There are a lot of different sweeteners out there. Some are simply sweet with very little of their own flavor like granulated sugar, while others have a strong character and flavor of their own like honey or molasses. For my part, when I’m seasoning food and need to reach for something to add sweetness, I’ll usually try to think of something I can use that will add complexity or depth to the overall flavor profile and not simply sweeten. Of all the various options, the one I find myself looking to more than any other is maple syrup.
Now when I say maple syrup I don’t mean the fenugreek flavored honey-thick corn syrup concoctions available across the country. I don’t have anything against those types of syrup, but maple syrup they surely are not. No I’m referring to the real stuff. The bonafide boiled tree blood that coats my sweetest dreams in sticky auburn patina.
If you’re familiar with true maple syrup, then you are probably also familiar with its price. Because of how much sap is needed to make it, and because of how much energy it takes to concentrate said sap, maple syrup currently comes in at about $60/gallon or more for the good stuff. Of course a gallon will last most people for a long time, but if you’re buying a more reasonable amount of syrup—say, a pint—the price can balloon to almost $200/gallon. So for this reason, and because it's just a super cool thing that I’ve always wanted to try, when my buddy asked if I wanted to help him set up his sugaring operation this year, I jumped at the chance.
The tapping process
This friend had been tapping the maples in his backyard for the last couple years, but had just had the sap dripping into five gallon buckets which he then had to go hiking around to collect before walking all that liquid back to his house to boil. Needless to say this was huge amount of work, especially since it involved walking through a muck and icy water filled creek carrying at least 40 pounds of sap. Luckily there’s an easier way to run a sugaring setup, and that's what I was excited to help with.
Instead of tapping trees and setting up individual collection buckets which would then need to be lugged (in this case about 350 feet through rough, brushy terrain) back to the boiler, you can set up lines of plastic tubing that link all the tapped trees together so they deliver their sap to one central location. No bucket hauling required.
In order for this to work, the main sap line needs to have a net elevation loss from origin to termination. For this reason most people who are setting up a sugarbush like this do so on a hill. This makes it trivial to ensure you have enough slope to keep the sap running. However we didn’t have that luxury so we had to make sure our original tap was high enough up in the first tree that we could run the whole distance with the line continuously dropping.
A walking tour of about half the line
In the end, it took us about five hours to run all the tubing, tap all the trees (15 taps in total) and start producing sap. I’ll be honest - it was a pretty magical experience seeing the sap start flowing up the tubes to the main line. What we are actually able to harvest remains to be seen of course because this has been such a strange mild winter that sap has apparently been flowing since January.
Now that sap is actually flowing, however, we are collecting it in buckets. We will soon need to upgrade our containment system though because we’re running out of buckets fast. The plan is to install a reverse osmosis system to concentrate the sap without boiling first, then we boil!
Sap flowing through the tap
Sap flowing up the drop line to the main line. An exciting moment!
If this post has inspired you to do indulge in some spring time sweets of your own, check out our upcoming Virtual Spring Baking Workshop on Saturday, April 8 at 11am CST. Together, we'll make:
- Strawberry Shortcakes with Vanilla Whipped Cream
- Lemon Cake with Lemon Curd and Blueberry Sauce