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Spring in the sugarbush.

For many homesteaders, making maple syrup is the first chore of spring ... and how sweet it is!

It's that time of year - snow still on the ground and not much to do outdoors. But it's warming and you can feel spring and you just want to be there. Maple sugaring fits in well with that.

We tap about 20 trees (10-14" size) and that gives us 5-6 gallons, enough syrup for our year's sweetening needs plus gifts. We use plastic gallon jugs (the stronger vinegar jugs are more durable than milk jugs). Cut a hole below the handle for the spile and attach a piece of wire to the handle to hang the jug by a nail. Our spiles are half store-bought metal, and half wood dowel or broom handle pieces with a hole drilled in them.

On with the snowshoes, gather up the jugs, nails, drill and hammer and head out to the sugar bush. We divide our bush into sections so we tap a tree only once every two or three years. Drill a half inch hole in the tree at a slight upward angle to about 1-1/2 inch depth. Pound the spile in just far enough so it won't fall out. Set the jug on the spile (or rather the spile into the hole in the jug), then set your nail through the wire hanger. Don't make it so tight you can't pull the jug off the spile, but not so loose the jug will blow off in the wind. Hammer it in just far enough so it holds.

When they're all set we each pick our routes and stomp down the paths, clearing the way of branches and downed limbs as we go. Then we stand a moment or many to listen to the plink, plink, plink as the sap season begins.

Now back to the homestead to round up the 5-gallon plastic buckets we use to gather the sap, two for each of us. We use the old buckets as a guide to write on any new ones with a felt marker the 1, 2, 3, and 4 gallon marks.

Then we clean out the 45-gallon polyethylene garbage can we use for sap storage. It's been holding sunflower seeds for the birds since fall but those are all fed out by now.

On to the woodshed. We've found it makes a nice sugar shack. By sap season the inside is pretty empty but (depending on the winter) the "walls" of stove wood are still there. We restack as necessary and set up our cooker. Before we had our woodshed we made a sugar shack by temporarily putting up six cedar posts, making firewood walls on three sides, and stretching a tarp for a roof.

Our first cooker was made by stacking old bricks on a foundation of cement blocks. A couple of pieces of old angle iron across the front and back helped hold the borrowed sap pan. Some old scrap sheet metal and chimney finished it off. It worked fine except that as the ground thawed, the whole thing developed a somewhat scary tilt, and some of the bricks started to crumble. We made about eight gallons of syrup that year though.

But we progressed, as homesteaders seem to do. Steve took an old water heater, cut an almost circle out of one end, leaving a flat bottom, and a rectangle out of one side. Opposite that and at the other end he welded on a large piece of angle iron to stabilize the thing when it's set down. (When not in use it is leaned up in the corner of the shed and wood stacked around it.)

We level it using boards, angle iron, pipe and bricks. The chimney is rescued from the storage building and set up. The cooker/chimney "thimble" is a piece of scrap metal cut to fit and the chimney is of the regular sheet metal type. It's wired to the shed roof for stability. (Where it passes the roof a piece of metal provides a safety barrier). A piece of sheet metal is propped against the front opening for the "door" and the draft is controlled by how far out you set the bottom. A bucket of wood ashes is spread in the bottom and it's ready for the first fire.

Now for the pan. Lift it carefully down from the wall in the house where it hangs as a typical homestead decoration most of the year. Careful not because it's fragile but because it's covered with grease and oil. Steve made the pan from a piece of 36" x 48" 24 gauge sheet steel, a thickness that he could bend and braze without special tools. The top edge is folded out and down 2" for strength, and four heavy steel handles were bolted on. The final size is 18" x 28" x 8" deep. I't is just wider than the rectangular hole cut in the side of the water heater.

At the end of each season the pan is cleaned, then greased or oiled inside and out. After four years the outside of our pan is nicely seasoned so now just a light coat of oil preserves it. The inside is also lightly oiled, then washed well before use.

Then the season really begins and the (usually) twice a day collecting routine becomes a part of our lives. Off-the-homestead trips are planned around how the sap is flowing, and it feels great to work outside again.

When the "garbage can " is full of sap it's time to start a fire. A reminder from experience, be sure your pan has sap in it before you start your fire.

We usually fill and boil down three times for each batch. We often time it so there's about an inch left at night, the fire is low, and we let it go overnight' The embers gently reduce the sap without fear of burning.

We've found a handy skimmer is a length of thin light wood (about 1/8" x 3/4" pine) the width of your pan, with another piece nailed on as a handle. You just float it across your sap and scrape the scum off in a pail. Easier than a spoon.

When the third fillup has boiled down the sap is poured through a clean flannel blanket into a stainless steel or enamel pot. I finish it off inside on the cookstove, boiling'til it reaches seven degrees above the temperature water boils. (I test that each time, as it changes.) Then it's strained once again through a flannel blanket or t-shirt and bottled in clean jars or bottles. If in storage mold occurs (as I've found an occasional jar or batch to do) just pour into a pan, skim, boil, skim some more, and rebottle in clean bottles.

We use maple syrup for almost all our sweetening needs (or rather desires) from our oatmeal to our bread, the jam to the pickles. I even tried it in a batch of strawberry wine last fall. It did work but there was a definite "taste" there from the maple which I didn't care for all that much. I mixed it in with the white sugar based batch and it was fine.
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Title Annotation:includes related article alternative methods; making maple syrup
Author:Robishaw, Sue
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Fertilizer solutions.
Next Article:Home, in the hills of the Appalachia.

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