Making Maple Syrup

Posted in places, skills

Right now Maine is in that very frustrating time of year when the weather can’t quiet decide if it’s still winter or not. One day the sun shines a promise that spring is just around the corner, and the next its once again a winter wonderland. While normally I would quickly lose my patience with this constant back-and-forth, this year it doesn’t faze me at all. That’s because I now have learned that this ritualistic teasing does (like everything else is nature) indeed serve a purpose. And that wonderful, wonderful purpose is the production of sap & hence– maple syrup.

Maple syrup is a syrup made from xylem sap harvested from maple trees. All the sap is collected in the spring during “sugaring season” because that’s when the sap is flowing. The key to sap flow is cold nights (below freezing) followed by warm days (above freezing). The water is then evaporated out of the collected sap to produce the thick, sweet liquid that we know as maple syrup. During our stay at Zocalo this spring, Michael and I had the opportunity to go through the entire process of maple syrup production all on our own. All I can say about the experience is that never again will I ever consider those tiny little maple leaf bottles of syrup to be too pricy or too small! Here’s a quick look at our adventures & lessons so far:

1. Tapping.

Lucky for us, John already had all the supplies ready, all the trees identified, and most of the trees already tapped. Tapping is straightforward enough – drill a hole about an inch into the tree at a slight upward angle, hammer in a tap, and attach your collection bucket (or in our case– jugs). The tree trunks should be at least 10 inches in diameter in order to be tapped, and older trees with larger trunks can have multiple taps. Always tap the south-facing side first (or the side that receives the most sunlight), and if doing multiple taps, then the east, then west, and lastly north.

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2. Collecting.

All in all, there are about 40 tapped trees in Zocalo, most with multiple taps. At first collecting wasn’t so bad – we would walk from tree to tree with a 5 gallon bucket, and shake out every last drop of what wasn’t frozen at the bottom of the jugs into the bucket and transport the precious cargo back into a big blue barrel next to the winter house. Then it started to get warmer during the days and the sap started really flowing. Then we could hardly empty the containers from one tree before our 5 gallon buckets were full! And trekking back to the house through snow and mud from a farther patch of trees with one of those full, sloshing buckets is no fun at all, let alone doing it 40 times! So instead we devised a way to wheel the 2 big blue 50 gallon drums closer to our collection locations as best as we could, and then wheel them back (full) to the boiling site. And on the good, warm days we would fill both the barrels alllll the way full.

Collecting is of course something that needs to be done regularly, and after awhile of collecting, you learn a thing or two– your muscles that have been softened by the winter start to get strong again, you learn to dress warm, but more importantly the necessity of big wool socks and tall waterproof boots, you realize what a sap you were at the beginning for treating every drop of sap as precious, and now you don’t even bat an eye at all the sloshing, and you get used to dead moths– the poor things just can’t help themselves and often try to drink from the collection jugs and instead end up drowning –but every now and then, you get the opportunity to save one, and that’s nice. :)

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3. Boiling.

So once all your sap is collected for the day, its time to start boiling. If you taste sap, you realize that its really not that special tasting. Really just like water, but very, very faintly sweet. It takes a lot of boiling down to turn it into syrup. The sap to syrup ratio for sugar maple trees is 40:1, in red maples 50:1, and birch trees are 100:1! (Yes! You can tap birch trees too! our friend from the Ukraine tells us its common there, but that the taste is quiet different. Yes, we’re intrigued too!). Zocalo has red maples, so that means that we have to boil down all the sap in a 50 gallon barrel for just 1 gallon of syrup. So once we get the (outdoor, specially built just for this purpose) cob oven started for the day, we keep it burning all day until the sun goes down.

This is actually the fun part, because you just have to light a big roaring fire, keep feeding it so it burns all day, and make sure the long, flat pans above the fire are always boiling and filled with sap. The best way to do this is to set a timer for 30 minutes, and once its gone off and you’ve tended to the fire and replaced the evaporated sap with more sap from the barrel, and picked out anything that doesn’t belong in the pans, you can once again set the timer and do it all over again. The only hard part is hauling all that wood to burn (best done with a sled) and splitting it. Luckily, once the fire is already going, you can stick whole logs in without problem and avoid splitting wood again until the next day. And remember– the sap is flowing, so rain, sleet, or snow, that sap needs to be boiled! No rain-checks in this line of work– just build a tent over the oven and keep on boiling. But if you get lucky with a nice day, you can just plop down in a lawn chair in front of the fire and make yourself a really special tea– put some dried mint leaves in a mug, and fill it up with the boiling sap right in front of you– yummy sweet and full of unfiltered minerals & nutrients!

4. Evaporating.

After boiling and boiling the sap outside for days, the next step is of course – more boiling. Once the sap reaches a higher concentration of sugar, it runs the risk of burning over such a hot fire. So once the sap has been boiling for a few days and has turned a nice brown color, its time to move the contents of the pan into a large pot inside the house. The pot stays uncovered on top of the wood stove that heats the winter house. Since the winter house is a cob house, it doesn’t need too much heating, and in fact, the pot of sap won’t actually boil the way the pans outside do, but the water will slowly evaporate out to form a thicker, sweeter syrup. This step doesn’t really require any extra effort since you’ll be using the stove to heat the house anyways, but it is made more enjoyable with a big ball of yarn, a good pair of knitting needles, and some company ;)

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5. Can, Label, and Consume!

When produced commercially, the syrup would first be filtered through cloth filters to remove the sugar sand– a concentration of minerals and nutrients that accumulate as sap boils –before packaging. We tend to think that it can’t hurt to have the extra nutrients, and since it all settles down to the bottom anyways, we’ve never had a problem with it affecting the texture of the syrup itself, so we feel fine about skipping that step. So finally, finally, once the syrup has thickened, it can be canned with some pretty labels (making sure to make a note of the date), and of course ready to be poured all over your waffles, pancakes, cereal, french toast, and just about anything and everything else you can handle all that sweetness with!

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And that’s how you produce all your sugar for the year in just 2 months– Zocalo style!

So don’t wait– get tapping and next time you’re frustrated with the bi-polar spring forecast, just take a deep breath and remember that the sap is flowing and the maple syrup is on its way!

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