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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sap to syrup: why I spend time in the woods making breakfast sauce

By Wes Eaton

Late last week, when the arctic air unexpectedly gave way to temperate weather, and the snow turned wet, heavy and began to melt, I headed north with a few other woodsmen to tap the sugar maples. Although the season came on early, we were prepared. Buckets, taps (spiles), hoses, and tools had already been stashed at our woodlot, a scant hour’s drive north of Grand Rapids in Paris, MI. Wood too had been cut, split and stacked, enough hopefully to accommodate fueling the new evaporator we constructed in the fall. All we needed was a break in the weather and the breakfast sauce making could begin.

Ending dependency of foreign oil.

Maple sap, about 2-4% sugar, begins to course up the tree’s outer cambium when the weather warms above freezing during the day but dips well below that mark at night. This usually happens in late March, but this year my favorite rite of spring came early. For those of you familiar with brewing beer, making maple syrup is a similar process, except you don’t have to write a recipe, gather ingredients, sanitize, mash-in, sparge, chill, sanitize again or ferment--all you have to do is boil and bottle. This is best done with a flat, shallow pan designed to increase surface area. The idea is to add sap at the same rate water is evaporating, keeping the total depth shallow to induce an intense, vigorous boil. By doing so, the maple sugar steadily concentrates until syrup is had at about 66% sugar. Forty gallons of sap boils down to one gallon of syrup, a venture that can take a few hours or all day depending on your evaporator and pan.

The author taps a tree (note the KBS)

In years past we evaporated sap with propane, the irresponsibility of which was always highlighted by our incessant bonfire building. Intent on capturing and controlling that immense heat, I built a rectangular ‘fireplace‘ out of sixteen cement blocks on top of which rests my 20” X 30” X 6” stainless pan. Out the back a 9’ chimney sucks a draft through like a blast furnace. Having felled, split and stacked oak since November, I’m hoping to at least double my annual syrup production of three and a half gallons.

Beyond these truisms, the process of syrup making is a transforming experience akin to acts of tending a garden or cellaring homemade wine--the ever present sense of immediacy, our hourly short-term metric for understanding and mediating daily actions, gives way to the whims of nature’s seasons. The sap flows only when the sap flows. At winter’s break, the time spent in the woods, garage, or barn, tending the fire, chopping wood, hauling buckets of sap, drawing off golden syrup and laying up another bottle has its own rhythm and pace as well as obligations. One cannot simply light the fire and walk away; an evaporator needs constant tending. While this can very well be a solitary ordeal, especially when taking turns at the pan, I prefer packing our my small ‘off-the-grid’ cabin with dogs as well as people who I know appreciate the annual slow-down.

Kyle Dood, problem solver extraordinaire.

I thought about this upcoming season while trekking tree to tree along the bottom of the ridge behind the cabin with my dog and wife, taking turns putting the steel of brace & bit to maple bark, tapping in spiles next to tap marks from years past. The fog had gotten thick as the air warmed. We looked up from our duties and saw the lamps in the woods. Up the hill, the others were laying buckets where we had set taps and hose. The maples all around us, already tall, seemed taller now in the dark, the moon behind mists, tree tops beyond our scope. We were getting wet and cold, but a bourbon stout was enough to get us through. Soon there would be enough sap to fill the pan and we’d light the burner’s fire.

To get filled in on the details of everything from tapping trees to selecting equipment, I highly suggest picking up Noel Perrin’s Making Maple Syrup, a four dollar bulletin available at Siciliano’s Market.
Let if flow, let it flow, let it flow!

Still life with beer

Former Siciliano's employee Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dog in Grand Rapids, MI. A version of the above post is scheduled to appear in the March edition of Recoil magazine.

1 comment:

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