Monday, March 9, 2009

Maple Syrup, Backyard Style

Special thanks to Janet Koch for sharing her maple syrup making experience with us. Her maple syrup recipes will be up tomorrow!

Janet Koch, hopeful novelist, is also a budding website designer and
book trailer producer. Visit Janet at or contact her at for her Deepwater Design services.

Every year we rediscover that spring isn’t all about blue skies, bouncing lambs, and greening grass. Roughly 95.69% of spring here in northern lower Michigan is dirty snow, sloggy skiing, and lots and lots of mud. Luckily my husband and I have discovered something that makes the whole shoulder season tolerable: the magic of making maple syrup.

Is It Time Yet?

In late February we start watching the weather forecast. Sap runs when the temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. When we see a forecast of highs in the 30s, we dance a little jig and start cleaning the buckets.

Next we gather the tools; an old brace drill of my grandfather’s, a rubber mallet, a stack of buckets, a pile of lids, and a handful of spiles. Then we tromp through the woods, looking for the small blue dots we painted on 11 particular maple trees the previous fall.

We drill, pound in a spile (a special kind of spout), hang the bucket, attach the lid, and move on to the next tree.

Then we wait. Drip by drip, sap accumulates in the buckets. On cool days the ping-ping-ping noises ping every 30 seconds. On sunny 40 degree days, the pings come so fast it’s almost a steady stream of clear sap running out of the tree.

We make a daily sap run, emptying the tree buckets into buckets we carry through the woods. The hauling buckets are carried out of the woods, down the driveway, into the garage, and are dumped into garbage cans purchased solely for the purpose of holding maple sap. This is a Happy Thing To Do; the sap froths a bit as you pour and every gallon of sap gets us a gallon closer to maple syrup.

Backyard Maple Syrup Making

As soon as we’ve collected 50 or 60 gallons of sap, we plan for a couple days of boiling. The concrete blocks stored behind the garage are brought out and our homemade cooker is cobbled together. Just before dawn the next morning we start the fire. When the fire is hot we lay down the stainless steel pan fabricated for us by a friend. pour in the first few gallons of sap, and wait for the boiling to start.

Wah-hoo! Maple syrup is only 14 hours away!

The rest of the day goes like this: add more wood, add more sap, add more wood, add more sap. The sap’s color starts to turn that lovely amber color and every once in awhile you catch that heady scent of maple.

Early in the evening we stop adding sap. At our elevation, maple syrup becomes maple syrup when the boiling point of sap reaches 219 degrees. You reach this point by boiling off - evaporating - most of the water in the sap. We boil approximately 60 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup. Yup, 60 to 1. Now you know why maple syrup is so expensive.

When the sap starts to slide off the stirring ladle in sheets, it’s time to get busy. Most of the day we’ve been standing around, chatting with neighbors and friends that drop by, splitting the occasional hunk of wood, adding sap, toasting the odd hot dog, drinking an adult beverage or two. No more.

We transfer the almost-syrup from the big pan to a 6 quart stockpot and bring it inside to finish cooking. The transfer can be a hairy operation. The first year I almost dropped my end of the pan. All I want to say about that incident is it's a good thing I have a strong heart.

Once the pot is safely cooking on the cooktop we attach a digital thermometer and keep an eagle eye on the contents. Boiling almost-syrup can foam up in half a heartbeat and make an incredible mess on the cooktop. If you want proof, I have pictures.

At 219 degrees we filter the syrup through cheesecloth and pour it into canning jars I’d sterilized earlier. Some syrup is inevitably spilled but don’t worry, none of it is wasted. We quickly learned to wipe it up with a piece of bread. Warm maple syrup on bread? Yum!

We spend the next hour cleaning and then head up to bed, exhausted yet fulfilled. We just made maple syrup and that’s a Very Cool Thing.

So that’s how we make maple syrup. Friends and neighbors often ask the same questions. How long does the sap flow? Depends on the weather. How much sap do you get from your trees? Depends on the weather. When do you boil the sap? Depends on the weather. How much syrup do you get in a year? Depends on the weather.

In some ways this is frustrating, in other ways it’s a life lesson about patience and the pointlessness of getting frustrated about something over which you have no control. I’ve come to feel that every ounce of syrup we put into jars is a small miracle. Aunt Jemima eat your heart out.


Darlene Ryan said...

Hey Janet, we're having pancakes again next weekend. If you put some maple syrup in the mail today I should have it by then. Let me guess: Depends on the weather.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for the peek into the north woods, Janet! Very Cool!!! -Kaye

Janet Koch said...

Got a deal for you, Darlene. If you stop by and help me shovel the 14" of snow that fell last night I'd surely give you a nice big jar of maple syrup. You'd even have your choice of metal or plastic shovel.

Darlene Ryan said...

Janet, I have massive snow shovelling muscles from all the snow we've gotten this year. Fourteen inches is better than the 2 feet we got last storm.

Start making the pancakes!

Marte said...

I'm thinking that the plane fare from San Francisco is nothing compared to the sweat equity you've both put into this....Dan and I are on our way (and I don't even usually like maple - but this might change all that)!

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