Monday, March 16, 2015

Making Maple Syrup The Old Fashioned Way

One of my favorite memories from my childhood revolves around making maple syrup.  My aunt and uncle in central Wisconsin made this sweet syrup.  I never quite understood how it happened, but I remember going out to their farm.  Across the road in a little shed was something they called an evaporator.  I wasn't sure what that meant.  All I knew was about this time every Spring, they would tap the maple trees, collect the sap, pour it in the evaporator and many hours later as the water evaporated, a sweet amber colored liquid would form.  We would use it on pancakes, but my grandma loved it on ice cream.

Although the big maple syrup producers have a ton of automated equipment such as a pipeline, vacuum pumps, smaller taps, modern evaporators and reverse osmosis machines, there are still small family operations.  They still make maple syrup the old fashioned way.  My cousin is one of them.  My aunt and uncle gave up making maple syrup years ago, but their daughter continues making it to this day.  She brought a quart of her own syrup when she came for my dad's birthday party in November.  I emailed her to see if she was tapping trees again this year, and she said they had tapped the trees a few days ago on March 9.  The weather determines how fast the sap runs.  It is best when it freezes at night and gets between 32 and 50 degrees during the day.  She said that to tap the trees they need to drill a hole with a 7/16" drill bit.  Next they tap a spout into the hole and hang a pail on the spout to catch the sap as it drips off the spout.

My cousin's husband, son and grandson with the tapped trees.

To make syrup, you need 30-40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.  The sap looks like water as it comes out of the trees, however it tastes lightly sweet.  After they gather the sap, they strain it and place it into pans.  The pans sit on top of a heat source.  In this case, it is a wood fire.  It isn't a stove, it is called an arch.  The pan is supported around the edges of the pan, and the fire is directly under the pan.  Then the sap is cooked, no stirring required, until most of the water has evaporated away.  When the syrup is finished it is filtered through flannel material to get most of the settlings out of it.  There are fine particles called niter that need to be filtered out.  They usually like to start out with about 200 gallons of sap.  According to my calculation, that amount of sap would only yield five gallons of maple syrup.  I didn't ask but I believe at this point the finished syrup is canned in jars for future use.  

This photo shows the operation including the wood fire with the pans of sap cooking on top.

We don't have maple trees on our property which is probably fortunate.  I would probably want to try this lost art.  I didn't think anyone around this area had a sugar bush, but I guess I was wrong.  As I was going to town the other day, I noticed this small area with milk jugs hanging from the trees.  I hope they are maple trees or these people may end up with something very different from maple syrup.

I want to thank my cousin for filling me in on this process of making maple syrup.  Most people have no idea how much work is involved in doing this.  It is indeed liquid gold.  

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