Syrup Time

Posted on: April 17, 2010

by Deborah in the UP

No matter where I am, Spring always makes me think of Maple Syrup, and the years of fun I’ve had making my own. I started syruping back in the mid-70’s, when I had several large maple trees on my property. It was a lot of time consuming work, but easy work, and the results were incredible, so I‘ve done it every year whenever possible.

In the woods, syrup time had to be time just right. To get a good harvest of sap, the signs had to be watched carefully: the snow pulling away from the trees was the first indication that the sap was coming back up the trunk, warming the tree back to life for another summer. Warmer, sunny days were the next sign to take into account, as that encouraged the sap flow. When this all came together, it was time to tap the trees! The first tree was a test tree, to watch the flow of the sap, so it was always one nearby that could be monitored easily. When the flow was good, we were ready!

We would don the snow shoes and select a path to the various larger maples within range. This path was sometimes modified depending on where on the route that tree was, but first the taps would need to be set, and before that, the two foot level would need to be found. Since there was always LOTS of snow still on the ground in the spring, I would have to dig around the tree to find the base so a measurement could be taken. Too high of a placement of the tap, and the sap would be slow, and could damage the tree. Two feet was the recommended height. So I would dig, often having to dig a semi-circle around that spot to get the bucket in. Using a hand auger, Pete or I would drill a hole and hammer in a tap, hang a bucket, attach a debris ‘tent’, and go on to the next, setting 24 taps in all. Then we would step back, check the terrain of the trees that held buckets, and adjust the path if needed. Since sap is heavy like water, the sled we used to collect would get difficult to pull Uphill if it was full. One side of the area would be collected first, brought back to the driveway area on the packed snowmobile trail, and then taken to the large tubs we collected in. Then the other side of the road would be done. Some days we would get as little as ten gallons of sap, some days as much as thirty gallons… all of which had to be boiled down.

Twice a day, one of us would make the rounds of collecting the sap from the gallon sized metal buckets hanging from those trees. With four five-gallon plastic buckets, fitted with a screw on lid, we would follow the trail from tree to tree. The first gathering of sap in the morning would also net us the means to carrying on a delightful tradition: making coffee from fresh sap. What a wonderful way to start the day!

As the holding tubs began to fill, it was my job to chop and chisel the ice from the area to set the cider blocks that would be the fire pit. Using about a dozen cinder blocks, a U shaped pit was built, then lined with fire brick and a tubular chimney installed for proper draft, and a fireplace grate set in place to hold the wood. The fire pit was located near the wood shed, so fuel was easily accessible.

We used a large flat steel pan for cooking the sap. One of my regular deep kettles was used to pre-heat the sap, then it was added to the boiling not-yet-syrup. It was difficult enough to keep the flat pan at a rolling boil for cooking and we didn’t want to reduce the temperature with cold sap, pre-warming solved that. When the syrup got to a nice deep amber color, it was poured into yet another pot, and brought inside to be finished on the cook stove under a watchful eye. When ready, I would pour the hot syrup thru several layers of cheesecloth, then again thru a sack-cloth towel, to remove any sediment. Then it was returned to the stove for reheating.

During the cooking time, I would wash and sterilize pint canning jars, getting them ready to receive the sweet amber gold.

This entire process was repeated up to four times, depending on the sap run. First run syrup was often a beautiful deep amber, but the subsequent runs would get darker and darker. Odd as it may seem, the final product of the last run, looking much the color of molasses, was the sweetest and best tasting, but the least desirable by grading standards!

Since we didn’t want to harm the trees, precautions had to be taken. When the sap began to turn cloudy, syruping was finished; any longer and not only would the syrup turn bitter, but the tree could be severely damaged. By this time the snow was often gone and I could get to all the trees in just boots, dragging the sled to collect the taps and buckets. I would pull the taps out with a claw-hammer, fill the hole with a branch then hammer it in as deep as possible, smashing the end flush with the tree. A quick spray of pruning seal and the ‘wound’ was covered. Of course this was repeated 24 times. All the supplies were then brought back to the house to be washed and stored for another year.

Our second or third successful syrup time was discussed with friends. Many were very happy with their venture that year… except one. He said he had done everything right: measured two feet up, placed the tap on the south side of the tree, etc. but his run was very poor. However, later that year he made the confession… that when he went to pull the taps, he needed a step ladder! He had measured two feet up from the snow, not the ground! When the snow melted, his taps were six feet high!! We all had a good laugh over that, but I wonder how many had done the same thing at some point..

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