Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Since I stopped working on the ice cuts I've taken up a small maple syrup operation in my front yard. I have two decent sized red maples and few sugar maples, three of which I've tapped. I purchased the taps for $3 at the Dexter mill and cut holes in milk jugs as collection buckets. Tapping the trees was pretty straight forward, drill a 2 inch deep hole at a slight upward angle into the trunk of the tree about 3 feet from the ground. Next, pound the tap into the hole and attach the collection jug, and the sap literally starts flowing (or dripping) at the rate of leaky faucet.
The most peculiar thing about this process is that the temperature must get down to freezing at night and go above freezing in the day. If only one happens without the other, ie: all freezing, or all thawing, nothing happens.
The first week I started it was pretty good, and I collected about 2 gallons, then it got cold, and nothing flowed for a few days. The weather snapped again, getting very warm during the day, and I was flowing about a gallon and half at its peak. So far I think I've collected 8 + gallons. Last weekend I boiled down a batch on a makeshift fire pit in my yard. Apparently an open fire imbues a smoky flavor in the syrup that is said to be the best. Okay, wood fire it is.
This took a very a long time, and required constant maintenance -lots of little pieces of wood were added to keep the flame hot. Luckily my roommate Erik chopped lots of wood throughout the day keeping a steady supply on hand. If the fire got down to just coals, the sap would only simmer. The sugar content in sap is about 2-6 % depending on who you ask. Boiling down 4 gallons took almost 12 hours, which is hideous compared to the rate at which small syrup operations evaporate their sap (hundreds of gallons per hour). By 10:30p the sap was getting darker colored and was quickly reducing down into syrup. I brought it inside to 'finish' it on the stove, which requires monitoring the temperature with a candy thermometer until it reaches 104 C, which is above the boiling point of water. This number tells you that your sugar content is correct and the syrup is done. One could continue boiling it, and would end up with maple sugar.
The syrup tasted very good, and you could definitely pick up a smoky flavor, which was actually quite nice. To be methodical, the next day I boiled down the other half of my sap on the stove, just to be sure there was a difference between open fired syrup. This was way easier because you could forget about monitoring the flame, although it took nearly the same amount of time. This batch came out a little lighter amber color and didn't have a smoky flavor, but nonetheless was very good.
For now, I'm using calder's dairy half&half bottles, but I have some real syrup bottles coming in the mail. I actually don't like the shape of a traditional syrup bottle, but they only cost about $1 each. Shipping was more expensive than the bottles. I'm going to design some labels for the bottles, and begin speculating on this project at the scale of a neighborhood, and then the city of ann arbor, which by the way maps every single tree on every street, and all the trees in the parks thanks to the forestry department. Of these trees, 37% are maples. Ann Arbor could create a multi-million dollar sugar industry without planting anything!