Monday, March 11, 2013

Buckets o' Sap

That's what I have right now.  Three 5-gallon buckets full of maple sap.  It's time to boil.  The weather has been consistently about 40 degrees during the day for the last three days straight (today will be #4), the trees are running at about a gallon a day, sap is piling up, and I'm out of containers to store it in.

So, time to start sugaring off.  I had hoped to have an evaporator this year, in order to do the boil more quickly, cheaply (if you ignored the cost of the evaporator pans and parts), and efficiently.  Instead, I once again find myself with 20-lb cylinders of propane, and the turkey fryer.  The best laid plans of mice and men, you know. . .

With this set-up, I can achieve an evaporation rate of about 1 gallon an hour.  Which means my 15 gallons of sap will take me 15 hours to turn into maple syrup.  Roughly 1 quart and 1 pint of syrup.  And tomorrow, by the time the boil off of the first batch is done, I will have 10 more gallons of sap collected, ready to begin the second batch.  Thus, the boiling will continue pretty much daily until the sap flow slows, or the trees bud out.  Whichever comes first, and is largely dependent on weather conditions.  Average sap run is six weeks long.

This afternoon, I got the turkey fryer set up, and the first 5 gallons on to boil.  Which takes halfway to forever to get 5 gallons of cold sap to boil.  So, while it was heating, I gathered my one now-empty bucket, and another food grade bucket I found (and washed/sterilized), and headed to the woods for today's collection.

I had no sooner gotten the tractor into the field, than I realized that the mud at this little place here has progressed past the soft stage, past the slick surface with icy tundra underneath stage, and well into the boot-sucking stage.  So far into the boot-sucking stage that it is just about to the tractor-miring stage.  It was prayers and skillful tractor driving that got me the round trip from barn to woods and back without getting the tractor stuck in the field.  Some skill, lots of prayers.  Mostly prayers, I admit.  Apparently tomorrow's sap collecting will involve carrying buckets by hand and walking on foot to the woods and back.  Nothing like hauling 80 pounds of sap over 250 yards through mud to get your heart pumping and your muscles burning.  That just might count as my workout tomorrow.

I'm planning to take some pictures of the boiling process, but aren't quite far enough yet to get those posted today.  Rather than not post any progress on my sap collection and beginning to sugar off, I decided to do a post today about the collecting, and post tomorrow or the next day with a step-by-step post showing the boiling off and bottling (canning jars, actually.)

The first 24 hours yielded not a lot per jug.  This was one of the fuller ones; in a sunnier location.  Trees in a cooler part of the woods were running much more slowly, with only about an inch of sap in their jugs.

 My sap bucket carrying system.  I utilize the tractor to get the buckets to and from the woods.  In the woods, I stop on the road near each tapped tree, or near a cluster of  tapped trees, and hand carry the bucket to the tree and back to the tractor, then drive around to the next tree or tree group awaiting collection.  This picture was taken on Wednesday, when there was still snow and the ground was still firm.

As a preliminary filter, I use a piece of unbleached muslin over the bucket (usually held on with a very large rubber band--unfortunately mine broke at the first tree and I didn't have a spare in my pocket).  The early sap is pretty much pure, with no bugs or pieces of stuff in it, but as the weather warms, there will be little things that find their way into the jug with the sap.  Hence the need for filtering.

The first sap of the year.  Very clear, looks just like water.  Tastes just like water, only with a hint of sweetness.  I like to taste each tree (the uber scientific way: hang my head under the tap with my mouth open, and let sap drip on my tongue).  I find it interesting how some trees are sweeter than others, even when they appear to be the same variety of maple and are growing within 10-20 feet of each other.

Same jug as in the first picture, this time on Friday.  A full jug in the 24 hour period from collection Thursday to collection on Friday.  This tree gave a full jug on each Saturday and Sunday, then a half-jug on Monday (too warm overnight Sunday to Monday, and temps in the 50's w/cloudy skies and slight wind on Monday.)

As you can see, I don't have a highly technical syrup making system.  Mine is more of the scrape it together and make it work, kind of thing. Perhaps someday I'll have a real set-up.

I have learned some interesting things since I started tapping trees in 2010.  One is that the amount of wind has an adverse affect on the flow of sap.  The calmer the weather, the faster the sap flows.  On windy days, even though temperatures might be right, you just don't get as much sap.

Another thing is that sap changes color (and taste) as the trees bud out.  Right now, during the early run, the sap is clear.  Later in the season, as the buds are more swollen, the sap will gradually turn darker, appearing yellowish.  The syrup also changes color, from golden in the early batches, to deep brown in the final run.

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