Exploring Maple Syrup Production at Home
Maple syrup. It’s just sugar water boiled down. How difficult can it be to make? This is Chris Swecker, and my wife, Jessa Fowler, and I decided this winter to try our hands at making our own.
I grew up in Highland County, so I have been familiar with that delicious, sweet, amber colored treat since childhood. I have visited the seven sugar camps open to the public in Highland County, and a few others, that produce maple syrup in a variety of ways. Each one is certainly unique and worth a visit.
Could those experiences be replicated at home? I can tell you in hindsight that it’s probably best to leave it to the experts, but that didn’t stop my wife and I from heading out in late February to four sugar maple trees on rented land at the outskirts of Monterey. We had checked the weather report and it appeared that the temperature in the next few days would favor syrup making – freezing temperatures at night and above freezing in the day to allow the sap, or as locals call it, sugar water, to flow back and forth between the top of the trees and the roots.
We picked a spot a few feet above the ground on the first tree and drilled a hole. We then put up a borrowed spile with attached bucket and hammered it in to the newly drilled hole. Then we attached a cover and repeated this process until we had 8 buckets up, 2 on each tree. Now, it was time to wait. A beautiful part of the process is in God’s providence and creation, to just let go while the sugar water flows at the pace it is allowed.
Every morning, I found myself growing in anticipation to see how much water was in the buckets. After just a few days, we had filled a nearly 20 gallon pot that we borrowed from a friend. This was the largest vessel we had on hand, so it was time to boil. With a borrowed propane tank and burner, we started the fire under the pot, and waited… and waited… and waited. Several hours would pass and the line of sugar water would creep down slowly as more of it evaporated. My favorite part here was putting my face above the warm “maple steam” and taking in that aroma and warmth. There’s a reason that professional maple producers use wide, flat pans; our 20 gallon pot was not the most efficient, and we needed another day to get the sugar water boiled down more.
With the water getting thicker and browner as it reduced, we transferred it to our stove indoors and boiled more. Condensation formed on our cabinets, and we quickly understood why sugar houses have the openings in their roofs to let steam out. Moving on, we used a borrowed sugar hydrometer to test the temperature and consistency of our liquid. When the levels were right, we had finally done it – we had maple syrup!
So, what did we learn from this process? Making maple syrup really is the simple product that you see. It’s just sugar water boiled down to that sticky consistency, no more and no less, but getting there is truly time and labor intensive. We were blessed to have been able to borrow most all of the equipment we used from friends and family. Still, the costs involved in refilling the propane tank more than doubled the cost of buying a gallon of syrup in the store.
I can tell you for certain that I appreciate every drop of syrup much more now than before. I am so thankful that we have sugar producers in our local area that take on the task of making this product so easily available to so many, and I don’t question the price tag. I am happy that those efforts are honored through a large festival to bring the community together.
Now, I’ve heard some maple producers say that you don’t make syrup to get rich, but there is something much more satisfying about it that is sometimes hard to explain. I tend to smile after tasting the syrup my wife and I made, and I think I can understand a bit better now what those syrup makers are talking about.