From sap to syrup

Dave and Alice Anderson live just north of Alexandria down a narrow driveway that cuts through a forest filled with maple trees.

Ten acres. Their own little sanctuary.

In the fall, the leaves burst with bright yellows, oranges and reds before winter grabs hold and they drop to the forest floor. A couple months pass as the Andersons wait, knowing that the rebirth of the forest is not far away.

It starts with the first thaw of the early spring. Dave knows what that means. He gathers up his buckets and heads to the woods to tap 100 trees. Then Mother Nature has to help him out. Getting good sap flow for making maple syrup generally means having a freeze at night, followed by a thaw during the day. There have been plenty of times where he checks his buckets with not much to show for it.

"Then you think, just wait till the next day," Dave said. "It often does come tomorrow or the next day. You come out in the woods and hear this, 'Plink, plink, plink' in this tree over here and that tree over there (as the sap drips). Then you think, 'Ahhh, sap flow.' By late that afternoon maybe you've collected eight or 10 gallons."

Dave collects the sap and takes it to his shelter in the woods that he and some friends built years ago. The Andersons have been making their own maple syrup since the mid-1990s.

Dave stores the sap day after day until he gets to about 100 gallons. That's when it becomes worth his while to start boiling it down. It takes anywhere from 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

"To boil down 20 gallons just doesn't work," Dave said. "All you're really doing to make syrup is concentrating the liquid. Instead of 40 gallons, now you have one gallon."

Dave's most productive year doing this was 55 gallons of syrup to show for his efforts.

Every year is different. He did not get any syrup in 2014, a year where the weather went straight from winter to temperatures nearing 60 degrees on a regular basis.

It fluctuates as to when the sap starts flowing. Dave's first batch last year came on Feb. 13 when he produced three gallons. It has been late April other years.

A sweet smell hung in the air as steam billowed off of the clear liquid sap that was being heated over a wood-burning stove on the afternoon of April 11. Once the water boils off and the sap gets down to about eight gallons, Dave removes it from the pan and pours it into a large pot.


It's not quite syrup yet, but it's close. Dave uses a smaller stove to boil it a little further until it reaches the right consistency.

"I know when it is syrup because I measure the specific gravity with a hydrometer," he said. "Then it's ready to be bottled."

There is no sugar added. The sweet taste comes through in the cooking process.

Sugar maples, which grow in most regions of Minnesota, are the desired kind of maple trees to draw sap from due to their nearly 2 percent sugar content. Others like red, black and silver maples can be tapped but feature a sugar content of about 1 percent.

Canada makes more than 80 percent of the world's maple syrup. Quebec in particular is the largest producer with about 70 percent of global production.

Those who have gone through the process and tasted the fruits of their labor realize that it can be much more enjoyable to make their own syrup.

Ken Esala of Garfield is 82 and has been making about six gallons of syrup a year for almost 10 years. Not a large return. Just enough for him and his wife to enjoy and to give a little away to other family and friends.

"I like the taste of it," Esala said. "I haven't used any sugar for many years. If you just have cold cereal, or oatmeal or pancakes, just use maple syrup on it. I think it adds a little bit of flavor."

The Esalas had talked about taking a trip to Arizona in the spring, but Ken wanted to wait. He didn't want to miss what could have been the best sap run of the season.

"It's better to stay here and do this," he said. "Spring isn't that far away. I think we can make it if we've made it this far."

The freezing temperatures during March and April have made for a bit of a slow start to the maple syruping season in much of Minnesota. But just wait another day. One never knows how well the sap might flow tomorrow.

By Eric Morken

Source, images, credits & more information: EchoPress