Friday, March 12, 2010

Maple syrup making a sweet hobby (Still expensive, though)

With expected wild and wicked winds, falling temperatures and a lot rain you'll probably find me holed up in the house, tying some flies; getting the last of lures ready for the (I hope) up-coming steelhead-fishing season.

Of course, I'll likely put aside the tying vice and materials and (at the very least) "supervise" the boiling of maple sap into that golden elixir called maple syrup.

You see, for the past three years my wife, Bev, and me have operated our own backyard sugar bush. Actually, it's been more Bev than me. I'll take some credit since I usually pilot our 4x4 out to the two places in Ashtabula County where we have tapped into sugar and silver maple trees. And I've run the errands necessary to keep the operation afloat.

Into a few larger trees goes two 5/16-inch plastic taps while the smaller ones get one tap each. They are connected to Home Depot 5-gallon plastic buckets via blue-colored 5/16-inch diameter tubing.

On Thursday we collected more than 30 gallons of sap, about what we gathered up a few days earlier but more than what was furnished by Mother Nature when we first drilled the holes into the tree bark and guts a couple of weeks ago.

Boiling will begin this evening and finish up Saturday afternoon. We figure we'll transform the sap into three quarts or so of syrup. It takes about 45 gallons - give or take five gallons - to yield one gallon of syrup.

It's not a money-making operation to be sure. As expensive as store-bought maple syrup is, our backyard still is even more expensive to operate.

It's done for a couple of reasons. First, Bev gets a thrill out of the labor-intensive operation. It's something that consumes her evenings and weekend afternoons for a couple of weeks in late winter when the sap is flowing up the trees.

And I get to firm up a dozen or so pint-size decorative containers of syrup which are stored until Christmas. Then they are presented to people who allow me to steelhead fish on their property or else hunt their land.

Our backyard sugar bush is a real Rube Goldberg affair, too. The evaporator consists of shim cinder blocks that surround the boilers. At one time these boilers were deep-fat fryers which Bev modified.

The evaporator pans that nestle on top of the boilers are actually stainless steel roasting pans. The fuel source comes from two large tanks of propane, which in our case makes a lot more sense than trying to build a wood-fueled fire.

Over it all is a 10-foot-by-10-foot awning top that helps keep out the elements to which can be added plastic tarp sides.

Yes, it's kind of on the ugly side but none of the neighbors have complained. Seeing as how we have a rather large summer veggie garden in the backyard along with some really strange goings on, a sugar bush hardly pricks their interest, much less their complaints.

There is no question the process is time-consuming. Boiling down the sap until it evaporates the water and leaves the sugary syrup can take up to eight hours. That is, if you're trying to process enough to recover a gallon of syrup.

Then there is the job of filling containers - and these can be very expensive. Especially the decorative glass bottles. But even the attractive and familiar plastic jugs cost a bundle. All of them, by the way, are bought at Richard's Maple Products in Chardon, the area's go-to destination for back-yard distillers.

How much syrup we'll make before the boiling ends will depend upon the weather. Ideally you want cold nights and mild days to get the trees pumping the sap. These past warm nights and even warmer days have slowed the trickle of sap to dribbles or even nothing at all.

Still, we've made about two gallons of syrup so far and we'll probably add three additional quarts by late Saturday afternoon.

I suspect that when all is said done our "Silver Maple Farms" (as I've humorously named our operation) will see a crop of four to five gallons. That is a record production. Much of that will be given away to friends and families though Bev and me assure ourselves we'll keep a stash of two or three quarts.

After all, we want to share in the sweet reward of our labors. Or Bev's labors as the case really is.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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