Friday, April 2, 2010

How to Make the Syrup—What We’ve Learned

There’s been so much written about maple sugaring, and we are such novices, that I am loathe to share what we’ve learned. I fear that whatever we write will be redundant. Still, there may be something to learn from our little operation. With that hope, I offer the following:

1. Gathering: (For our experiences with tapping, please see our entry for Sunday, February 28, 2010, Maple Tapping for Syrup—Wild Edible #4.) The hardest work in our sugaring operation is getting the sap from the trees to the evaporator where we’ll boil it. The buckets that hang on the trees can be lifted off of the tap and their contents can be poured into plastic 5-gallon bucket to carry. These buckets have been carefully labeled ‘SAP ONLY’ so that they are not used to carry yucky stuff (like Carl’s biodeisel) that may taint our sweet stuff. We throw out any frozen sap. Carl and Abe say that a negligible amount of sugar is frozen, so leaving the ice means less boiling.
2. Hauling: It’s nice to carry two buckets at once for balance. I’ve found hauling buckets by hand to be more comfortable than using an old wooden yoke. This year we tried hauling buckets with a sled, but the sap sloshed about too much. We retired the sled for fear that we’d end up spilling our precious cargo. The big commercial operations and even some smaller operation use a flexible plastic tubing to bring the sap to a central location. It’s a lot less work, but they’re kind of ugly.
3. Storing: We only boil on weekends, so we store our sap in a big 40-50 gallon plastic barrel which we bury in a snowbank so that it stays cold and does not spoil. That was hard this year since it has been so warm. Carl diligently shoveled his dwindling snowbanks around the barrels as things melted. Carl has fitted the tops of these with a round mesh filter. We pour the sap from our 5-gallon buckets through this filter to strain out any debris.
4. The Evaporator: The fire is built in a cinder-block enclosure called the arch. Who knows how it got that name? Our arch has a swinging metal door that is wonderfully warm to stand near on cold March days. The blocks are stacked and held in place with rebar. The evaporating pan is a large metal pan that fits snuggly on top of the arch. The space between is sealed with insulating rope and some sand. There are still some smoky cracks between the stones, so I plan to help Abe rebuild the arch with some mortar this summer to improve the seal. Carl put a bigger chimney on this year for a better draft. The pan is divided into three compartments, each connected to the next by a small hole. Sap is poured into one end and as you move from compartment to compartment, the concentration increases. At the end of the line is a spigot to draw the most concentrated sap. We don’t take the sap all the way to syrup in this big pan. It could easily burn.
5. Boiling: This year, we burned scrap wood that Carl picked up from a nearby demolition project. We build a fire near the front of the arch so that the fuel gets lots of oxygen. Carl and Abe are sticklers for a neat fire and often check to make sure that the smoke coming from the chimney is nearly invisible. If it starts to get black and sooty they “tsk-tsk” and stop feeding the fire. The best way to keep the fire burning cleanly is to feed it small amounts of fuel frequently. We’ll typically boil all the sap we’ve gathered that week in one day. It’s ready when it tastes sweet (and believe me, we taste often!) and looks dark, but before it starts to get noticeably more viscous. Foam from the sap can start to fill the pan, so we lift it off with a wide scoop. We also quickly dip the tip of a stick of butter in and out of each compartment. “Fat fights foam,” so the old saying goes.
6. Finishing: The concentrated sap is not yet syrup. It has to be boiled still further. We do this in a stainless steel pot over a large outdoor propane stove. This is watched fastidiously as it approaches the right thickness so that it doesn’t go past syrup into sugar. (Though some people want it that way.) Carl has a nifty little weighted glass float that fits inside a cup that he got at Bascom’s . The float is graduated so that you can measure the specific gravity (density) of the syrup. When the float sinks to the right depth in the liquid, it has officially become syrup and is ready for canning.
7. Canning: I was surprised to find a cloudy precipitate in both the maple and the birch syrup that we’ve boiled. It’s called sugar sand by those in the know. I’m not sure if it is the result of chemical changes in the syrup or simply trace minerals that crystallize as the solution is concentrated. Carl and Abe filter it out. This is sticky and some syrup in inevitably wasted. We wondered this year if it could be decanted instead. After filtering, we pour the syrup into one of those coffee servers that you see at staff meetings everywhere with the spigot that can hang off of the end of the table. This way we can pour the hot syrup into jars for canning. This is much easier than canning vegetables or even jams. The sugar content of syrup is so high that bacteria cannot grow in it. The jars don’t even need to be sterilized. We just fill them under the spigot of the coffee server, twist the cap on, and turn them upside down so that the heated syrup will kill any lingering critters on the lids. We use a combination of mason jars and recycled glass jars that have re-sealing lids. Enjoying: Our first batch of syrup this year was the lightest I’ve seen us produce. Who knows what factors influence the color? Most folks will pay more for the lighter stuff. Me? I prefer the dark. Lightest to darkest the commercial grades are: grade A fancy, grade A medium amber, grade A dark amber, and grade B.

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