When you buy an antique house in New Hampshire and discover that the previous owners left you a bunch of maple sugaring equipment in the barn, there's only one thing to do: get out there and try to make some syrup.
After taking inventory of what we had (buckets, taps, evaporator pans, evaporator cinder blocks, sap storage tank, skimmer, glass bottles) and what we needed (filters, caps, hydrometer, hydrometer cup, supplies to enhance the evaporator), we moved on to the key task: identifying sugar maple trees during the winter when they lack leaves. My father-in-law, a lifelong woodsman, helped us identify a bunch of prime sugar maples, which we tapped on March 1st. My "alternate branching" identifying criteria worked well also, but nearly led to me tapping a few ash trees which I swore were maples.
We have a trophy maple next to our driveway - it's probably over 100 years old - but it's in somewhat rough shape. A visiting arborist advised not tapping it, since it's our centerpiece tree, and it didn't need anymore stress. This put a dent in my plans - the big tree could easily accomodate 4 taps, and in fact we found an old label that the prior homeowners had used for their syrup called "one tree syrup," indicating that it was the linchpin of their sap production too. Still, I found room for 15 taps on my other trees, and we eagerly anticipated our first sap run. It usually takes roughly 30-35 gallons of sap to boil down into one gallon of syrup. After tapping on Monday, we collected the sap daily, lugging a 3.5 gallon bucket with a cheesecloth filter I'd fabricated into the lid back and forth between the trees and our storage bucket.
To get a good sap run, you need cold nights. It makes a big difference if it gets down to 30 degrees or 25 degrees - 25 degrees is much better - and we had a few days like that. You know your lifestyle has changed when you take the lid off of a galvanized steel sap bucket on a tree, see it mostly full, and unconsciously coo "Atta girl," to your tree. I now eagerly check the long term weather forecast each day, cursing when the nights won't be cold enough. Yes - this is my life. We had 37 gallons of sap by Sunday, and set to work boiling it.
After we laid out the cinder block foundation, Mrs. Dynamite and my dad constructed a great "square hole with a round peg" solution to seal up the exhaust pipe which I'd ingeniously designed. Mrs. Dynamite then used her pop-riveter to construct a hinged door that partially covered the front of the evaporator, while still allowing air to flow in. We had a grate elevated slightly by bricks which kept the fire off the ground and burning hot. The pans go on top of the cinderblocks in the picture below.
We also had plenty of home-harvested firewood, cut up by yours truly with the chainsaw my father-in-law gave us.
Once it's all fueled up and the pans are loaded with sap, it looks like this:
The wood boards are to keep us from sinking into the swamp that was our yard. Notice the sweet draft below the hinged door, and the elevated grate that the wood is on.
Now, there is a delicate dance going on here: there are two evaporating pans: the back pan (nearest the fire opening) is roughly 2 feet by 4 feet - maximizing surface area for maximum evaporation of water (sap is roughly 97% water - once you boil off the water, you get syrup!). The front pan is smaller - maybe 1 feet by 2 feet. So, you can't just take one pan off the evaporator - because then the smoke comes pouring up and out. Thus, you have to keep enough sap in both pans so that neither pan burns.
The evaporator looks like this when it's running:
What we did was ladle sap from the back pan into the front pan as needed, while adding fresh sap to the back pan, until all of our sap was in the two pans (this took a few hours). At one point the front pan was at risk of over-cooking, as indicated by a furious and rapid foaming of the sap in that pan. Fortunately, we had the antidote ready - a piece of raw bacon waved at the top of the foam, which causes it to retreat. We added more sap and continued. Then, as the back pan boiled down to a level that would allow us to fit all the remaining sap into the front pan, we carefully dumped the contents into the front pan. Then, to keep the back pan from scorching, we put water in the back pan.
Mrs. Dynamite went inside to boil the bottles (sterilize them), while my dad and I manned the evaporator as the sunset. We had headlamps to guide us, and I wanted to boil for as long as possible on the evaporator. "Don't be a hero," Mrs. Dynamite warned me, not wanting me to scorch the almost-syrup after 6 hours of work. We pulled it off the evaporator, filtered it into a lobster pot, and brought it inside to finish on the stovetop where the temperature was easier to control.
What may have taken another 45 minutes on the evaporator took nearly 4 hours on the stovetop, but eventually, after repeated testing with our hydrometer, we got the proper reading of sugar content that indicated we'd finally attained SYRUP! We lined our funnel with filter felt, and ladled the syrup in. The filter quickly backed up and stopped dripping, which confused us immensely. We didn't think the filter could be clogged already, as we'd barely filtered 1/2 pint of syrup, and the filter was brand new. Unable to remedy the situation, we switched to a multi-layer cheese cloth filter instead, and were able to bottle all of our syrup. The drawback to this filter change was that our bottles have "sugar sand" in them - tiny particles of nutrients that are a byproduct of the boiling process. Our goal is to get these filtered out next time, but we're still working on how to do that. The addicts over at MapleTrader.com suggested wetting the filters, which we hadn't done, using pre-filters, and keeping the syrup piping hot during the filtering process.
In the end, it was extremely satisfying to even get any syrup out of the deal, considering the ample opportunities to screw it up. Mrs. Dynamite printed out labels, and the final product looked like this:
Of course, we made Oscar pose with his branded syrup, but he looked none too happy:
We ended up with about 1.1 gallons of syrup, and proceeded to eat pancakes for the next three days. We were also extremely lucky with the weather on Sunday when we boiled off our sap - it was sunny and 50 degrees. This week poses multiple problems, as the sap production hasn't been as bountiful, and there is forecast for rain all weekend. I'm not sure how to construct a tent over my evaporator that would keep the rain out, yet not melt from the heat of the stovepipe chimney... These are the dilemmas you have to face if you want to be a playa in the maple sugarin' world, though....