Updated: Oct 26, 2021
My friend Chris is a regular enough guy. A family man with a background in Information Technology, he operates a small software development business from home. His family enjoys the many amenities and conveniences of our present time in almost every way. His differences however, and the probably the impetus to our friendship, lay in the fact he’s cut from a cloth of a past generation. A life-long learner and constant tinkerer, he’s the kind of guy who hunts for meat, changes his own oil, and fixes broken plumbing. Each spring, he’s liable to be found cruising the neighborhood and local woodlots by headlamp, bucket in-hand, collecting sap for his maple syrup operation.
We were Introduced last summer by mutual friends. While our three families made way up the Empire Bluff Trail in Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore, Chris and I honed in on our own side conversation. Among the topics we landed on, syrup was something new. Chris offered enough details to spark my intrigue, and agreed to let me in on the action of collection and production the following spring.
In the meantime, a regular friendship took form. We spent time bowhunting together during the fall. The leaves were in full color, and while driving to our hunting grounds he continued to educate on the realm of maple syrup…Michigan comes in fifth place in overall syrup production at ninety thousand gallons. Yet, the volume of mature Maple trees far outweighs the competition, and only utilize 1% of the states' maples are used. There’s a difference between sweetness in the sap from each sub-type, Sugar Maples are the best, followed by Autumn Blaze and Reds, but in the end, they’re all good producers. He spoke to the natural health benefits of maple syrup over other sweeteners. It’s full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals; He puts this into practice, too, using it on everything including his morning coffee. Each year in Michigan, ninety thousand gallons of syrup are produced, of which Chris was hoping to contribute merely ten of, a seemingly simple goal to attain, in comparison. Through the winter I could hardly wait to see how would all play out.
When gray clouds broke to reveal a bluebird sky one February afternoon, Chris called saying it was time to run his tap lines. I drove to his in-law's and found him in the middle of a freshly swept barn floor, neatly arranging various piles of equipment. Bulk bags of various plastic parts were strewn alongside industrial-sized spools of blue colored tubing. We loaded all the parts, a drill, thermos of hot water, and the blue coils into a couple rubbermaid bins and set out.
He had pre-identified the 50+ trees we’d be tapping and marked each with pink flagging. Smartly, he had also dropped pins from each on google earth and printed off a map. Starting with a fine specimen on the perimeter of one particular cluster, we drilled a neat hole about 1” deep. We did this high enough on the trunk to include seven or eight more trees on the same line. Each was tapped slightly lower than the previous, allowing gravity to work all the sap into one collection point on the last one.
With the same enthusiasm we shared on the trail in Empire, we talked about the wonderment of the natural world. This time though, I was mostly listening to Chris while lugging equipment through the snow covered forest. He was like a talking encyclopedia…The ideal tree is 10” in diameter or 30” in circumference. To tap a tree effectively, you must angle the hole slightly downward. The ideal location is somewhere between 2.5’ to 5’ up the trunk, and on the SE side if possible, where the warming sun will first greet it, and thus maximize the collection window. Michigan’s sap running season starts sometime in February and runs through March, when overnight lows dip into the 20’s and daytime temps reach 40. To make good syrup, you need a lot, and the ratio is roughly 45:1. Nothing needs to be added. You just need to boil it in order to make syrup. Taps are removed at the end of the season, and quickly begin to heal, resembling a belly-button just a year later.
While we were in the woods I was thinking…if he makes 10 gallons, that’s 450 gallons of sap. I’m scratching my head as to how one would load, haul and then boil down that kind of volume without full-time dedication and a commercial kitchen. We cut the tubing at the final tree, dropped a collection bin underneath it, and set off to hang more before calling it a day.
During the heart of the sap run, I checked in with him a couple more times. The first, to see the boiling phase, said to take place in his backyard sugar-shack. While driving through the fog and light rain, I pondered the same thoughts from our bluebird day in the woods. The required workload seemed significant. The equipment would have to be of commercial scale, and probably expensive, too. That, or I was about to see a double-dose of good old fashioned American ingenuity. I arrived honestly dumbfounded, all preconceived notions abruptly stalled. While approaching between houses into the dark backyards of the subdivision, I could clearly see his sillhouette against the ½ chord of stacked cherrywood, his shadow dancing against a temporary wall of wood. Anyone else might mistook the scene for a meth-lab. Chris welcomed me to “The Sugar Shack”, his self-made sap stove, which includes a custom-welded stainless tray that holds 30 gallons of boiling sugar water, atop cinder block walls. Underneath is the fire pit with a cast iron door, filled with red hot coals. There’s a makeshift damper, and a plywood roof to keep out the cold drizzle, which picked up during my arrival.
He teaches while he works, and I’m all ears. The best way to reduce sap is to go in stages. The first stage is where most of the water content is boiled off, it reduces the raw sap into something which much resembles sugar water. I tasted it. Sweet, but not syrup. After snapping some photos and chatting for awhile, the words stopped, our attention turned toward the crackling of coals and the bubbling of sap. Weird finding this kind of tranquility in a neighborhood, but to call any of this normal would be a stretch. An Owl swooped in from above and startled us out of the quiet trance. It was time to call it a night. Chris said the final stage is done in the kitchen, where better temperature control and the use of a hydrometer come into play. That would have to wait, for now.
I dial up his cell a week later and he’s back at it, this time his kitchen just as he mentioned. He invited me in, where several pots were boiling over the range. He worked like a mad alchemist, constantly dipping a beaker into the foaming swirling liquid and pouring small samples into a stainless tube. This tube is part of his hydrometer – a glass gauge filled with hash-marks and a weighted bottom, calibrated to measure the density of a specific liquid. Though his explanations were gracious, I was just eager to see syrup. There’s a small margin for error at this stage, a matter of seconds can determine success or failure, which results in an inedible burnt candy like substance, ruining the pans and laying waste to all the sweat equity involved. With he beckoned my attention to the range. I looked inside to the swirling mirror-pond exposed from a break in the steamy froth. It had finally taken on the familiar color of and candy-sweet aroma I'd come all this way to experience. While locked into a childhood memory, a Saturday morning of my youth, licking my lips and anointing my waffles with amber warm liquid, Chris opened the oven. Uniform bottles were staged waiting to be filled. Once filled, they’re overturned (to heat-treat any bacteria), and labels are carefully placed. They’re as presentable as any salable item I’ve ever bought from the store, but he’s saving them to give to friends and family.
Before I leave, the chef grabbed a spoon from the drawer, added warm liquid from the pot and hands it to me for taste. I’m humming the Mary Poppins tune “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” I just took mine, and I’m positively impressed with where it came from.