2/14/2013 - Shu Minami’s love affair with maple sugaring started with just one tree, one tap and a kitchen stove.
“I made only about a quarter of gallon that year and caused a minor family dispute over ruining my wife’s best cooking pan, but I found something I loved,” Minami said. “Next year, I upgraded.”
Minami, now 74, is a retired chemical engineer who immigrated from Hiroshima 45 years ago first to Nashua in 2002 and then relocated to Mont Vernon to enjoy “a more nature-loving lifestyle.” He found that and more after beginning his sugaring venture in 2008.
He waded into the process, tapping enough trees for a gallon of syrup and boiling outside on his own grill — much to the chagrin of his family, again, who watched with raised eyebrows as he attempted to maintain a constant boiling temperature. Minami now has a setup featuring an outdoor brick oven and 25 trees, including eight that technically belong to his three neighbors. Depending on weather conditions, he can make about 12 gallons of syrup per season.
“It is relaxing, fun and so much more,” he said. “When I sit in front of the boiler and watch the color of the liquid gradually change to gold, the smell in the shack is intoxicating.”
Can you really D.I.Y.?
You don’t need access to a ton of trees; half a dozen, or even just one, will do. You don’t need to spend a fortune. And you don’t even need to like maple syrup, really; the most fun is in the process, and surely you know someone who would take some backyard-made syrup off your hands.
Presidents Day was once the hard and fast beginning of syrup season. Nowadays, sugarers eye 10-day forecasts and wacky weather patterns for the perfect start date, said Steve Roberge of the UNH Cooperative Extension.
“Making maple syrup is pretty straight-forward,” he said. “It just takes a big time investment and a little money; you have to be out there all season to keep up with the sap runs and have something to handle sap.”
“Runs” are when trees come back to life after a dormant winter. Sub-freezing nights followed by mild, 40-degree days cause a tree to expand and retract — in a way, pulsate the sap out. Taps are used to punch through to the xylem, which transports water from roots upward and outward using sap. During maple sugar season, running mid-February to early April, the sap is particularly rich in sucrose and can yield anywhere from eight to 10 runs. One tap can yield about a gallon each run.
“I’ve seen lawns with two to four trees out in Manchester and other cities, and that’s a perfectly good starting place,” Roberge said. “Or you can go to your neighbors and collaborate; the experience is certainly something good for friends and family.”
Any recovered sap needs to be handled like milk, stored cold in food grade containers and processed quickly. Processing is boiling; maple sap officially becomes syrup when it reaches 66.9 percent sugar. Only about 3 percent of the sap, on average, is sugar, so it needs to processed by boiling. Using a thermometer to gauge when it’s finished, syrup will boil at 220 to 219 degrees, 7.5 degrees more than the boiling point of water.
Given the sap-sugar metrics, processing can take an ungodly amount of hours depending on how much you have and what you use to process it. Using a small-scale example, with two trees and a tap in each, one run would yield about two gallons of sap, which would take about four hours to boil in a 12 inch by 20 inch pan. This gives off a lot of steam due to the low sugar content the sap starts out with, so boiling is done, or at least begins, outside.
“I’ve heard horror stories about the vapor getting into wallpaper and ceiling tiles. It can be very messy,” Roberge said.
After boiling, that amount of sap would yield about 190 ml. of syrup. If, over the course of the season, there are 10 runs for about 20 gallons of sap, the total yield for the season would be about a half gallon of syrup.
All of these are rough estimates, and here are some more. Equipment, which can be very expensive, is also easy to forgo if you’re just starting out. Chris Pfeil, who began The Maple Guys with his neighbor, Chris Shoen, has a store dedicated to sugaring hardware in addition to maple products.
“When it comes to beginners, I am only wondering how many taps they’re planning to do and what they are trying to accomplish with their operation, then we work from there,” Pfeil said.
Forgo buying an evaporator if you’re only doing this as a hobby; at their smallest, they are about $1,100. It’s possible to put thousands of dollars into a sugaring operation on just equipment — buckets, specialized spouts and spiles, packaging, filters, hydrometers, refractors and storage tanks — before you even factor in time and labor. Budgetary shortcuts are key, Pfeil said. The Maple Guys offers a beginner package with five two-gallon buckets with covers and five plastic bucket spouts, plus an instructional booklet, thermometer, cone felt filter and five pint jugs for $85 — but even that’s not totally necessary. Pfeil said he often provides buckets and spouts to customers who rig up their own buckets and find a thermometer to work with.
“We’re happy to get them what they need and guide them along as best we can. When it comes to making maple syrup people like having that spirit of Yankee Ingenuity, especially if it keeps cost down,” Pfeil said.
Sounds sweet, but worth it?
Putting forth both the time and money commitments is a task, so why do it? Well, say many, maple syrup is just plain awesome. But there’s more.
“Recently interest has been skyrocketing,” said Roberge, who teaches beginner do-it-yourself classes through UNH. It’s combination of a couple things, the biggest one being folks getting into local food. People are making their own products and turning that production as a hobby.”
Some maple makers are more addicted to the process than the product.
“It’s always good to get out and do something in the winter into the springtime, but I can’t really tell you why I do it,” said Kim Bean of Mudgett Hill Mumbling Maplers.
He’s been collecting and processing for 14 years.
“It began as just a hobby. I love the taste of it, but now I use hardly any of it. I’m always giving it to my friends or selling it,” he said.
For Bean, it’s a very New England thing too. New Englanders are offered a unique chance of living in the maple belt, essentially; to sugar is to take advantage of it.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” said Dale Smith, owner of Mt. Crumpit Farm. The maple syrup “gets in your blood, and you get addicted to it.”
“In the run up to maple season I’m kind of overwhelmed,” Smith said. “We’ll do maybe between 600 to a 1000 taps and be up all night boiling just to wake up and go to work at 4 a.m.,” he said, referring to his second job as a mechanical engineer.
Many maple syrup operations are seasonal. Dale estimates that less than five are able to stay open year round and turn a profit. Mt. Crumpit Farm will sell their 150 to 200 gallons of syrup privately and at local farmers markets and stores.
“It’s a full time, part-time job,” Smith said.
And sometimes, the taste is the thing.
Minami says his family gathers over maple syrup twice per day after a good season, although he’s often moderating fights over the last of the supply. In fact, the reason he began was his endeavoring to please his 2-year-old granddaughter, Miya, who loves pancakes. Some day, Minami’s grandchildren might have more of a hand in the process.
“Sugaring is a way of getting kids back outside a little more,” Roberge said, “showing them about nature and about how things are made.”
Addicted to sugaring
The Maple Guys’ humble beginnings were just a few trees and a campfire style burner. Pfeil, a welder, said he knew they could turn it into a business after he designed a steam table tray to use as an evaporator to increase production. In 1998 they were up to 30 taps and in early 2013, Pfeil and his wife invested in a piece of property with a capacity for about 3,000.
At Mapletree Farm, Dean Wilbur is entering his 38th maple sugaring season this year. He loves syrup and makes his own because he’s never known anything else.
“I grew up with it in my blood,” Wilbur says. “I probably wouldn’t be very happy if I didn’t get to do it every spring.”
His uncle’s in Springfield, Vt., produced syrup before it was flooded to make way for the North Springfield Reservoir. While his uncles used horses to gather the sap from buckets around the property, Wilbur said he was a 7-year-old nuisance, wearing snowy boots, trying to keep up with the horse-drawn sled. After the farm was flooded, he continued maple sugaring at a cousin’s house in Keene.
Now, he has his own operation.
“By 1975 I was doing it on my own. I boiled out back, behind my house, in the wind, but I did it because I like to do it and still do,” he said. “I have maple almost every single day, in one form or another, so I enjoy doing it. And I enjoy sharing the process with others — especially when you’re enlightening people about how long it takes to make it.”
Since 1990, Brian Folsom has owned Folsom’s Sugar House in Chester. Three years prior to starting the business, Folsom knew little about maple sugaring. A friend who owned a dairy farm had called him and asked about sugar maples on his property, and Folsom agreed to tap and deliver sap for the season in return for maple syrup.
He liked doing it so much that he purchased the equipment from his friend and took over the operation.
“I keep doing it because I think it’s a good thing; it’s something interesting; we have access to these trees in this part of the world. Some people try it and they find it was too much work, but others keep at it and seek out more trees,” Folsom said.
Folsom now taps 500 maples all over Chester each year. His modest shed is now a full-fledged operation with a 60-to-70-gallons-per-hour evaporator. Such a boil rate gives Folsom’s Sugar House about 1.5 gallons of syrup each hour.
It takes a lot of sap to make syrup, but even in modest amounts there are other things you can do with sap.
“On average my father would only get ten to 20 gallons [of sap] over an entire season,” said Folsom, whose dad kept only one tap in his front yard.
Instead of boiling all the way to syrup, he would reduce the sap to make it a little sweeter. In that form, it can be used as a sweetener in coffee or tea or in cooking or brewing processes.
“It’s not like boiling in water; you can cook with it but carrots, for example, aren’t going to taste really sweet cooked in it unless you really boil it down,” Folsom said.
Some trees yield sap with especially high sugar content; Roberge said he used to taste snapped-off maple twigs that made for a kind of sweet, sap icicle in wintertime.
Minami’s syrup gets onto pancakes, waffles, yogurt, oatmeal and cereal, and his wife cooks with it as well.
“She doesn’t think there is any dish that does not improve by adding maple syrup flavor,” he said.
Pfeil said glazing a ham or baking it into pies will impart great flavor.
The easiest and perhaps a kid-friendly option might be sugar on snow, where you take syrup, heat it up and drizzle it on some fresh snow. The crystallization makes the top a bit like taffy.
Maple creams and candies take practice to make, with highly specific boiling and cooling times, but then, sometimes it’s best to leave certain things to the pros.