Michigan Maple Syrup

4.9.2014 – Wednesday

A warm spring night, a wood fire, and the sweet smell of hot sap 100 yards off…

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With my mid-week break I packed up the family and we trucked to camp in the Pilot… well, most of the way. The Honda has some neat AWD tricks but when the Ol’ man decides to park his Z71 Silverado 4×4 at the end of the road and walk the rest of the way, I wasn’t about to bury the Pilot and risk damage to a vehicle without proper skid plates. Quite handily, the Ol’ man was kind enough to provide us with transportation via the Pioneer. Once the family was dropped off at the cabin, Dad and I made a gear trip and hauled the rest of our supplies to camp. This also gave me a chance to document the mud. There are a handful of photos in this post that are HDR (high dynamic range). Each HDR photo is a composite of 3 photos taken at different exposures. I processed my HDR photos to achieve realism (versus the over-processed artsy stuff you find elsewhere on the internet).

IMG_9622 HDRThe loggers chewed up the half-mile of road it took to get from our forest parking spot to the gate. While the ride was rough, the heavy machinery drove the frost down so the real mud didn’t start until our little two-rut road.

IMG_9638 HDRThe frost had kept the water on top of the road and created some spectacular mud. It’s thick and slimy, resisting remodeling just enough to force the Pioneer’s tires in to the ruts. The 11″ of ground clearance was used up in a number of spots. After our trip we regrouped and ate supper. During supper, the Ol’ man mentioned there was a spectacular view to be had from some recent logging a few miles down the road. The night was young, and that was all the push I needed to take an evening side-by-side ride with the kiddo. Meanwhile, Sarah and the little one decided to tend the fire and see how far they could sink into the big comfy couch.

IMG_9690 HDR We soon found ourselves on a beaver dam the loggers used as a road. The water was beginning to eat away at the frozen embankment. After the crossing we scaled a steep hill that the Spring melt had turned into a 200 foot mud-run. The Pioneer made it about 100′ before coming to a stop. It appeared that the spectacular view was in jeopardy, and additionally that I had the entirely wrong footwear for trekking through a foot of mud. Quite amazingly, 4-wheel differential lock got us moving again. Sorry, no photos of the hill. Dad wasn’t stopping once we started moving again.

IMG_9681 HDR A view from the beaver pond.

IMG_9658 HDRIt was worth the trip. In the right 3rd of the above photo the clear cut can be seen.

IMG_9696 HDRLooking back at the ridge we just traveled. The previous photo was taken from the ridge in the center of this photo. Tomorrow we would start boiling.

The equipment has been in storage since Spring 2013 – when we originally planned to do the inaugural run. Going back to 2010 I can remember the slow acquisition of parts and supplies. Bags and holders were one of the first supplies bought. I think some of the bag-holders were acquired in the 1970’s. The pan was the next big purchase. It was custom made from stainless steel. After the pan a steel stove was produced by a high-school shop class to match – for the price of metal and a pizza party upon completion. Later acquisitions included ball valves, garbage cans, buckets, skimmers, hydrometers, a turkey deep-frier, bottles, and so on.

The stove, sketched out by high school shop teacher Derek is revision 2. Revision 1 had a tapered fire box that ended at the pipe. Revision 2, what we have, has a square firebox with a flat exhaust to the pipe. Ultimately, we achieved a very controlled boil with no foam. Revision 1 has historically produced a lot of foam and a very strong boil. It’s a mystery why we did not get foam from boiling, but we noted a few differences between last year’s boil from Revision 1 and this year’s boil at our camp from Revision 2:

  • We used bags to collect instead of buckets
  • Our stove produces a consistent boil, but the smaller fire-box means the boil is not as vigorous as the boil produced from Revision 1
  • Our trees are 30 miles North and about 30 years younger

IMG_9734 HDR

Nonetheless, the reason for little to no foam from our boil eludes us. To achieve “ideal boil” we established the following settings:

  • 3 – 4″ of sap in the boiler pan (24″ x 48″ x 7″) and the top dripper pan (12″ x 24″ x 6″)  slowly adds sap at about the same rate as the boil removes moisture from the sap.
  • Bottom ash tray was opened about 2″ for increased airflow to the fire
  • Maple and birch was burned in the firebox, criss-crossed to form a latticed stack three pieces high by 3-4 pieces wide
  • As soon as the wood burned down we raked the coals and made a new stack of wood (about 25-30 minutes)

IMG_9745 HDR IMG_9759Unlike a wood burner in a house we did not want coals. A complete combustion is preferred with lots of flame. A hot fire gives a good boil and clears out the coals, making room for more wood. Too many coals kills the boil.

IMG_9765We tested our boil rate to give an estimate to how many hours would be required to boil down the 200 gallons of sap we collected. Once we had a stable boil and the depth of the boiler pan was consistent at 3.5″ we measured the drip-rate at 2 cups in 1:16.00 minutes. That came out to about 6.25 gallons per hour.

IMG_9774 HDRWhile the boil was underway we collected sap from the 80 taps placed a few weeks earlier. The sap flowed hesitantly this year, so today’s collection was 3 days worth of sap. The plastic tailgate on the Pioneer needs some reinforcing when there is over 500 pounds of sap sloshing around. It may be hard to see, but there is a strainer cloth (flour sack dish towel) bungee-corded to the top tank inlet. We filter the sap at collection.

IMG_9784 IMG_9797 HDRToday’s collection didn’t even average a gallon per tap over three days. The bags pour better than the pails and we had very little spill when transferring to the collection tank.

IMG_9801 HDRThe collected sap is then drained into a sterile 5 gallon bucket and transferred to some 35 gallon garbage cans buried in the snow bank or a larger snow-covered tank just barely peaking into the photo below. From there, sap is added 5 gallons at a time to the dripper pan.

IMG_9804 IMG_9812Tools of the trade: folding chairs, card table with foam skimmers, the 5 gallon bucket, and some iron tools for raking and shoveling coals.

The last bit of the process was not documented. My break ended a day earlier than required to see the process completed. We ended up boiling about 200 gallons of sap and getting 5.75 gallons of syrup (after spills). Once the sap reached the correct moisture content (59 brix at boil) to become syrup the fire was quenched and the hot syrup was transferred and strained through a flower sack dish towel into a 6 gallon turkey deep frier. The frier is stainless steel and allows us to strain the finished syrup and reduce the surface area to volume ratio of the boiler pan, keeping temperature and specific gravity stable, allowing more time to fill bottles with hot syrup. The bottles are filled, capped, and set on their side for at least 20 seconds before being stored upright. Due to my absence during the final steps I don’t have photos or much in the way of commentary. For more information on how to make maple syrup, check out this helpful document from the University of Maine Extension: Bulletin #7038, Maple Syrup Quality Control Manual

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2 thoughts on “Michigan Maple Syrup

  1. Pingback: Forestry and Wood | offgridcabin

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