By Linda Lane
Blue plastic tubing runs from tree to tree on sugar maples lining streets and woods throughout St. Joseph and Kalamazoo counties. The collection of sap is well underway to produce this year’s batch of maple syrup. The newer systems of plastics tubing and bags, replacing metal spouts and buckets, offer an easier and more efficient way to collect sap from the trees and increase yield.
Butternut Creek Sugar Shack, one of the premier sugar bushes in this area, will host an open house again this year. It will offer a free pancake breakfast, including sausage and orange juice, with a tour of the “sugarbush shack” from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. March 10-11, at 24890 Flach Road just south of the Kalamazoo County line. Weather permitting, visitors are invited to take a walk through the woods with owner and event host Terry Moyer. Walks start at 11 a.m., noon, and 1, 2 and 3 p.m. to watch the process of tapping the sugar maple trees and learn the process of collecting the maple sap.
If conditions are right, Moyer hopes to show people how “maple taffy” is made, sometimes poured onto snow (or crushed ice for cleanliness) with a popsicle stick. Also called sugar on snow, the maple taffy is made by boiling the maple sap past the point of maple syrup, but not to the point of making maple butter or maple sugar. In New England, the event is called a “sugar on snow party” and the soft candy is served with donuts, sour dill pickles or coffee to counter the intense sweetness of the candy.
“I do this because I love it,” Moyer explained. “I really enjoy teaching people about the process of making maple syrup.” Moyer reignited a family tradition, one his grandfather had started in the same woods, though he died before Moyer was born. At the beginning, Moyer even used the old flat pans of his grandfather’s that he had found out in the family’s woods.
Moyer has 950 trees tapped currently, getting permission to tap trees from other landowners, with 45 gallons of maple syrup already produced. The plastic lines drain into 30, 40, and 150-gallon containers, with as many as 140 trees running into the biggest container. Although it’s too early to tell how this season will be, his goal this year is 200-250 gallons of syrup.
But it is entirely weather dependent.
Warn sunny days in the 40s and freezing nights in the 20s are necessary for maple trees to produce the coveted sap and will determine the length of the maple harvest season. Maple sap will flow for approximately 8-15 hours, with a very rapid rise in temperature, from 25 to 45 degrees, enhancing the sap flow. Each tap hole in a tree will produce about 10 gallons of maple sap, enough to boil into about a quart of maple syrup.
Once the sap is collected, it is boiled to 219 degrees Fahrenheit, seven degrees above the boiling point of water. Classified as one of nature’s healthiest foods, maple syrup retains nutrients during the boiling process. Nothing is added; only water is removed during the concentrating process. Pure maple syrup contains natural sugars, minerals, vitamins and amino acids.
Moyer has some new-fangled equipment to expedite the syrup process: a “saparator” which preheats sap to 190 degrees and injects air to create bubbles to release steam before the sap moves into the evaporator which completes the maple syrup boiling process. This process reduces the processing time and allows Moyer to produce 55 gallons of syrup an hour. The wood-fired evaporator will burn 4-6 cords of wood over the season to produce the syrup. It requires manually feeding the wood into the burner every 12 minutes, sometimes as often as every eight minutes.
Anyone with a large maple tree in their yard can tap the tree and produce maple syrup with a minimal amount of equipment. Drill a tap-hole (typically with a 7/16” or 1/2” drill bit, about 2-2 1/2” deep) in the tree which fits a metal or plastic collection spout for each tap-hole; larger trees can have up to four taps. Attach a collection container (bucket or plastic bag). Once the sap is collected, boil down the sap to create the maple syrup by using a large-scale thermometer calibrated at least 15 degrees above the boiling point of water. Filter the finished syrup while still hot with a wool, orlon or other filter into a container.
Native Americans are credited with initiating America’s oldest agricultural commodity and discovering how to convert maple sap into maple syrup. While it was used in local trade many centuries ago, the current economic benefit to Michigan producers exceeds $2.5 million annually. There are an estimated 500 commercial maple syrup producers, with an additional 2,000 hobby or home producers. Michigan ranks fifth in the country for maple syrup production, with Vermont coming in first place.