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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Making Maple Syrup and the Growing DIY Movement

Making syrup from sap takes time and effort
By Weston Eaton

As the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement continues to grow in popularity in West Michigan, especially in the arena of homebrewing, I would like to contribute this story in the attempt to increase the visibility of another craft practice with a rich history: making maple syrup. First, let me explain the essential basics in an effort to demystify how syrup is made. Second, I want to talk about my own experiences making syrup with friends at my family’s “cabin” more closely to make some points in regards to scale of production as well as why it is we choose to engage in DIY practices.

As any nature center will tell you, the watery sap of sugar maples contains about 3 - 4 percent sugar. Sap flows through the outer cambium, just behind the bark, from roots up to branches in the spring, or more specifically, when the freezing days give way to sunny, warm afternoons but the temperature again drops below 32F at night. Last year you will recall this happened early, but this syrup making season has been ideal—a lengthy streak of warm days and cold nights. Once the nights cease to freeze, the sap is no longer suited for syrup making. Sap collecting is therefore a highly seasonal activity, completely contingent on the weather.

To collect sap, syrup makers drill small, shallow holes and snugly tap in “spiles,” small spigots on which buckets are hung or hoses attached. Trees are tapped at a slight upward angle to encourage flow and on the south-eastern portion of the trunk, only a few feet above the forest floor. Trees may be tapped more than once, depending on their size, and a single tap can produce gallons of sap a day depending on the weather conditions. Once sap is collected, it is boiled down to a concentration of 66 percent sugar. Fifty gallons of sap will boil down to about one gallon of pure maple syrup.

While the above description covers the basics, it;s all still a bit vague. I want to use my own experience to unpack some lingering questions, mainly, how many trees are tapped and gallons collected? And how is sap boiled into syrup? I use my own experience because there are no universally right answers to these questions. In other words, there is no better or worse way to make syrup. Instead, like with other DIY practices, one needs to develop a practice that suits his or her personal and collective goals, while at the same time recognizing that one’s goals are not static but instead emerge and change in conjunction with their experiences. Let me provide some illustrations.

How many trees to tap and gallons to collect? The production plans we use at our cabin are by now so worn and familiar that I rarely give it a thought. This was not the case, however, nine years ago when we first began tapping. Back then, we adjusted our plans to our resources—to the trees within proximity, the tools we had access to, the number of buckets we had, and the time we could spend. In other words, these resources set the scale of our production.

How is sap boiled into syrup? Here our story is similar: what resources were at hand? As a homebrewer, propane burners made the most sense. We fabricated a small stainless syrup pan and holding tank and these resources constrained how it was we converted sap to syrup.

Over the years, however, resources have increased as has accumulated knowledge and lived experience. Mistakes made early on (tapping oak trees, boiling over or burning batches, buckets with frozen sap) were now much less likely to happen. There were now opportunities—bigger pans, moving to wood heat, vacation days from work—that offered the possibilities of significant change, mainly growth.

And here we come to the insight that I would like to add to DIY discussions. As resources and capacities are increased, how do we balance growth with our personal and collective goals for DIY practices? The point I want to make is a simple observation: it is possible to let projects get too big, and in doing so, overshadow the spirit of DIY. In my experience this happens in two non-exclusive ways. First, it's possible to upgrade one’s syrup making operation to the point where the complexity of the practice overtakes its original enjoyability. At a certain point, boiling down syrup can become a chore, this is especially so if lots of equipment needs to be operated and maintained (i.e., reverse osmosis systems, vacuum lines, hundreds of taps). Second, one may make two, four, ten, or a hundred times as much syrup as a small producer, but how much syrup is really necessary? I’ve met folks who only make syrup once every few years at the most due to their gigantic stock pile.

On the other hand, if the production system grows, so might our goals. Perhaps folks might choose to go into business with their sugar bush in the same way that homebrewers start their own breweries. This is common theme, and one that’s highly encouraged in our entrepreneurial culture. My argument, however, is different. We do not need to be professional brewers to enjoy making beer, nor turn our uncle’s back forty into a productive and marketable sugarbush to enjoy making syrup. In fact, it might just be the opposite! The brewers I know certainly love their jobs, but their work is very different from the late nights spent over boiling kettles in their apartment kitchens. The difference, I am arguing, is a matter of scale that becomes salient when we make a conscious decision to identify the threshold where enjoyment and enchantment can morph into chores and obligations. In other words, at a certain point creativity can dip into drudgery.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that DIY practices occupy a distinct space in our lives. For most of us, we engage in DIY activities not for reasons of efficiency—like saving time and money—but for personal, family, and collective creative enrichment and enjoyment. DIY activities create a space between the more rational obligations of life where our personal and collective creative identities can flourish. DIY practices therefore emerge more from communitarian inspirations than individual success. This flummoxes the entrepreneurial culture that can only calculate in terms of the individual and rational efficiency.

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