from our storage tanks into our evaporating pans, the next task is to get the sap levels down far enough so that the sap can all be transferred into the smaller front pan, while at the same time not burning the larger back pan.  Our fire was wicked hot the first week when we did this, and the pan started to scorch as soon as the liquid left it.

the delicate dance - transferring to the front pan

We adjusted for the second week by letting the fire die down a bit, and pulling it forward as much as possible before draining the back pan.  Either way, though, someone is standing by with a 5 gallon bucket of water to pour into the back pan as soon as it empties.  We then continue to add water to the back pan as it evaporates, since the fire is still roaring to boil the front pan.

Aside from lugging sap from the storage tanks in the barn to the evaporator setup in the yard, the other task is keeping the fire stoked.  Oscar also keeps watch over the firewood.  I didn’t pose him for these pics – he takes his job very seriously. If you try to sneak off with some wood, he’ll take your leg off at the knee:

go ahead - make my day

As the day progresses, the evaporator area gets muddier and muddier.  Oscar sought refuge from the mud and cold at the entrance to the door of the fire:

his mother was a mudder

So the sap boils down until the back pan is emptied into the front pan, and the front pan is then emptied into the lobster pot.  We bring it inside, boil it some more, and then have to filter out the nitre – also known as “sugar sand” – which is basically trace mineral elements from the boiling process.

After a painfully slow filtering process, the finished product looked like this:


The taste of success in week 1 had both dogs fired up for serious quality control in week 2.  You can see the intensity on their faces as they make sure that no interlopers interfere with our well-oiled syrup making machine:

step away slowly - they can smell fear

Their dutiful guarding of the process resulted in record production in week 2:

2 1/4 gallons in Week 2, which was equal to our entire 2010 production

When all is said and done, there remains the task of scrubbing out the pans, lugging them back to the barn, cleaning out the sap storage tanks, and making sure everything is all ready for the next deluge of sap, which hopefully is imminent…


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