I am always amazed that people are amazed by the process of making maple syrup, traditionally known as sugaring.
Amazed by the questions I receive from visitors, amazed so many think sugaring in their home’s kitchen could be profitable, and amazed so many don’t know the difference between real maple syrup and tinted corn syrup (sold as “pancake syrup” with names like Aunt Jemima, Log Cabin, Hungry Jack, etc…).
Before I continue, let me offer a fair warning: if you’ve never had real maple syrup, and would rather not add the expense to your food budget, Don’t. Even. Try. It. You’ll never be able to choke down the imitation “pancake syrup” stuff ever again, even at triple the cost.
Real maple syrup is expensive because its manufacture is so time-consuming, but comparing it to the tinted corn syrup is like comparing…well, real oxygen to imitation oxygen. Yes, the difference is that dramatic. Even chemists admit they cannot replicate the taste of maple syrup accurately.
I have met many people whose love for maple syrup borders on fetish.
It goes a little somethin’ like this: You find a silver, red or sugar maple. You tap that maple tree (tap it reeeal good) and hook a collection receptacle to it, a bucket, a bag or tubing that leads to a large barrel. Every day, or every few days, you collect the sap. The weather needs to be below freezing at night, above freezing during the day, so always in late winter, early spring. Once the weather gets too warm, and the tree decides it’s spring, it’s over. At that point the sap will taste like sour clay.
Tapping the trees is the easiest part of the entire process. Sap collection, not so much. Sap is mostly water, but freezing cold water that makes your gait awkward when carried to the sap tank hauled behind a four-wheel drive Gator. Even with the grace of a sober Baryshnikov, you’re going to trip, fall and get doused with sap on a regular basis.
That freezing cold sap, just a quarter-degree above freezing, splashes down your collar, up your sleeves and soaks through your coat and shirt. It will dry, of course, and that’s when you notice it’s not water, because you’re sticky the rest of the day. Your collar will feel like the inside of a Coke can the rest of the day.
After amassing a few hundred gallons, you’re ready to cook that sap in the evaporator, a behemoth boiling tray that consumes wood like a California wildfire. It heats a hundred gallons of sap to 219 degrees in a process that is more juggling than agriculture.
Check sap level, add water, check temp, slow fire, speed up fire, check sap level, check that valve, open this valve, close that valve, add sap, add water, check sap level…for hours and days, moving in a steady, careful circle around the evaporator, careful not to trip over the pile of wood at the ready by the oven doors, wiping the sticky steam from your forehead.
The cotton curtain of stream is so thick you need a powerful narrow-beam flashlight to cut through it and check the sap level. If that sap gets too low…oh, that’s something you never want to think about.
It’s a China syndrome on a small scale. The fierce heat of the wood fire becomes absorbed by the metal of the evaporator pans instead of being safely dissipated by the boiling water. The stainless steel evaporator heats, then burns, then collapses into a six-thousand dollar pile of scrap metal. Typically you have a hose attached to the evaporator to add water. Where I work, if the hose doesn’t work, I keep a five-gallon bucket nearby and there’s a river ten yards away. Just in case.
As long as you can avoid that, you pour off the scorching hot syrup into metal buckets, then carry those heavy buckets to a filtering station. You might slosh once, but you’ll never do it again. Scalding hot syrup sticks to your skin and is a great reminder to be careful. Filter it once, twice, then leave it in a repurposed steel milk container to cool. Then do it again. And again. For hours, days, weeks, as long as the sap is running from your tapped maple trees. After a few days, the world outside the sugar shack will feel as distant as Jupiter.
You stop noticing the salty-smoke smell of a burning wood fire, or the sweet tang of maple syrup. Visitors always notice it. In fact, they often visit the sugar shack (in the maple syrup industry, buildings that house evaporators are called sugar shacks) simply for that smell. But there’s one smell you never forget—bad sap.
The stink of bad sap borders on Biblical.
Once collected, you have approximately one week to cook sap before it goes turns to the Darkside. This can change depending on temperature (warmer weather equals less time). Leave a tank of sap in the hot sun for a day, and you’ll ruin the entire batch in twenty-four hours.
Fresh sap has almost no smell, just a very faint woodsy odor like newly-fallen leaves. But after five days, you’ll notice the tiniest tinge of fermentation, like a beer poured across the room. It’s still okay, but that’s the sap’s way of giving you a swift kick in the butt. In only a day or two, that smell gets funkified fast. It turns into an unforgettable amalgam of cheesy, putrid sweetness (I literally just shuddered thinking about it as I wrote). The sap turns the cloudy yellow of mustard gas. Anyone in the maple syrup industry knows that color and that smell.
Believe me, if you ever accidentally fill up an evaporator with bad sap and then have to spend the next three hours emptying, hosing and scrubbing the metal pans to banish it, you’ll remember. A stench like that tends to tattoo itself in your memory. I speak from experience.
In closing, be assured I am not complaining. Every industry, from teaching to toll booth operating, has its pluses and minuses. I enjoy making maple syrup, especially on a smaller-scale, without the quotas and pressures of big business, but it’s not an idyllic endeavor. Many sugaring newbies think it is. It takes time, time and more time.
It’s easier to buy a bottle from the store and read a few articles on sugaring rather than attempting it yourself. I can say this: I have never met a single person who actually did produce syrup from tree to table and say it was easy.
However, it’s probably the best tasting hobby in the world.
What to Know More?
Consumer Reports summarized and shot down some of the most common misconceptions of maple syrup in their article “5 Things You Need to Know About Maple Syrup” (Good article, boring title).
For those still interested, here’s the most popular supplier of sugaring supplies around: Tap My Trees has everything you need, from tree-tapping supplies to syrup bottles. Good prices, fast delivery, nice people (I am NOT getting paid to say that).
Want to build your own evaporator? You’re nuts, but here’s a good set of plans for it.