Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sugar, Da-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na, Aw, Honey, Honey ...

I mean, "syrup", not "honey."

Woolysheep asked for more information about our maple syrup-making experience.

Mostly, it's Deus Ex Machina's project. I do most (all) of the gardening and canning, and he does most (all) of the maple sugaring. So, I should let him tell the story, but as he doesn't like anything blog, I guess it's up to me :).

Even before the sugaring season began ... like last summer, actually ... we started planning and prepping for the project by asking our neighbors if we could tap their trees and identifying the sugar maples on their property and on ours.

The ideal time to set the taps is when the temperature is above freezing during the day, but below freezing at night. The sap flows the best when it's in the 40s during the day.

So, when the weather was right, Deus Ex Machina placed nine taps ....

And then, he went to Mexico on business for a week, where he worked inside the factory fifteen hours per day, and he says that the weather never changed (unlike here, where it's always changing). He adds, that while his co-workers grumbled about the food, he found nothing wrong with the Ham-Burger (the ground meat patty topped with a piece of fried ham). Further, he enjoyed the adventure of lunch every day, where the factory provided boxed lunches purchased out on the "economy", but as he doesn't speak Spanish, and the factory security guard didn't speak English, he couldn't ask what choices there were, and he just ended up with whatever the guard handed him. It was all very exciting, and different every day. Good thing he likes to eat.

Luckily, it was still early in the season when he left, and so all I had to do was empty a couple of buckets of sap into the 55 gal food grade drums we purchased for just that purpose.

With only nine taps, there really isn't enough sap to boil every day, and so we will store up sap until we get enough to boil a lot down at once - usually once a week. We keep it stored outside, where it's still cool enough (usually below freezing at night) so that the sap doesn't spoil.

We used plastic taps designed to hold a bucket and a lid. I posted a picture of our sap buckets a week or so ago. But for anyone who has ever seen tapping, they probably look familiar.

For the boiling, Deus Ex Machina found a really great pan. It's, roughly, two-foot squared and six inches deep. At first, the plan was to use our old woodstove and put the pan on the woodstove and boil it down that way. Unfortunately, after half a day of trying to get the sap to boil, Deus Ex Machina gave up on the woodstove, and instead, built a fire pit using some of the bricks we had just lying around.

The pit was, roughly, the same size as the pan, and so it worked a little like a rocket stove. The sap boiled fairly quickly, and to save on our firewood, Deus Ex Machina was burning the brush from the trees our neighbors cut down last summer (with their permission, of course). The brush burned really hot and fast, and so he kind of sat out there all day feeding the fire.

When the sap was boiled down to about four gallons (out of thirty-five), we transferred it to one of our large stainless steel kettles and brought it inside, where we finished boiling it on our electric stove top.

When it is "syrup", it will sheet off of a spatula, and it will be seven degrees above the boiling point of water, which here is 219°.

We, then, filtered it through a felt filter (which looks a little like my old Oktoberfest Hat ... and I'm not a little annoyed with myself that I gave the hat away, because I could have used it to filter syrup. Who knew?) and put it into canning jars. We immediately added the canning lids, and the hot syrup sealed the lids.

From thirty-five gallons of sap, we ended up with just short of a gallon of syrup.

Our syrup is not "Grade A." Syrup is classified for retail purposes based on its color, and the lighter the color, the more desirable for resale (although Deus Ex Machina found a study that showed people actually prefer the taste of the darker syrups ;). Our syrup is a Grade B and is really dark. It's the color of Guiness beer, if you're looking right at it, and if you hold it up to the light, you can see the reddish amber color. It's really sweet, though, and delicious.

We believe that ours is dark, because of the long processing time. It can take all day to boil down one gallon of syrup. But we're not positive that is what caused ours to be so dark.

One other interesting thing Deus Ex Machina observed is the fact that the sap doesn't flow as well (or at all, in a couple of cases here) in trees that still have snow around the roots. I thought it was neat that he figured that out. Old timers probably know that, but it's not something we've ever read in any of the "how to" books.

We still have enough sap stored for about two more gallons of syrup, and we believe the sugaring season is pretty much over, as the nights aren't getting below freezing, and the sap isn't flowing as freely as it was.

It's a very short season, which explains why we saw organic Grade A, Dark Amber (not the premium "light" amber) maple syrup for over $20 per quart today. Ours is organic, too, but is slightly darker than "dark amber."

Still it's pretty nice to know how valuable it is.

With maple syrup, gourmet mushrooms, meat rabbits, and duck eggs, we might actually be able to earn enough to pay our electric bill for the whole year ... and that's a start toward self-sufficiency on our quarter acre.


  1. It does seem like the sap season is shorter this year. We tap 18 trees but we still have SO MUCH snow on the ground. Maybe another week or so we hope.

    We cook ours down on an old cookstove outside.

  2. That is so cool. I remember Mr. Howe who lived across the street from us as a kid tapped his tree. His syrup came out more the consistancy of molasses. I hope the market for your stuff works out and you can pay that electic bill.

  3. fantastic job, on the syruping!!! FWIW, I prefer a grade b over a grade A myself. the B has better maple flavor, I think. (Hell, I've even tried the next level down, and found that stronger and better on sourdough pancakes or waffles because the maple flavor doesn't get hidden behind the sourdough flavor.)

    Best of luck earning enough for your electric bill this year. That's great that y'all can suppliment your income with those home-grown items.