In a rare moment of insanity this winter, we decided we weren’t doing as many different things as we could, so invested in some maple syruping equipment. For the past month or so, we’ve been learning maple management on the fly and generating multiple useful products that improve our on-farm food diversity. Here’s a quick look at how this useful homestead project went.
We invested in a simple home sugaring kit from Tap My Trees, consisting of three taps & collection buckets which we found to be well-designed, sturdy, and very easy to install and use. Setup was as simple as choosing three promising trees, drilling the proper hole, and inserting the tap/bucket combination. That’s the easy part; we didn’t quite anticipate just how productive these trees would turn out to be.
Spring 2013 had long stretches of perfect weather for sap production (days above freezing and nights below). Our trees responded, filling the buckets day after day and sometimes overflowing before we could get to them. We transferred the daily sap take into 3-5 gallon food-grade containers, filtering through cheesecloth first to remove bark & bugs, then stored them in spare fridges until we had enough sap on hand to boil down (but not for more than a week). We developed our system for boiling down the sap, based on an already-built fire ring near the house:
We repurposed several key items from our goat-roast adventure, including the large roasting pan and some of the fire bricks from the roasting pit. Combined with a metal cauldron stand (acquired at an auction years ago), these made an excellent and stable set-up that really focused heat onto the pan for boiling down sap. We have large piles of cedar milling scrap around, which worked very well for this purpose due to cedar’s high heat content. We found that inserting long cedar planks into the fire, and gradually shoving them further in as they burned, was a very efficient way of keeping the fire going.
Using this setup, we were able to boil down 15-20 gallons of sap per day, while doing other work in the area and checking on the fire & topping off the pan with more sap every now and then. Toward the end of the day, when we were done adding raw sap and the depth in the wide pan was down to a few inches, we transferred the near-syrup to a 4-gallon aluminum pot for further reduction. This could also be easily brought inside by dark for final finishing on our kitchen stove overnight or the next morning.
Above right, some finished jars of on-farm syrup.
We don’t have an exact amount on total sap/syrup generated, and we’ll admit that we rather relished not keeping detailed records for once, since we can’t/won’t sell this product, and therefore aren’t required to have records for organic purposes. However, we did find the generally reported 40:1 ratio of sap to finished syrup to be roughly accurate for our trees. We eventually burned out on the time sink of managing full-scale sap concentration, just plain not having time to keep up with full-day fires and careful finishing. There was also the problem that the fire setup worked great…until it and the firewood got buried by a lot of snow, twice.
So we started experimenting with using the sap only halfway concentrated; at this stage it’s the sweetness and consistency of a sugar syrup one might use for mixed drinks or lemonade, with a noticeable maple twist (see above left). We often make such drinks throughout the year, and were thrilled to realize we could do so with our own natural maple base instead of with purchased sugar.
Cooking sap down halfway could be done daily on our kitchen stove (or our wood stove, when it was going) without generating any of the sticky mist that full-scale indoor reduction can produce, and with almost no attention paid to it. Once the sap was reduced properly, we filtered it hot through cheap coffee filters, a slow process but effective, then chilled it for use. We’ve been freezing many gallons of this product in quart containers, which will make spectacularly refreshing drinks throughout the heat of summer, with no purchased sugar. Best of all, this is the time of year when our chest freezer has large empty spaces, though it will run more efficiently when full; this is easily filled by many quarts of maple concentrate.
This was a really fun and worthwhile project to add to our crazy lives this spring, despite the higher-than-expected workload. The resulting products are fantastic, and we love making use of more resources on our diversified farm. The discovery of maple concentrate drinks was a delightful bonus.