Tuesday, 26 March 2013

making maple syrup

One of the highlights of the month of March in our part of the country is making maple syrup. It is widely acknowledged, and has even made headlines in the news these days, that last year was terrible for maple syrup. Expectations are that this year will be a much better season. Ideal conditions for the sap to flow is daytime temperatures around 5C with lots of bright sun and overnight temperatures dropping down to -5C. When that happens the sap rises during the day and the trees can be tapped and some of the sap collected.

Making maple syrup can be done using anything from very basic homemade equipment to expensive, highly sophisticated equipment using reverse osmosis and everything in between.

A few years ago I helped a neighbour make maple syrup at the farm she grew up on. Sue and her brother Ivan use mainly home made equipment but well thought out. They hang buckets on the trees and empty the sap into a reservoir tank on the back of the tractor. The tractor is driven just up the hill behind the sap house and sap is fed through hoses powered by gravity down to the evaporating pans. They have two boilers, one outside and the other in the sap house. Each boiler is topped by a series of four evaporating pans decreasing in size and each one at a slightly lower level. The sap starts in the largest and highest pan and is then ladled through each of the pans until it is almost finished in the final and smallest pan. This smallest pan is then poured into a pot to be finished on the wood cookstove. The syrup is then filtered and jarred.
Ivan's tractor just above the sap house

The system of four evaporating pans with the homemade ladle, this boiler is in the sap house
Sue ladling sap into the final evaporating pan on the outside boiler  (notice her sleeveless top )
My daughter, Alex, decided this was her year to make syrup, not as a helper, but as the top gun. She is using the trees and saphouse at friends of hers, Dave and Amanda, who have a beautiful farm about 50 km west of our farmhouse.

The first step was to go to Dave and Amanda's and tap the trees. Alex had picked up a beautiful antique drill but after the exertion of tapping two trees by hand she was relieved to be able to borrow Dave's  power drill. The drill bit for tapping trees is 5/16" but with an unusual head.    

Alex's next challenge was getting wood for the boiler. Slab wood is used and she was able to buy cedar and hemlock from our neighbour, Ivan. She cut it to length in situ with our chainsaw and then stored it at our place. When the time came to start making syrup she loaded the wood into the back of her truck and supplemented that wood by cutting up a dead elm which had come down last fall in our front yard.
Alex beside the truck filled with slabs of cedar and hemlock
The appropriately outfitted lumberjack working on the dead elm
Scylla and Thea show a keen interest in this aspect of the process 
Once weather conditions are suitable it is time to collect the sap. The general ratio is 40:1 ie. 40 litres of sap produce 1 litre of syrup. Alex had collected a number of 5 gallon buckets. The first lesson we volunteers learned was that filling those buckets close to the top and then trudging through knee high, very wet snow was not going to happen. So with more modestly filled buckets, we spread throughout the property collecting from the woods, down the lane, back by the hoop house and ultimately made our way to the sap house.
Making the trek over to the sap house

Josh with his 5 gallon pail filled with sap and the sap house in the background

Diane and Josh making their way out of the woods
The tapped maple trees along the lane
Dave's father makes syrup professionally but the system at Dave and Amanda's is closer to "backyard" syrup making. The boiler is an old oil tank and the evaporator pan is the bottom half of a milk-holding tank. The boiler is fired up and the sap is poured into the evaporating pan. Because there is only one big pan Alex faced a couple of challenges that had been eliminated in Ivan's 4 pan system. To prevent the temperature from dropping too much whenever fresh (and therefore, very cold) sap was added she put it in a couple of big coffee tins to preheat on the boiler before being added to the evaporator pan. And because there is just one very large pan there is a greater chance of the almost-syrup scorching when the sap had reduced substantially. When the level of sap in the pan is much lower it is transferred into a big canner and reduced further at the other end of the boiler.
The boiler is fired up
The evaporator pan filled with sap
Our chili and rice lunch warming up, two pots of almost finished sap and on the right, beside the evaporator pan, a couple of coffee tins preheating fresh sap before being added to the pan.
Once the sap in the canners has reduced even further it is time to finish it off. This part is quite reminiscent of making jelly - in all the difficult ways. The sap is supposed to be transformed into syrup when it reaches 219F. But like jelly, which should be at the gelling stage at 224F, temperature doesn't seem to guarantee chemical alchemy. Also like jelly, the syrup should "sheet" when done. This is sometimes described rather poetically as when "two become one". In other words, when you lift a spoon out of the sap and suspend it over the pot the drops, one at each outer end of the spoon, draw toward each other and unite before dropping back into the pan. Alex special-ordered a great book called Backyard Sugarin' by Rink Mann. The author describes a visual change in the bubbles when the syrup stage is reached; the bubbles become small and plentiful like in milk that is about to boil over, in contrast to the large bubbles formed when water is at a full rolling boil.

Trying to identify these various signs feels a lot more like magic than science. But then that is the charm -  and the art - of backyard maple sugaring. It's not a lab after all. Just as well too since by the end of the day white lab coats would definitely be the worse for wear - I was covered with soot; my hands, my gloves, my face, my clothes. And that, of course, was when my nose became unbearably itchy.
Waiting for the alchemy of sap to syrup on the propane stove

The final stage of bringing the sap to the syrup stage is usually done off the boiler where it can be controlled more easily. Ivan and Sue have a wood cookstove in their sap house, Dave and Amanda have a propane burner set up just outside the sap house. I was overlooking the first batch to be finished. Like a nervous parent I think I hovered just a bit too anxiously and thought it was done before it really had boiled down quite enough. The second batch, with Alex's calmer overseeing, was finished to perfection. The day yielded 5 litres of perfect maple syrup and 4 litres which, if anyone had the energy, could be emptied out of the jars and briefly brought back to the proper boiling point.

Success - a litre of 2013 maple syrup!

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