Adventures in Sugaring: Making your own Maple Syrup

After a long winter, it was finally time to make maple syrup—otherwise known as "sugaring". So on a strangely warm Thursday, my friend and I jumped into our car and drove north and then east to my family's cabin near Hayward, Wisconsin. This year did not look too promising with the weather being so balmy and not getting below freezing at night, even in northern Wisconsin...but hey, you never know.


A few minutes drive from our cabin is the Sugarbush, 60 acres of beautiful, thickly wooded land where we tap 35 maple trees. It is a small, family operation but has definitely come a long way through the years. It hasn't necessarily grown but over time, it has become more functional, with the exception of the old logging road that goes onto our land. It is too over-grown to really be considered a road so we park and walk the half mile to where we tap the trees. 


I remember the one or two times in those first few years of sugaring before we built a shed to store our gear. We hiked in pulling a toboggan with buckets, barrels, and gallon jugs through inches of deep snow. Later on in the day we pulled that same toboggan back through the woods with jugs full of boiled-down sap to finish into syrup on the cabin stove. I have to admit, no matter how much of a good sport I seemed, I would curse my frozen feet and this laborious task as I pulled my heavy load, stumbling over fallen trees, and wondering why on earth maple syrup isn't a hundred dollars a gallon. Even more amazing to me is that the first year, my mother did this alone. She surely is a tough Minnesotan, doing something that is truly a labor of love.


Of course I have come to enjoy all the hard work. Even though we now have a shed and a boiling pan in the Sugarbush, it is intense physical labor: collecting the sap, burying the huge barrels in the snow to keep the extra sap cold, constantly cutting and hauling wood to keep the fire stoked and to build up the ever-diminishing woodpile, and skimming off the foam that rises to the surface of the boiling sap.


Sometimes we could relax though, depending on how many people were there to help, and we would take turns sitting on lawn chairs by the fire with a beer or whisky added to a cup of hot, slightly boiled sweet sap. The whisky and sap is my mother's drink of choice and one I like, too, as there is nothing else like it and no time to have one except the sugaring season. After working a long hard day until the Spring sun is setting, sleepily eating dinner at the cabin and collapsing into bed to sleep a heavy and dreamless sleep, you are left with one of the best (and most memorable) feelings one can have. 


In the morning the only thing that would wake me from the dead is my stomach. We would get up and have pancakes hot off the griddle, topped with syrup that we labored over the day before. I swear I have never tasted anything so good in my life. Our syrup is grade A, a bright golden amber color and it always has a slight wood smoke taste to it. I can never get enough. Luckily while we are boiling down to the final stage, we taste it a lot, but with 40 gallons of sap needed for one gallon of syrup, it is literally as precious as gold.


So this year, while planning for the maple syrup season,  all these wonderful memories of years past rush back and I can't help but think that this year will happen in a similar fashion, even though I logically know that sugaring is completely unpredictable. This is true of anything so weather dependent and for good sugaring the days need to be in the 40s while the nights need to get below freezing in order for the sap to run. Our sugaring season is usually anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks with the occasional stops and starts with temperature dips. We tap the trees when temperatures start to warm up which is usually during the beginning to middle of March and we are often still sugaring Easter weekend. During sugaring season, we average about 240 gallons of sap which turns into about 6 gallons of syrup. 


We all know that sugaring requires you to be flexible and open to change, but we never could have imagined, even a month ago, what a crazy season this would be. In spite of what we knew warm temperatures might do to a run and any sap in a bucket, my friend and I were still hopeful when we got to the sugarbush a few weekends ago. We hiked into the land and ran through the woods looking into the buckets. As we peered into each bucket we would confirm with each other that their contents were all the same: miraculously quite a bit of sap, but also quite a few unwanted guests: slugs, slug droppings, random bugs, and even mold. The mold is what we were afraid of because of the warm temperatures, but we had never before seen slugs this time of year. Even though we tried straining the sap, there was too much debris to strain everything out. So we dumped the buckets, all 35 of them—their precious sap running over the forest floor—then pulled out the taps (officially called spiles), cleaned the buckets out, and stacked them for next year. 


It wasn't a total loss. The weekend before we went up, my mother and her partner had gotten 32 gallons of sap, resulting in less than a gallon of syrup, and that was the total amount we got this year. This ends the 2012 season and all you can do is hope for better luck in 2013. We sugar for the the pure pleasure of it and to have syrup for the year to come, but there are many in the midwest who make their living doing this. So in spite of this wonderful early spring weather, I hope that next year Mother Nature sticks a little more towards her usual patterns. But whatever happens we will continue this springtime ritual and marvel at the outcome, good or bad. 


Our two favorite pancake recipes to make that morning after a long day of work are listed below.


Buttermilk Pancakes from Alice Waters' cookbook: The Art Of Simple Food


3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

3/4 cup other flour 

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

1 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl mix:

2 egg yolks

In a large measuring cup, measure:

1 3/4 cups buttermilk

Whisk the egg yolks into the buttermilk. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the buttermilk mixture, and stir until just mixed.


6 tablespoons butter, melted


Stir well. In another bowl, beat egg whites until they form soft peaks, then fold them into the batter. If the batter is too thick, add more buttermilk.

Spoon the batter onto a preheated griddle, cooking a single pancake first to see if the griddle is the right temperature. Cook until the underside of the pancakes are golden brown. Turn them over and cook until done.


Oatmeal Griddle Cakes from "The Joy of Cooking"

These have a slightly different taste and texture from the "normal" pancakes and they are a great way to use up leftover oatmeal. They are best served right away as they hold together best right off the griddle.


Makes about twelve 4-inch 


Mix together :

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg beaten

Stir in:

11/2 cups cooked oatmeal

1/2 cup evaporated milk

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons melted butter or bacon dripping


Cook on a greased hot griddle and enjoy.


Photo Credit: Thanks to my lovely sister, Sally Holzapfel for the photos.

Lizzie Holzapfel is a Yogi, food lover and writer. She lives in South Minneapolis and can be reached at: Her last article for SGT was: Eat for equity: a fundraiser for the people.