Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oh what a Sap I am.....

     Truth be told, I don't consider myself to be a great father.  I miss a lot of things, and I've been known to gripe about carting my kids to sports practices a time or two (in my defense there was a Quincy marathon on), and I've phoned it in on more than one occasion.  I once even spent half of an elementary school chorus concert watching the wrong kid, until my wife pointed ours out (oops, why do they have to dress alike?).  So I like to blog about the times I do spend quality time with my kids, so the historical record will be skewed to make me appear more active and to be a better parent (you have to balance the positive blogs against diary entries, social service reports and town court transcripts).  This blog is about making syrup from sap with my son Nolan last weekend....

     Nolan came home from school all excited about the idea of tapping maple trees and making his own syrup. 
Where I should have spent last weekend.....
We are fortunate in our district to currently have an alternative program for 6th graders called ECO (Environmental Classroom Opportunity).  The curriculum is the same, but with an emphasis on the outdoors. All of my kids have been lucky enough to have attended ECO, and have benefited from it.  They made canoes, learned to play steel drums, hiked and hiked, tested ponds, visited bear's dens and a whole lot more.  My wife and I are big fans of the Thoreau-like concept that taught our kids that all learning doesn't have to take place at a desk in 45 minute sessions, but I digress... needless to say, when Nolan came home with this optional project (It wasn't even assigned, he volunteered! ), slacker Dad that I am, was not excited.  I do have my moments though, so suddenly his homework, became our shared project to make maple syrup.

    Nolan had wanted to tap the trees on our property, which would have been convenient, but I knew they weren't sugar maples, so I reached out to some friend, the Eckerts.  They've got a nice property set into the woods with quite a few sugar maples on it, and they were happy to loan out their trees to us. 
Drilling the hole for the tap
We borrowed a better battery powered drill and big bit from Uncle Frank, and set off with our borrowed taps and buckets to become maple syrupers.  Nolan picked out a nice beech tree to tap when we got there, and while I don't know much, I do know what I don't know, so I asked the owner to point out the sugar maples to us, and consequently no beeches were harmed in the making of this blog.  We tapped 4 trees and the only snag was the drill bit broke on the last one. It cost $10.99 to replace (You might want to start keeping track of the costs involved here to see why real maple syrup costs so much).  We cleaned out the holes, hammered in the taps, hung our buckets and plastic bottles and we were well on our way to becoming maple syrup entrepreneurs. You have to cover the buckets so the rain and particulates don't get in the sap.  So we set our sap traps and headed off for home to wait for the amber goodness to start flowing.

     The first thing you should know about the sap, is that it isn't really amber.  It runs out and looks like water when you collect it.  I had no idea about this, but I was suddenly interested in the process of how the thin water like substance becomes thick and sugary.  I learned that it has to evaporate down to do this, and in fact the ratio is around 40:1.  Wait, 40:1?  Does that mean I have to collect 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of finished syrup? Yes it does, oh goody.
Nolan at tree # 2, tapped and ready
As luck would have it, we picked a great weekend to tap the trees, with freezing nights and warm days so the sap was running pretty well.  In doing some research I saw that you can get about 10-20 gallons per tree during a season and Nolan and I averaged about 6 gallons with just a few days of tapping. Even though we drove over and checked them often and poured the buckets into clean 5 gallon pails often, the owners still had to help out and dump the smaller containers more frequently than we were there (Thanks Eckerts!).  We probably burned $5 in gas going back and forth so much, so add that to the total.  Over the next few days, over multiple trips, we collected about 23 gallons of clear, slightly sugary sap.  We gave a little back to nature while moving it from the trees to the buckets, or by having the bottles misaligned with the taps, but I thought we did pretty well for first timers.  It was as the sap was piling up that we realized we weren't really well equipped to process it, so it was off to town to pick up the needed materials.
I was going to boil the sap off in my house or on the stove inside the Garaj-Mahal, and had planned to do just that, when it suddenly hit me that every other operation I had seen or heard of did it outside.  Sensing that there was a reason for this I made plans to evaporate the sap over a tripod burner, but I really didn't have a wide, shallow pan to do it in, so I bought one.  $30 bought me a nice wide stainless steel pan that used to be a drawer in a large refrigerator unit, but it worked perfectly.  If I had done it in the house or garage, I sense that the walls would have been sticky and sweet for a long time afterward, based on the amount of evaporation that had to take place.  Again, a lucky break for us newbies to sugaring.  It took the better part of 2 days to boil the sap down to a reasonable level.  We started it as a slow boil not realizing that you can really get it rocking at this point with little danger of burning anything.  I estimate that we used about $20 worth of propane to boil the 23 gallons down.  I worked from my office one day and placed the tripod outside of my window, so I could see the steam and run down and add more sap when needed.  This part of the process was time consuming, but not hard at all. We strained it each time we added sap to the boiler, to take out the twigs and bugs and stuff. 

     This helps to make a better syrup and is only one step in the purity process.  You try and collect just the sap, you strain it as you fill the evaporator, you skim off the foam occasionally as it boils and you filter it when it is finally syrup.  I tried to do as much of the processing as possible with Nolan present, but you have to process the sap within a day or two of collecting, so I had to do some myself.  The pan I bought had a metal clip that extended from the side where I could balance the strainer when I had to add sap myself, another lucky break for us first timers.
Final filtering of the sap/syrup

The sap took the better part of two days to boil down to the point that we weren't comfortable doing it on the burner anymore, so we moved indoors and used a teflon pot to help avoid burning.  We used coffee filters, suspended in a wire strainer to do the final filtering. I am guessing that there are better, more effective things to use than these, but in this instance, we used what we had.  As it was, we had 2 more purchases to make before this project was finished.  We didn't have an accurate, easily read thermometer, to tell when it reached the correct temperature and we didn't have anything to put the finished syrup in.  We paid $3.50 for the candy thermometer and $8.00 for a case of 8oz canning jars from the local hardware store.  The final finish took about 2 hours on the stove with us both checking it frequently.  I had trouble reading the thermometer even with my dollar store cheaters on. It kept steaming up inside the glass which made it difficult. Syrup has a boiling point that is 7 degrees above water, so you really need a good thermometer in order to be able to see the exact finishing point.

One person told me that the syrup will foam when it is finished, and if that is true, we may have over processed our syrup slightly and darkened the color unnecessarily.  The grading of maple syrup has everything to do with the clearness or translucency of the finished product; the lighter, the better.  Our first attempt resulted in a light to medium amber, but we wanted to make sure we actually made it to the syrup stage. We had to do some research on canning next, as we had no idea on how to do this.  My mother and father had canned things at home, but I never really paid that much attention to the process.  I do remember that they used a pressure cooker, but I found, in this instance it was unnecessary.  We sterilized the jars, we filled them to leave just a little head space, and then we screwed the button tops on tightly.

We placed them on their sides on the counter, and kept watch that our cat, Nibbler, didn't knock them off to play with them.  About an hour after Nolan went to bed that night, the kitchen was filled with the cacophony of popping buttons on the jars.  They all sealed properly.  The next day, we made some custom labels for fun, and our project was complete.  Several days of collecting sap netted us 23 gallons.  A couple of days of evaporating and finishing netted us 80 oz of finished syrup or 10-8 oz jars. For the accountants among you, we had spent $77.49 to produce 10 jars, so our syrup cost us $7.75 a jar !  It was quite the eye opener to realize the amount of time, money and effort to produce the product.  The Saturday following, we sat down and had French toast for breakfast and used our finished product.  It was delicious.  So, to finish the blog, my final thoughts are that it wasn't really that hard, it was a lot of fun to go through the process and to spend time with Nolan that way, and we were able to produce a decent product our first time trying.  All in all I'd say that I would be willing to repeat the adventure, because while I don't consider myself a great father, I do have my moments.


Anonymous said...

I no your childrn wouldn't trade you for the world! You are a excellent Dad. Don't let it go to your head now...lol. Sounded like a long and Big adventure..what an exsperience to read about...would I do it? Not my choice of cooking...love this story. Thanks Bill & Nolan. xoxo Florrie

Daphne Mays said...

Another great one, Bill!
Amount spent on supplies: $77.49
Time spent together on son's pick of project: priceless!

We don't have maple trees here so they use birch. Haven't tried that yet. I brought a gallon of maple syrup with us when we moved. ;) Personally I like the taste of the darker syrup better. Next time around you'll already have many of the supplies so your cost will just be the fuels!

R said...

Fun, what a nice story!