Slow as Syrup

A native of northeast Ohio, Steve Corso walks us through the long process of making maple syrup and the unexpected “hooch” he was able to make as well. 

It’s maple syrup season! Sun-warmed tree trunks and cold starry nights; snow-shoed visits with familiar trees; the worn-smooth handle of an antique hand drill; heavy buckets of clean sap; caramel broth in a thick rolling boil; teary smoke-stung eyes.

And all those other experiences I’m going to skip out on this year.

The sense of dominion and stewardship, opportunity and purpose, self-reliance, all the potential and responsibility that comes with the purchase of a piece of land, I finally bought acreage at the end of 2010. Although it was only seven and a half acres – half wooded and half field – that was plenty to occupy me in the most imperative employment: food production. My roots began sprouting and a newfound inner homesteader soon readied for a first experience in backyard maple sugarin.

I set out as a purist. I looked with scorn at what I saw as dystopian sugar bushes around me in Geauga county: Maple trees entangled in a web of plastic tubing, plastic taps that didn’t drip so much as seep, vacuums that maintain a parasitic suction, drawing that seep toward an inevitable plastic tank. The sugar shack has a new metal roof. Its walls are not of faded roughly-hewn boards. Inside you’ll find more plastic and plenty of stainless steel. Undoubtedly there is a reverse osmosis “unit”.

It wasn’t because I couldn’t possibly afford any of that equipment …in a million years. No no no it was the ideal I was after; the romance. I was going to produce my family’s maple syrup with an old-school-meets-slow-food ethos.

I set out to build an evaporation system – also known as a fire pit – constructed by stacking cinder blocks two high into a rectangle. By placing a grill over the top of the pit, I could place some old stock pots over the roaring fire I would build. Brilliant.

11017844_10204026616368138_8592964582375815571_nNext it was time to buy some buckets and spiles. I should explain to the novice: a “spile” is the thingy you stick in the tree to get the sap out. One might be tempted to call it a spigot, but to do so would reveal one’s unfamiliarity with maple sugarin.

Visiting my local maple supply dealers I learned that buckets and spiles are not cheap. I was going for the old-timey metal ones and found them tagged with new-timey prices. My neighbor Ralph – a self-described horder – told me that home maple sugarers use old milk jugs or other large recycle-ready plastic bottles to collect sap. He then outfitted me with many many of these, allowing me to allocate my money to some less-expensive metal spiles that, it turned out, kept slipping out of the tree trunks as the milk jugs filled with sap. My solution was to tie the jugs to the tree trunk using baling twine. Before they filled, the milk jugs and juice bottles danced playfully against the tree trunks in the late winter winds.

Sap really flows on a sunny day. I had only tapped a half dozen trees that first season but on spring-like February days I rushed to empty the containers every couple of hours before they overflowed. I soon realized that the three food-grade five gallon buckets I had weren’t going to hold all of my sap, and that my sap wasn’t boiling down fast enough to pick up the slack. It seems that round pots above a square fire pits allows for much heat lost to winter sky. I had to start pouring sap directly into coolers for storage and I had to keep boiling long after the sap flow stopped as the sun and the temperatures dropped. With a violent sputter I would consolidate the boiling watery syrup into one pot and come inside after 11 PM and start it all over again as the trunks warmed the next day.

My only relief came on days when wintry weather returned and the sap flow stalled and I could catch up on boiling. On these days Ralph would often join me with a couple of beers. We’d spend the afternoon stirring the sap and shootin’ the shit, our quilted outdoor work clothes sooty and splattered with soggy snow. When we weren’t being chased around the fire by smoke our lawn chairs were unsettling into the thawed mud.

Over 4 years of sugarin, I expanded and upgraded and continued to sell out. Last year I had around 17 taps on my and two neighbor’s trees (with permission). I had already traded in the round stock pots for three buffet pans that cover my custom-fit fire pit. I broke down and bought the cheap plastic spiles that are part of the tubing system. My sap collects in two-gallon polyethylene buckets I rescued from the garbage and these are covered with metal lids given me by a compassionate neighbor.  I store that sap in 55-gallon plastic apple juice barrels I got used.

But still I hit my breaking point during my final batch last year. I had already record syrup production – around 7 gallons. It was getting dark. I’d had enough. I needed another, more efficient system if I was going to sustain this into the future.

I pulled my last batch from the fire, halfway to becoming syrup. In the morning, I poured the cooled watery syrup into a 4-gallon carboy, added wine yeast, and stepped back. And walked away.

It’s been a year now. I still haven’t upgraded my syrup-making system and I still have a dozen canned quarts of syrup. And I still don’t quite know what to call this drink that I’m about to try. A former student of mine who is a home-brewer told me I had made acerglyn – maple mead. But acerglyn is truly a mead with both honey and maple syrup.

IMG_20160303_161353I found an article describing Vermont sugarers making maple beer using half-boiled late-season sap – sap with off flavors associated with opening buds – with added hops. They’d drink this chilled after a hot day of haying months later. This seemed pretty close to my recipe but my sap was mid-season and I didn’t add hops.

Although I used wine yeast, calling my drink ‘wine’ sounds too sophisticated for what I suspect will be a mediocre beverage at best. This past year I’ve referred to the beverage sitting in my basement as my maple hooch.

So let me raise a glass of maple hooch and make a toast:

“To putting down roots and investing in place, where adventure awaits around every bend of the learning curve.”

Hmm, tastes like bad white wine.