Yesterday we went to collect an old pan for boiling sap down into maple syrup. The man who decided to give it to us took us out to the sugar shack on his property. He said he hadn't used the shack in 30 years. Sod had grown up around the low door of the 10 by 12 foot hut so I had to slip in through a hole left by a missing board and pass the enormous pan out. Inside, the hearth and chimney were crumbling. On the far wall small pieces of wood were stacked, ready for a hot, steady fire, as if they'd been there only days. Outside the shack stood on old bed frame and we wondered if people had slept there, taking turns to watch the boiling sap at the height of maple syrup season.
Years ago the annual harvest of maple syrup was an important component of the mixed farm model. Now, for the most part, subspecialties of farms have been divided up and you have professional syrup producers who tap thousands of trees and use kilometers of hose to collect the sap. Then you have hobbyists, which is where DH and I fall.
When we bought our land in 2010, we were focused on the cleared acreage. Since then we've come to realize that our woodlot, while covering fewer acres, could easily produce more money than the cleared land. We are going to get a professional management plan made up. Investment into managing a sugar stand or producing timber takes years, even decades to pay off but if things go right, the reward can be substantial. Manage your woodlot wrong and you could end up with something worse than useless.
Our small forest has kept us in firewood this year and provided the opportunity to experiment with making maple syrup. DH put in about a dozen taps on some of the larger sugar maples. Other types of maple trees produce sap that can be made into maple syrup but the concentration of the sugar in their sap is much lower, so it takes longer and costs more fuel. Every evening DH takes his large buckets down to the stand and collects the sap.
When boiling down the sap, the key factor is the surface area of your container. In my last post I mentioned an evaporator that someone had for sale. The pan on that evaporator was four by twelve feet! The pan we know have is two by six. The amount of surface area determines how much water you can boil off per unit of time. If you only have a certain chunk of time, like two weekend days, you can only boil down a limited amount of sap. Collecting more sap than you can boil down is a waste of time and effort. Therefore, you have got to do the math before you do anything else.
The thing is, even with careful planning, you can never predict when the sap will run. It all depends on the weather and with the bizarre winter we've had this year, it's anyone's guess what will happen with the sap.
The last couple of weekends we've been boiling sap down in pots on our stove. Neither of us has experience with judging the exact point when the sap has become concentrated enough to be maple syrup. We've been told that when you lift a spoon out of the liquid, if it drips, it's not done but if the liquid sheets as it falls off the spoon, it's done. It sounds simple, but it turns out that DH and I have widely differing opinions on what constitutes sheeting.
The first batch went relatively well. We left in on the table in a jar for the sediment to settle out. Unfortunately, just before breakfast, a friend who was over decided to shake up the jar in order to gauge the consistency. We couldn't taste the sediment. After taking the second batch off, DH felt uncertain. The colour was too light. It seemed a little thin. He put it back on the stove. By the time he was done with it, the stuff was thick as tar. The third batch we sampled on our apple pancakes this morning and it was just right.
As I type this more sap is boiling away on the stove. If we are willing to plan, work steadily and put in the time we will be in for a sweet reward. The equipment may have changed over the years, but the recipe for success will always be the same.