What's cooking in the sugar shack?
A bucket is hung from each tap. The sap flows best when nights are around 25 degrees and daytime temperatures climb towards 40. The freezing and defrosting cycling pumps the sap upwards into the tree. This period typically begins around President's Weekend and runs for about six weeks.
Jonathan Flynn of Pine Grove figures that he's one of the few people trying to make a go of producing maple syrup from red maple trees. Most producers prefer making their syrup from sugar maples which can have up to twice as much sugar in their sap. More sugar in the sap means less time, labor and energy to produce a bottle of finished maple syrup.
Flynn wants to produce maple syrup and his Schuylkill County farm has plenty of red maples and no sugar maples. The farm, which has been in his family since the 1980s, has never had sugar maples. He suspects that the property was logged years ago and the slower growing sugar maples were crowded out.
Since moving to the 15-acre farm seven years ago, Flynn planted sugar maples all over his farm, but because they are slow growing and are not ready to be tapped until they are 12 inches in diameter, he doesn't expect to be seeing their sap in his evaporator any time soon.
"When I was a young teenager, we used boil down the maple sap to syrup on our stove," Flynn said. "Whenever we'd go up to visit my aunt in Vermont, she would take me to the sugar bushes and show me the sugar shack. I got interested in it and she bought me five buckets and five taps and let me tap her red maples that were all over the place. I tapped them and boiled the sap on the stove. We got a pint that year."
After moving to the farm, he began tapping his red maple trees and boiling the sap in a pan outdoors. The process took a long time, and sometimes, when most of the water was boiled out of the sap, it would rain, setting him back to square one.
The farm had an old milk house from the days it was a dairy farm. "It was falling down," Flynn said. "We didn't know what to do with it." Then, he thought, why not convert it into a sugar shack? He invested in a holding tank and an evaporator system. "That's when I started doing it in earnest," he said.
Here's how to go from maple tree to maple syrup. A hole is drilled into a red maple tree that is at 12 inches in diameter and 40 years old. The larger the tree the better. Trees over 18 inches can be tapped in more than one location.
A tap is inserted in each hole and a covered bucket is hung from each tap. The sap flows best when nights are around 25 degrees and daytime temperatures climb towards 40. The freezing and defrosting cycle pumps the sap upwards into the tree. This period typically begins around President's Weekend and runs for about six weeks.
This year, the farm had two feet of snow in February followed by above freezing nights in March. Flynn thinks that the 2010 maple sap harvest will last only about three weeks.
At its maximum, Flynn emptied a gallon bucket per tap every day. As the temperature rises, he may empty a bucket every few days-until the flow stops. When the weather gets warm, the maple trees begin forming buds, and the buds take up the nutrients in the sap.
The buckets of sap are filtered to remove dirt and bugs and stored in a large plastic tank that is raised above the level of the evaporator inside the sugar shack. When the sugaring begins, the sap flows by gravity into the evaporator.
Flynn purchased a commercial wood burning evaporator. The wood stove is below. The sap flows onto the surface of the 35-gallon evaporator where it is heated to a boil and the sugar content is concentrated from its two percent level to around 15 percent.
Flynn then filters and transfers the concentrated sap to a propane-fired finishing evaporator. The propane permits him to, once the sugar content reaches the desired concentration, turn off the heat immediately-something that he cannot do with a wood fire.
With the vaporized water turning the sugar shack into a steam room, Flynn boils the sap until he observes the bubbles becoming smaller. Then he uses a hygrometer to check the density of the syrup.
Commercial maple syrup contains about 67 percent sugar. Much less and it does not taste sweet. Much more and the syrup begins to crystalize. Maple syrup gains its flavor by caramelizing the sugar during the cooking process.
During a good season, Flynn produces about 25 gallons of maple syrup. Because of the early warm weather this year, he is expecting to produce only about ten gallons. The last time he checked, a half pint size of his Stone Mountain Farms maple syrup retailed for about $6 at local shops in the Pine Grove area.
Although maple syrup is most popular as a toping for pancakes, waffles and French toast, it can be used as an ingredient in recipes. Here's Jonathan Flynn's favorite maple syrup recipe.
Maple Coated Nuts
Heat maple syrup until it turns into sugar. Pour over and mix into nuts such as almonds or walnuts.