As we officially enter spring and celebrate its arrival with the spring equinox, I am grateful to spend time in our woods harvesting sap and boiling it down in our sugar shack.
Growing up I didn’t know real maple syrup even existed, let alone how it was made. Caleb introduced me to delicious and local maple syrup back in college and now I use it as a natural sweetener in our cooking and baking. Unlike my upbringing in the suburbs of lower Michigan, Caleb grew up in northern Michigan where his family made their own maple syrup.
Aside from the superior quality in taste and texture, syrup made from tree sap (versus refine sugar) is a source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and zinc. Vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6 are also found in maple syrup. Recently I also learned that later season (and darker) syrup contains higher levels of antioxidants and calcium.
After moving to our new home on Apple Acres Farm, we happily discovered several dozen large maple trees growing on the property (it is best to tap trees larger than 10 inches in diameter). When we first started making maple syrup I didn’t know how to identify a maple tree, let alone a sugar maple tree (the bark, buds, and leaves help with the identification depending on the season – summer time is easiest to ID sugar maples).
I was also clueless about the various steps and hard work that are required to turn a slightly sweet sap into syrup with the right sugar density to naturally preserve it. As we head into our third season of maple syrup making, I look forward to this brief natural phenomenon that has become an enjoyable spring-time tradition around our farm.
Maple Syrup - Natural, Local, and Seasonal
We are constantly looking for new ways to grow, forage, and raise more food for ourselves and our community. In nature, sources of sugar are rare and highly coveted. Maple sap is a perfect example of this. If you’ve ever wondered why maple syrup is more expensive than the refine sugar syrup it’s because it takes approximately 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of syrup.
If you are tapping red maple, box elder, or birch trees it will take you 50 gallons, 60 gallons, or 80-100 gallons to make one gallon of syrup (respectively). Black walnuts have similar sugar content as sugar maples but they are more frugal with their sap so you’ll need more trees to get the same quantity of sap.
Beyond simply collecting larger quantities of sap, there is also the matter of boiling it all down. We use far more wood to run our sap evaporator for one month than we do to heat our energy efficient, passive-solar home for the winter months! Fortunately, for all of the labor and effort that goes into making maple syrup, a little goes a long way in terms of flavor.
Embracing an Old Spring Tradition
Here at Apple Acres Farm, making maple syrup is a labor of love and we aim to keep our operations at a scale that is enjoyable for us.
We are a small-scale syrup producer with between 40 and 50 depending on the year (large trees can have more than one tap, which is why we don’t reference the number of trees tapped). We could tap more trees but the topography of the land (i.e., hilly and sloping) encourages us to keep the number of taps manageable for us to collect the sap by hand. We also favor sugar maples located near the sugar shack to make our lives a little easier!
Part of the reason I enjoy maple syrup season is because it allows me to experience spring more fully. Here in the Keweenaw, March and April are less than ideal months thanks to the cold temps that linger and the sugary snow that isn’t as fun for winter sports.
Despite the hard physical labor that is part of collecting and transporting sap back to our sugar shack, I love spending time hiking around the woods and watching winter slowly melt away. Everywhere you look there are little signs of spring that are easy to miss (and appreciate!).
This year in particular I have made an effort to spend more time in our sugar shack. In fact, I am writing this post from our sugar shack as chipmunks chase each other around and red squirrels chatter from a white pine tree. Overall my enjoyment of spring (i.e., mud season) has improved dramatically since we started making maple syrup.
Syrup Season - Simple, Short, and Sweet
Our syrup operation isn’t fancy and it doesn’t need to be. Like everything we do on our regenerative farm, we like to keep things simple and reuse as much as we can.
We collect and reuse growlers, one-gallon jugs, and 5-gallon buckets to collect and store sap. The sap is then boiled in a homemade evaporator made from a repurposed barrel. All of the miscellaneous equipment we use was purchased at a thrift store or borrowed from our own kitchen. Even our sugar shack is made from parts of an old building. Lastly, we store scrap lumber from our projects throughout the year to use as fire starter.
At the beginning of the syrup season I am always full of energy and look forward to the long days of hauling sap and boiling it in the sugar shack. However, after several weeks and many miles logged through snow (and eventually soft or muddy ground) with heavy buckets, I appreciate the warming nights, which marks the end of the season. The sap flows will stop once the low temperatures no longer dip below zero. That usually gives us around a month or so, which is just long enough for us!
The timing of the syrup season is also perfect because it roughly coincides with the start of our farming season. This provides a nice transition from the more relaxed planning, designing, and repairing winter phase of farming (that mostly takes place indoors). As the sap flow slows and then eventually stops, other farming activities are ramping up and we are more than ready to turn our attention to the final preparations for the growing season.
Turning a nearly clear sap into a rich amber syrup is a slow but fascinating process. If you are interested in learning about how to make maple syrup, we offer tours while the sap is flowing (usually mid-March through mid-April). Click here to learn more!
We also sell our local maple syrup in 8 oz. and 12 oz. bottles right here on the farm or at Rhythm Bike & Board in downtown Houghton. Available while supplies last!!