Monday, March 21, 2011

Maple Sugaring II

Homemade maple syrup (light early season and cloudy, unfiltered mid-season).

The maple sugaring operation has been fairly successful. Earlier on in the season, back in late February, the syrup was very light in color, with a delicate flavor, whereas more recent batches have been darker and stronger. This pattern is apparently caused by the fact that the earliest sap is richer in sugar, and needs less cooking and concentrating, and by increased microbial activity with warmer weather later on.

Record high temperatures at the end of last week could have put an end to the sap flow, but my trees started producing again after a refreeze on Saturday. The coming week looks like it might have some good sugaring conditions, with lows below freezing and highs in the low 40s (~7 C). We'll see what happens; I don't expect the season to last too much longer in any event.

The evaporation process produces a cloudy precipitate called "sugar sand," which has a slightly bitter taste. Mostly I've just been waiting for it to settle, then pouring off the clear syrup, but I've also salvaged some additional syrup by reheating the dregs and putting it through a coffee filter, which was an annoyingly slow, messy process. It would be great to have a home centrifuge, or at least a vacuum filtration system to speed things up!

My costs so far have been less than $10 for electricity for boiling, $7 for spiles (taps), and $2 for filters, which has yielded about 2 quarts of syrup. That works out to less than half the retail cost of local maple syrup, which is better than I had expected. The economics look a lot less favorable if I count the cost of my time (probably 10 minutes a day for four weeks collecting sap, and maybe 15-20 hours total for boiling, though that didn't need continuous supervision).

River's Edge Sugar House.

Last weekend I visited an actual commercial sugar shack, River's Edge Sugar House on Connecticut Route 89 in the wilds of Ashford. They have around 2000 taps, and use a reverse osmosis system and a large wood-fired evaporator to make syrup. The folks who run it were happy to chat about their setup, and I bought some really good maple candy and honey from them.

Commercial evaporator, with fresh sap starting at left, and the late stages to finished syrup in the lower divided pan.

Stop in at River's Edge if you're in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut; it was a fun and informative trip. You can also order syrup and other sweet stuff from them through the mail.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Maple Sugaring

My new late-winter entertainment is maple sugaring. I've got two good-sized Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) trees in back of my house, and bought a couple of taps for them the other week. Sap production has been pretty good, with half a dozen days over the past two weeks having just the right sort of weather (freezing at night, but sunny and warmish during the day).

The snow pack is still hanging in there. Today the temperatures have been too cold for anything to flow, but the sugaring weather outlook for the weekend is promising. I've been storing the collected sap in buckets in a hole in a snowbank.

On a good day, each tap produces more than a gallon of sap. The raw liquid is very slightly sweet (and makes an interesting basis for a cup of tea), but needs to be reduced about 40:1 to make syrup.

I've been boiling the sap down on my stove, which is probably the most inefficient and expensive possible way of making maple syrup. It makes the house warm and humidified, at least, and judicious exhaust fan use keeps moisture from building up to the point where the wallpaper peels. Maybe next year I'll set up a propane or wood-fired evaporating pan outdoors. It is useful to let the sap freeze outside, and discard the ice, before boiling: the ice is almost pure water, and the sugar is concentrated in the remaining liquid, at no cost.