It’s springtime, and the maple trees are dripping with sweet, pristine, beautiful sap. Sugarhouses across North America have billowing plumes of steam rising from their rooftops as maple sap is converted into maple syrup. Maple syrup is such a unique specialty product -- it’s only made in Canada and the Northern United States, and it is a crop that is only harvested for a few short weeks in the spring. The niche industry is made up of small entrepreneurs and hobbyists who eagerly look forward to this time of year, when the season transitions from cold to warm.
If you were to take a peek inside each of these sugarhouses, you will find that no two operations are alike. The array of equipment, gizmos, doohickeys, thingamajigs, and contraptions engineered to make maple syrup are as varied and imaginative as exhibits on display at a science fair. Maple syrup producers love to network, compare notes about the sap run, share what they’ve learned, and boast about their latest inventions. At the end of the season, everyone ends up with the same, blissful product, but the means by which it was made differs greatly. Here is just a small sampling of what you might find at a maple syrup operation.
Maple tree taps, (also called spigots or spiles) are available in a range of shapes, sizes, and materials. The style one chooses is typically based on the number of trees to be tapped, the type of bucket used, and personal preference. Traditional taps include a hook from which the handle of a metal bucket can be hung. For buckets, the choice of style, size, price, construction, and covers is vast. One can even opt to use plastic bags or milk jugs instead of buckets. On our farm, we use small, black plastic taps, attached to a tube that is inserted into the lid of a five-gallon plastic food-grade bucket that sits on the ground right next to the tree.
It’s always tempting to re-use food containers that are disposed of by restaurants. While this may seem like a frugal and clever thing to do, this strategy can backfire. We met one maple syrup producer who obtained some five-gallon buckets that were previously used for pickles. While cooking sap, he noticed a distinct aroma of dill pickles that grew stronger the longer he cooked. The lesson he learned was that sap absorbs even the slightest odors from containers, and those odors become stronger when the sap is concentrated. Our producer friend never did find a market for his dill pickle-flavored maple syrup.
There are two ways to collect the sap from the woods:
- By collection tank – towing some sort of tank into the woods to manually empty the sap from each of the buckets, bags, or milk jugs, and haul it back to the sugarhouse to cook. The mode of transportation could be a horse, tractor, four-wheeler, or even a snowmobile -- every option has advantages and disadvantages. We use a four-wheeler with a custom-made trailer and a collecting tank. It works quite well for our operation, even though the vehicle regularly gets stuck in the snow or mud. On two different occasions, the wheels have fallen off the trailer when it was full of sap. Sigh.
- Pipeline vacuum system – this method virtually eliminates the need for human labor in the collecting process. Instead, all of the taps are networked together with plastic tubing throughout the woods. At one end, a vacuum pump is attached that literally sucks the sap right out of the trees and into a tank. Most large operations use this method, which also significantly increases the sap yield per tap compared to the gravity method. The down side to the vacuum system is that fury little critters like to test out their chompers on the tubing, and finding a leak in the miles of tubing can be like finding that one malfunctioning light bulb on a string of Christmas tree lights.
This is where the real creativity surfaces. By using junk scraps, re-purposing various apparatus, and scrounging for other materials, the range and customization of maple syrup cookers demonstrate real human ingenuity. Ultimately, all that is needed is a source for intense heat -- usually using firewood -- and a cooking vessel. Once again, choose a cooking vessel with caution. One person we met used a 50-gallon metal drum, cut in half to use like a large kettle. Even though the drum was scrubbed clean, it had previously been used for motor oil. Remember the pickle bucket story? Yuck.
We were quite proud of the first cooker that we invented. With the help of a friend who is a pipe-fitter and a skilled welder, we converted a large metal pipe to be used as a fire pit, a smoke stack was installed on one side, and a metal grill spanned across the fire surface. All of the materials used were scraps and pieces we got free from a variety of places. We did, however, purchase some used stainless steel food service trays from a restaurant supply store to use for cooking the sap. The first time we fired up our system, it didn’t take long to discover that the rig got too hot for anyone to stand close enough to stir the sap. Luckily, we had some cement blocks on hand that were immediately deployed as a firewall. It was an ugly piece of equipment, but it produced beautiful, delicious maple syrup. It was also the beginning of a new venture for us, and we rapidly expanded our operation. Today we have a professionally built maple syrup evaporator installed inside a comfortable sugarhouse.
I find it to be a privilege to be able to produce this exclusive, specialty product right here in Minnesota. Even more gratifying is to know that anyone who lives in the maple syrup-making territory of North America can make it. All it takes is a love for being outside in the early spring and a desire to exercise some human ingenuity.
Photos by Mitch Kezar Photography.
Debbie Morrison is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. She and her husband Jim own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Magical, Mysterious, Wonderful Dirt. Follow Debbie on Twitter at @sapsuckerfarms