No one has complained more than me about this miserable spring we’ve had, but there’s one group of people around Wisconsin and Minnesota that can’t get enough of this weather. Maple sugarers around the area are having a bumper year compared to the warm temperatures and dismal maple syrup season of 2012.
Last weekend we headed back home to Wisconsin to takeÂ part in a long tradition in my husband’s family. The thick maple forests around the area where we grew up are some of the best maple syrup producing areas in the state. His uncles, cousins and friends can all be found strapping on snowshoes to haul buckets and steel taps through the deep snow. Then it’s onto the sap shack at Sippl’s Sugarbush in Aniwa, Wisconsin operated by his cousins Andy and Mark Sippl.
The Modern Sap Shack
In the few hours we were at the sap shack there was plenty of hustle and bustle. The bright sunshine and warm 40+Â°F temperatures signal to the sugar maple trees that spring is on the way. The weather also signals to maple sugarers it’s time to start tapping trees. Although the Sippl’s Sugarbush used to tap trees and hang collecting buckets by hand, in the past few years the operation has expanded to commercial tubing.
In this system the trees are tapped and then connected to a complex webbing of thin blue tubes strung around the woods. These tubes feed into a larger vacuum pumping system that sucks all the sap out of the woods into large holding tanks. Not only does this system prevent having to filter rain water and debris from the sap buckets, it also allowed Sippl’s to tap a whopping 15,000 trees this year. Collecting by hand isÂ the more traditional method, and it certainly changes the landscape of the woods to see blue tubing spider-webbed around. However tubing now makes more sense given the costs of fuel and man-power (not to mention hiking up and down the rolling hills and ridges maple trees love to grow on!) needed to trudge between 15,000 trees each day for the few weeks of sap season.
It takes a Village
Not only are Sippl’s collecting from their own maple trees, they also buy sap from others in the area. It’s not economical for everyone in the area to have large commercial-grade cooking and bottling equipment, especially if they only have taps in a hundred or so trees. On the day we visited the sap shack, these smaller collectors lined up out the driveway to pump their sap into Sippl’s larger holding tanks.
When it’s dropped off, Mark and Andy use a hydrometer to measure the sugar content of the sap; higher sugar content means less cooking needed to evaporate the water from the syrup. The higher the sugar content the lower the cooking time. The lower the cooking time the lighter the golden color and more premium the syrup. Sap from nearly 30 different collectors in the area will combine this year in Sippl’s Sugarbush bottles.
Turning Sap into Syrup
Once the giant holding tanks are full, the cooking begins. As a kid I learned how to make maple syrup with my dad in a shallow homemade pan on an outdoor camp stove. The five or six trees we tapped in my grandparents’ woods would produce enough syrup for our family for most of the year. Each day after school, he’d haul my sister and I bundled in our winter clothes through the woods to dump each bucket into a larger tub pulled behind a sled. We would hold out our fingers to catch a drip of sap off the end of a tap, stick it on our tongues and wonder how the watery liquid could ever turn into our favorite pancake topping.
From the woods he’d bring the buckets home and sit patiently in the backyard with a homemade cooking set-up, carefully evaporating the water from the sap until it became thick and golden brown. The cooking temperature must beÂ monitored at all times; boiled too hot and the sap will burn. Too cold and the evaporation time increases. Good syrup making weather requires daytime temperatures to dip back below freezing at night to force the sap back out of the maple tree branches. Often my dad would be huddled outside in his winter clothes bearing the cold temps after my sister and I had long gone inside to warm up. He’d come inside a few hours later with a smaller pot of syrup to be “finished” on the kitchen stove. “Finishing” is the process of bringing the syrup to the perfect sugar content. Our gas kitchen range allowed more control than the outdoor camp stove to give the syrup the perfect color and thickness.
The Large-Scale Maple Syrup Process
Sippl’s Sugarbush definitely isn’t finishing their syrup on a kitchen stove. In fact, their commercial-grade maple syrup evaporator is larger than most SUV’s. When the system is fired up and cooking down sap, steam billows out the tall chimneys and tells the neighborhood sap season is in full swing. Before it begins cooking, raw sap is run through an RO (reverse-osmosis) machine. Typically RO machines use a membrane to purify water and drain away unwanted minerals and debris. In maple sugaring, RO machines separate 75-90% of the water from the sugar in the sap to speed up how much water must be evaporated later. Â The water is piped back into the ground supply to support the maple trees for the next season. The sap continues on into the evaporator.
I bet Andy’s explained the parts of the evaporator to me each of the 10 seasons I’ve visited the sap shack and I still don’t know what each of the parts do. It’s a complex system of knobs and buttons and trays that each play a part in the cooking. But the basic idea is the same as my dad’s makeshift pan in the backyard. Sap comes into the rear of the evaporator, is brought to a specific boiling temperature using a high-tech thermostat and circulated until it cooks down into rich, golden syrup. The syrup is cooled slightly and then transferred into barrels for shipping or bottling.
Â There’s nothing more local than maple syrup
Die-hard locavores love living in the Upper Midwest because of maple syrup. It’s the best organic sweetener produced in the region because of its versatility and affordability compared to honey. 3/4 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar is the most common substitution ratio and the one we use in our kitchen. Â It’s perfect for baking, often giving breads and desserts an extra nutty richness. Just be careful to turn down the oven temperature by 10-15 degrees as baked goods tend to brown faster when made with maple syrup.
We don’t stop there for cooking with syrup either. Maple-glazed pork ribs and ham steaks, salad dressings and maple-walnut ice cream are all favorite ways we like to show off the family business when friends come for dinner. Check out all of my maple syrup recipes here: Maple Syrup Recipes
We locavores also love maple syrup for its terrior characteristics. Just like wine, subtle flavors vary region to region. Locavores that buy syrup from their neighborhood producer are truly tasting what the maple trees in their area have to offer.
A Changing Family Tradition
Maple syrup season may have started in our families as a few tapped trees and a small backyard cooking pan. Although the technology has evolved at Sippl’s Sugarbush, the hard-work and care needed to transform sap to syrup remains the same as it has for hundreds of years. It’s a local food tradition celebrated by our grandparents and great-grandparents just as much as we locavores enjoy it today. To see all of the images from our visit – click over to the Facebook gallery.