One of the nice things about being retired is the ability to learn something new. We have time to read websites and watch instructional videos. We can talk to people about our new interests, and we have time for trial and error.
So, when we saw all the buckets and blue bags beginning to appear on maple trees all around us, we thought Why not? We have maple trees.
So we acquired a few supplies. We talked to the guy in our local hardware store. We went out just a few steps from our back door and within a few minutes, put taps in four trees.
I’m about to walk you through a long journey. There were many emotions involved. If you want the short version, suffice it to say it was all a lot harder and more time-consuming than we expected it would be. If you want the longer version, read on.
Here are the stages:
Delight. We were amazed that within seconds of inserting the tap, the sap began to drip (Dave literally drilled a hole and inserted the $3 metal tap.) How awesome is this! we thought. It was almost a spiritual, worshipful experience. Wow, these trees are connected to some underground, hidden life force. Sweet water is flowing through veins hidden behind this innocuous grey bark. We were laughing, smiling, in wonder and awe.
Surprise. After just 24 hours, our bags were already pretty full. Our mood was pleasant. We were still in the this-is-great stage. However, because it was snowing/sleeting, we decided to keep what we had collected in the refrigerator overnight. We’d wait another day for the boiling.
Determination. In order to get syrup, we knew that we’d have to boil off a lot of water. In fact, it’s a 40 – 1 ratio. Yep: we’d need 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. So, on the third day, we began. Every website we read told us not to boil inside. There are stories of wallpaper coming off of walls because of the moisture that accumulates inside a house during a boil. We have a great fire pit already, so we ran up to the local hardware store and bought a grate. Our plan was to get coals going, enjoy an afternoon at the fire, and end up with syrup.
Disappointment. The first hour was pretty fun. The second was a little less so. By the fifth hour, we were taking turns going inside to warm up and to wash our eyes from the campfire smoke. Sometimes the boil would be going great and we’d feel like we were making progress, other times not so much. It’s pretty hard to regulate the temperature over a fire. The wind was brutal.
By the time it was pitch dark (about nine hours later) and we still had several buckets of sap that we hadn’t even started to boil, we put out the fire and began thinking about a plan B.
A little hope? We had made some progress. I brought in the mostly-boiled-down sap from that first batch. There were a few cups that I could continue to boil down on my inside stove. And indeed after another two hours, it started thickening up. Hurray! I thought.
Except not hooray. I have since learned that I boiled it too long at too hot a temperature. So instead of syrup, I made sugar. It was something, for sure, but not syrup.
Frustration. The next day, we switched to our propane camp stove. Besides, it was snowing again, and we could do this in the garage (with the garage door partly open.) So we boiled away, and yes, we saw progress. But we went through several bottles of propane, and let’s just say that the local store’s prices are a little hefty on propane.
Consternation. Remember, all the time, our trees were still flowing. Our bags were still filling up. We had more sap than we knew what to do with.
More determination. Plan C. In just two days, the BIG propane burner that we ordered from Amazon Prime was delivered. Now we had a heat source that was steady, very hot, and consistent. This time, the boil down was at least working. It did take lots of time, (as in hours and hours and hours.) And, it took lots of propane. We went through TWO big tanks of propane in just a few days, but something was happening. As the water in the sap evaporated, we kept adding new sap. The color turned from clear to slightly tan to a deeper, richer, light brown. Gradually, the substance felt a little thicker than it had when we started.
(Feeling like a novice) I should also mention that one of these days during this ten day process, we stopped into a local “sugar shack” where maple syrup makers knew what they were doing. Thanks to the generous people at The Farm, we witnessed people using the right equipment and utilizing tried and true methods that have been passed down for several generations. We learned really helpful information, like boil temperatures and sugar content, but most of all tasted some of the best, freshest maple syrup around. But boy, did we feel like beginners.
Acceptance. The final stage in most emotional processes is acceptance, right? So, this is what we’ve come to know: 1) There’s a reason that pure maple syrup is expensive. (Please, don’t ever begrudge paying a lot if you buy local. They deserve every penny they charge.)
2) My husband believes that having the right tool for any job is crucial. (That’s why our garage is full of tools.) In the case of maple syrup making, he’s right. If we do it again, (and that’s a pretty big if,) we’d be much better off with a different kind of fire pit, a different kind of pan/kettle, and a much better thermometer.
3) Mediocrity is ok. The maple syrup we ended up with is not perfect. One batch is a little thin. One batch is a little thick. However, it came from our trees, and that makes us happy. It was pretty yummy on our waffles.
So in the end, yes, it was a costly cooking class. ( Costly in both money and time.) But now that it’s behind us I’ve got one last stage to report: we’re feeling a tiny bit proud.