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Lessons in Backyard Maple Sugarin'

Transitional TraditionsLate winter in Wisconsin was bitterly cold. It was so cold in fact, that we hadn't seen a day above freezing for nearly two months. It was assumed all over that spring would not show its face on March 20th and instead wait until about May 1st, like last year.

Then the most amazing thing happened: The second week of March gift-wrapped eight to 10 days of unseasonably warm and gorgeous weather! We went from 17 degrees for a high to 45 in about a day. And it lasted! Not only that, we actually closed in on 65 degrees for a few consecutive, amazing days. Everyone tore open their shutters and threw up their sashes. Bicycles were resurrected early, children crowded playgrounds, and car windows were kept proudly open as people blared peppy music.

With such a surprise warming, us amateur sugarin' folks were caught off-guard. Andy and I missed a solid four days of potential sap before we could get everything together. We have one tree to tap in our yard, a 16-year-old Red Maple. Across the street there are two Norman Maples, one Sugar Maple and three Silver Maples that have tapping potential. The Normans and Sugar are very old (planted when my dad was a boy) and on the tail end of their lifespan. We decided not to tap them this year. We did tap the three Silvers with two taps in each. Total, we have six taps running into blue sap bags.

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My father, who lives off the farm in town, has seven or eight large maples trees he wanted to try tapping so we got him buckets and hoses to try tapping with a hose method. He was able to tap seven trees in one morning about a week into the season.

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We have only been tapping trees on our own since last year. We helped with sugarin' when we lived in Coon Valley, but all the tapping and sap collecting was handled by the other farm workers. Andy simply took his turn boiling at the stainless steel evaporator.

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We didn't even finish the sap into syrup. The farmer's wife took the mostly cooked sap and finished boiling it on her stove and canned everything herself.

Having that limited experience probably made us more dangerous than if we'd never tried it before! We knew just enough to tap trees and barely enough to finish the syrup. I guess that might prove how fool-proof the process can be, but I recommend a little more research for someone just trying it out.

StoveStockPotLast year we grabbed equipment at the local Fleet Farm, which consisted of collapsible taps and blue sap bags. It was a very rigged experiment on the trees, and we had bags blowing off nearly every day. My brother and his family had to help us fix bags and hunt around their yard for the ones that "got away." In the end, I boiled everything in a large 5-gallon stockpot on our stove. All day I boiled that thing. All day we ran our gas stove.

At the end we counted up the pint and quart jars we'd canned, then estimated the usage of our propane, the equipment purchased, and figured out that our cost per pint was $7. That did not include any time of ours whatsoever.

Seven dollars per pint was not a big savings from store-bought maple syrup. We knew this season would have to be handled better.

Lesson #1: Better Equipment Makes Better Neighbors and Efficiencies

SapBagCloseUpMy brother and sister-in-law hesitated when we asked to tap the trees again this year. Remembering last March and the cold hunt for unsightly blue bags gave them pause. We had upgraded our system with specially designed bag clamps that hold the bags with tension. We assured them there would be no more games of “Chase the Sap Bag” this season.

So far, this system has made the sap collecting very efficient and clean. Simply lift the handle you see above and tip the bag into a 5-gallon bucket. Most of the time, I collect it when there is a full gallon of sap in the bag. This system mimics the old-fashioned bucket system without the expensive metal buckets.

The other system we are trying is at my father’s place. This is where you put tiny plastic taps into the tree and connect tubing directly from the taps to the bucket on the ground. This is cleaner and less work still. You simply wait until the bucket is near full before collecting it. The system is great for someone who cannot check trees every single day. Every couple days we get another full 5-gallon bucket from my dad. I think he’s delivered nearly 20 gallons so far.

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Lesson #2: Boiling in the Kitchen is Not Effective

Last season, we only boiled in the kitchen. We just didn’t think getting a big evaporator rig (read: super expensive) was worth the 10 quarts we ended up with. We had seen how the big sugar houses in Massachusetts did it two years ago. It’s impressive.

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A little more research this year told us that backyard sugarin’ lives on the backbone of ingenuity. All one really needs is a wood fire and a way to keep the sap safely above said fire. There are so many set ups with so many re-purposed materials, one can really make this part of sugarin’ their own. Just do a Google search, and be amazed and inspired.

This year, we have a fire pit whereas last year we did not. Andy grabbed some cinder blocks and built up a fire box inside the fire pit, out of the wind. Next, he took a large circular grate from our campfire set and placed it over the fire box. Finally he took a large, military grade aluminum, 10-gallon stockpot that my mom found at a garage sale and put it on top of the grate. He filled it with sap and began the fire. Sooner than we thought possible, that giant pot was rolling in a boil.

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The first time out, he was able to reduce about 10 gallons of sap in about six hours. Previously it took me all day to reduce 5 gallons on the stove. In the house, we just couldn’t get it hot enough. Most of the time, people use shallow metal pans to allow for more boiling surface area and that makes the process even more efficient. Since we are just getting our own process figured out, we were happy with this marked increase in efficiency. For two days over this past weekend, Andy boiled from about noon to 9 p.m. He figured that we poured about 25 gallons of sap into that pot. When he pulled it out last night, the sap was down to half full! Very dark and golden.

Now it is time to finish the sap in the kitchen. It’s hard to get the syrup finished outside over a fire as it tends to suddenly boil over near the end. As well, the condensed sugar makes it susceptible to scalding in a split second, ruining your entire batch. Even the most experienced people will often boil in the kitchen just before canning.

This leads me to Lesson No. 3.

Lesson #3: It’s Not Syrup Until It Aprons

Last year, since all my boiling was on our stove, we canned up that syrup as soon as it looked golden and “tasted right.” It was runnier than Mrs. Butterworth’s, but that was how the syrup had looked at the farm in Coon Valley. It was all we knew.

After some more reading and research this year, we found that syrup really does need to act like … syrup! Rink Mann, the author of Backyard Sugarin’, explained that syrup temperature continues to rise to 7 degrees above boiling (212 degrees at sea level) before it actually reaches that syrup stage. Anyone who has ever made homemade candy can attest to the difference between syrup and sugary water. I was dumbfounded. Our syrup wasn’t actually syrup! At this point, we had already canned about six quarts of what we thought was syrup. I opened the one in our fridge. Sure enough, sweet but very runny. Rink went on to say that you can use a candy thermometer to gauge the temp and thickness, or you can use a spoon and dip it in the syrup. When you pull the spoon out, the sap should run off in sheets, or “aprons.” If it does, then it’s ready!

smallStockPotI reopened all our hard-earned 2015 jars and poured them into a 6-quart stockpot.

After watching the rolling boil for about an hour and carefully monitoring our candy thermometer, I tried the apron method. There it was. My first ever maple syrup! I re-canned the (now) syrup and we only had 3.25 quarts. I was able to eliminate another 1.75 quarts of water from what I thought was deep, delicious maple syrup. Let me tell you, the taste difference was monumental! It’s like we never had syrup before. It was just amazing.

Lesson #4: Filtering Makes a Difference

Last year we didn’t filter the syrup at all. We just didn’t know about that. (You’d think we would have researched a little more!) This year I wanted to find out what that sediment at the bottom of our 2014 jars was. It turns out that there is a build-up in sap called “niter” or sugar sand. As water boils out of the sap and all the minerals collect together, this sugar sand develops. It’s actually very common with backyard sugarers and there is a lot of chatter on the web about the most effective way to eliminate it from the finished product. Filtering is a good idea to make sure bits of ash aren't in your syrup anyway, so we decided to try it this year. I didn’t have a professional filter so we tried our tea cloth draped over a mesh strainer. It worked really well to get the gunk out. I learned that the hotter the syrup at the time of filtering, the less syrup will stick to the cloth. For next season, I might look into a wool filter for even better results.

After it’s filtered and as soon as you can do it, get that sap into your sanitized mason jars. Just like hot packing pickles or tomatoes, the maple syrup can be hot packed into your jars.

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*Side note: If you have filtered your syrup but are unable to can it right away, you’ll have to reboil it before canning. If you get it up near 219 degrees again, be aware that sugar sand might develop all over again. This happened to me! I refilled our 3-quart jars with beautiful clear syrup and by that night, I noticed “stuff” floating all around in it again and the jars were no longer transparent. Quick research told me that the reheating requires re-filtering if you really want all that niter out. I’m not repacking again. The sugar sand will settle in about a week and we’ll just save the bottom inch of the jars for use in cooking. The niter is harmless.

SugarSand

Lesson #5: It Ain’t Over 'Til It’s Over

As I said, the spring sap run caught us off-guard around the 9th of March. I collected sap this morning and brought in another 4 gallons. I couldn’t believe it! Two days ago, the bags were empty because the temperature had cooled way down again. The key to a good syrup season is 40-degree days and below freezing nights. This wakes the trees up. Makes their blood flow again. One can expect a good season to have about three weeks of solid drip-drip-drips from their taps. However, we had several days so warm that it didn’t freeze at all at night. Then the temps hit a more natural Wisconsin level and barely nudged 40. We just didn’t know what to expect. Yet, here we are, more than two weeks from the start and still going strong.

You’ll know it's the end of the season when the sap begins to take on color. Don’t process that. It’s not tasty anymore. Now you can pull your taps and clean your equipment and dream about what to do better next season!

My only question is this: With our unseasonably warm Wisconsin spring, will I be planting my spring garden while still canning maple syrup? One can only hope. That would be a good backyard sugarin’ season!