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April 12, 2015

Food Thread: A Very Special And Sweet Guest (Muad'dib)

Commenter Muad'dib has graciously offered to chat with us about his hobby and passion....maple syruping. Y-not did the actual human contact part (yuck!), so a hat tip to her.....and a hat tip to Muad'dib for managing to get sex into a discussion about tapping trees for their sap. [CBD]

syrup 1.JPG

Maple Syruping

One of my favorite times of year here in northern Wisconsin is the maple syrup season. My family and I live on a farm with several thousand maple trees, so it was natural that we would take advantage of the opportunity to make our own syrup. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's define what maple syrup is not. Aunt Jemima (or Condi Rice if you are a Democrat) is NOT maple syrup. The ingredient list for this stuff reads:

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Natural and artificial flavors
  • Caramel color
  • Citric acid

Real maple syrup is simply concentrated maple sap. Nothing is added. Research has identified over 300 favor compounds in finished syrup. Maple syrup flavor notes can be explained as caramel, vanilla, nutty, buttery, floral (honey), cereal, chocolate, and coffee. As is the case for most natural products, maple syrups have complex flavor chemistry to delight your sense of taste.

History of Maple Syrup

Native Americans were making maple syrup long before Europeans came to North America. They would tap maple trees with wooden spouts, collect the sap in containers made of bark, and then boil the sap in hollowed out logs into which they would drop fire heated stones. Whole villages would relocate to their sugaring area every year where they made both syrup and maple sugar. An
Ojibwa friend of mine calls maple syrup "The water of my people." In early America, maple sugar was the most commonly used sweetener by the colonists in the north because of its availability and cost relative to cane sugar.

Why Maple and Where

Maple trees have a very unusual wood morphology when compared to other trees. In the sapwood, there are fiber cells surrounding the sap conducting vessels. In maples, these fiber cells are filled with air. In other trees, these fibers are full of sap. Sap is an incompressible fluid, but the air in the maple fibers gets compressed and expanded by temperature changes in the wood.
As temperatures fall below freezing, negative pressure is created in the tree relative to the outside air. Sap is drawn in and downwards. As temperatures go above freezing, a significant positive pressure is created in the sapwood. A single hole drilled into the sapwood can yield over a gallon of sap on a good flow day.

To make maple syrup, you obviously need maple trees. There are 13 native maple species in North America. The most desirable is the sugar maple (Acer saccarum) because of its higher sugar content. Some people claim that the syrup taste complexity is better in sugar maples, but my palette is not sensitive enough to verify that. I have tasted syrup from all sorts of maples, including box elders, and it is all good to me. Besides maples, you need the right weather. The sap flows well when the nights are in the mid 20s F and daytime highs are in the 40s or 50s. Where maple syrup is made commercially, late winter and early spring can provide temperature cycles like this for several weeks to a couple of months. Geographically, syrup is primarily made in an area that starts out east in the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, the northeast US, and then westwards though NY, PA, the Ohio Valley, and the upper Midwest. In the US, The Peoples Republic of Vermont produces the most maple syrup. Overall, Quebec is the 800 lb gorilla of syrup making.

Sap Collection

The traditional, very high labor, way of collecting sap is to hang buckets on trees. A 7/16" hole is drilled about 1 inch into the tree and a metal spout is tapped in. The spout has an integral hook that the buckets can be hung on. When the sap runs, you go to every bucket on the trees and dump the day's sap into a larger transport bucket. On our farm, we strap a 35 gallon
polyethylene tank to the back of our ATV. We dump the transport buckets into that tank as we move through the woods. We run about 100 taps. On a good day, that means 100 gallons of sap weighing about 800 pounds.

syrup 2.JPG
Taps, buckets, and lids

Sap right out of the tree is crystal clear with about the same viscosity as water. Sugar content in the red maples (Acer rubrum) we tap here runs about 2% by weight. Sugar maples can have 3-4% sugar content. If you drink raw sap, it tastes like slightly sweet water. Sap is a delicate material that doesn't keep well. It is essentially a growth media. Every bacterium, mold spore, bug, mouse, squirrel, raccoon, and bear loves it. It spoils quickly so it is essential to keep it cold if you store it for more than several hours.

syrup 3.JPG
Crystal clear sap in the bucket

Large commercial syrup operations do not use buckets. They use tubing systems that tie all the tapped trees together. The tubing system is put under vacuum to increase sap yield. Sap is pumped from the tubing system through filters and an inline UV treatment unit to kill bacteria. They still have to manually tap the trees every year but the labor to collect their sap is minimal compared to traditional idiots like us.

Concentrating the Sap into Syrup

It takes 43 gallons of 2% sugar sap to make 1 gallon of 67% sugar maple syrup. So all we have to do is remove 42 gallons of water. Simple! For hundreds or maybe thousands of years, this has been done by boiling the crap out of the sap. Through the course of boiling, the sugars in the sap begin to get caramelized, which leads to that beautiful brown-gold color of finished syrup. In commercial operations today, they start by running the sap through a reverse osmosis unit that removes some of the water. And then they boil the crap out of it. When I made my first syrup out of a handful of taps, I put raw sap into a big pot on the stove and boiled it down, adding more sap as I went. I think I stood in front of that stove for 13 hours and made a couple pints of syrup. And then I was hooked. More on why later.

Our next step up the boiling efficiency ladder was to buy a used 36x36" stainless steel pan, about 6 inches deep. I built a fire box out of concrete block and rigged a 10 foot chimney out the back and a front door out of metal barn siding. It was sadly not as efficient as I hoped. We could boil off about 3-4 gallons of water per hour. That means 10+ hours of watching water boil to make 1 gallon of finished syrup. The pan did not have a draw off valve so as we boiled off water, we had to add more raw sap to the partially finished syrup. Repeated concentration changes and longer boil times with a purely batch evaporation like this leads to darker syrup, which is less highly valued.

Our next step up in production was to purchase an actual purpose-built maple syrup evaporator. We chose a "hobby" scale unit. Because $$. In this case, hobby means efficient enough to help you not lose your mind during the boil but forget about ever making money doing it. This unit is 18" wide by 4' long and we installed it in an end bay of our machine shed. Dirt floor, open front, 3 overhead lights -- nothing fancy. The flat bottomed pan is divided into 3 channels. The raw sap enters at the rear right of the pan, flows down the first channel towards the front of the pan, flows through a hole into the 2nd channel, travels back down towards the back, through another hole and into the third and final channel. There is a draw-off valve on the left side of the pan at the very front.

As the sap flows and boils through the evaporator pan, the sap is concentrated from 2% sugar to about 40% sugar. The unit can evaporate about 12 gallons of water per hour so in the evening hours between when I get home from work and going to bed, I can make 1 gallon of finished syrup per day. Since this unit does not have a syrup pan, we draw off the partially finished syrup and finish it in a big pot over a LP burner. As the sugar content climbs, the materials become much more susceptible to foaming up and pan scorching. The LP burner provides the finer control needed.

syrup 4.JPG
Hobby evaporator
The pot in back has a valve that drips raw sap
into the start of the evaporator run.

syrup 5.JPG
Finishing the nearly done syrup in a pot over an LP burner.

Some of you are probably saying you are sitting around watching water boil for hours at a time? That's boring. You are partially correct but there is a lot more to it than watching. You are constantly adding firewood to the firebox to keep a
consistent boil. You have to keep a consistent inflow of raw sap -- done annually on a hobby unit. And you have to mind your sugar content and guard against pan scorching and boil overs. So, when you are not busy doing these tasks, yes, you are watching water boil. For the record, the old wives' tale that a watched pot never boils is BS. Trust me on this. I pass the time by blasting every CD I own and every song on my phone through a little BlueTooth player with impressive sound for its size.

Sometimes, even that is not enough. Time dilation is one possible solution. If you could move yourself at relativistic speeds leaving the evaporator at rest, the boil would appear faster to you. However, you'd need a larger evaporator to pay for the energy needed to launch yourself at those speeds. Ahem. No, the best and cheapest method of time dilation is the application of the AOS Life Style. And by that, I mean the application of alcohol. To me, not the evaporator. After a few Valu-Rites, things seem move along right briskly.

Bottling the Syrup

Before you bottle, you need to know when the syrup is concentrated enough. A syrup hydrometer and hydrometer cup are the perfect tools for this. They cost about $20. I can't give you a temperature that corresponds to the right sugar concentration because the boiling point of any given liquid is a function of the ambient air pressure. Not only the difference due to altitude but the difference due to weather related barometric changes.

syrup 6.JPG
Syrup hydrometer with cup down below.
Measures sugar content by measuring fluid density at a given temperature.

After reaching 67% sugar, the finished syrup is poured through a flat filter plate into a small rectangular stainless steel tank. We use 2 layers of syrup filter felt stacked with several layers of paper pre-filter. As the pre-filters clog up, we peel off a layer and let it go on. The finished, filtered syrup is batched up in this tank until the end of the season. Come bottling time, the tank full of syrup is heated up to 200F to kill any molds or bacteria and the hot syrup is carefully drained into glass or plastic food grade containers designed and manufactured for syrup. The hot syrup kills any undesirables in the bottles as well. After capping, we invert the bottles until they cool to ensure the insides of the caps are sterilized as well.

When the Democrats were in charge of Wisconsin, they changed the laws on the books regarding syrup. To be able to sell your syrup retail or wholesale, you now have to have your operation inspected by the State and you must meet certain guidelines. One of which is no dirt floors, so I can't legally sell my syrup. We give it away to family and friends. It's at least theoretically possible we barter it for other stuff. Theoretically.

Why Do It?

I get asked a lot why I spend 20-30 hours per week this time of year making something I can't sell. There are several reasons:

  • We have the trees here and doing things that have been done for hundreds or thousands of years - in a traditional way - appeals to me.
  • I have done this for the last 17 years with my sons. I hope to do it with my grandkids.
  • Sex. Or at least the potential of it. When you are spending 4-12 hours a day in the evaporator room you come in the house smelling like wood smoke and maple syrup. I have it on very good authority that many women find this smell to be an aphrodisiac. Sadly for me, my wife does not fall into that distribution of women, but YMMV.
  • I spend hours every evening I boil sitting in the tailgate of my truck, drinking an adult beverage, watching the evaporator and the stars. I see more stars this time of year than the rest of my year combined. On St Patrick's Day this year, we were treated to the rare sight of the Northern Lights at 45N latitude. It was an awesome Irish green. Sounds like a country song doesn't it?
  • Social life. When I am boiling, I let my friends and family know. I often get visitors who come to hang out, listen to music, have a few drinks and generally enjoy the Outside.
  • What else would I do? I love to be Outside. This time of year, ice fishing is done, regular fishing isn't open and turkey season hasn't begun yet. There is snow and/or mud everywhere. Maple syrup season fills a niche for me and thousands of others in this way.


If you can't buy maple syrup in your area or if you want to try your hand at syruping yourself, I recommend visiting Roth Sugar Bush. You can buy syrup, maple sugar, maple cream, and maple candy plus all the equipment and supplies you will need. The folks that run this business are fantastic people that have taught me a lot over the years.


  • Everyone knows that pure maple syrup is fantastic on pancakes and waffles. Just be sure to refrigerate the syrup after opening. There are no preservatives in it and at room temperature in your cupboard, mold spores will be on your syrup faster than a progressive journalist on a fake rape story.
  • A very simple way to enjoy maple syrup is to put it on ice cream. I prefer it on vanilla but the sky is the limit.
  • One of my favorite ways to enjoy syrup is to further concentrate it and coat it as a maple sugar glaze on walnuts. Dry 4 lbs of walnuts on cookie sheets in the oven at 150F. Getting all the water out keeps the nuts crunchy after glazing. Put 1 quart of maple syrup into a pot with plenty of head room for some foaming. Using a candy thermometer, heat the syrup to 40-45F past the initial boiling point. As the syrup concentrates towards sugar, you will observe foaming. It is helpful to have a little melted butter on hand. If the foaming starts to get out of control, just drizzle a little of the butter in the pot. The fats help to slow down the foaming by modifying the local surface tension. Once you get to the correct temperature, remove the nuts from the oven, put them in a large bowl, and pour the boiling syrup over them. Toss the nuts well to get them all coated. As they cool, they will end up with this fantastic glaze of maple sugar. This recipe will work on any nut you prefer.
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    posted by Open Blogger at 04:00 PM

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