Monthly Archives: March 2014

Making Your Sap Into Syrup and Building Your Own Evaporator

It’s snowing once again. This seems to be the winter that keeps giving. But that isn’t to say that spring isn’t fighting hard to bust through that door and make things green again. Here in Southern West Virginia we have had a handful of really nice days in the 60’s. It’s been enough for us to collect about 130 gallons of maple sap from our 10 trees we tapped earlier in the month; enough that our tree buds are ready to break at any moment and sap production has slowed down dramatically; and enough that we no longer are collecting sap for syrup, but instead hoping we can get enough of the last drips to use for making another batch of our Maple Stout beer that we made this past winter. Yum. All together my husband and I (and a few friends and family along the way) spent 3 weekends boiling and boiling and boiling some more to get those 130 gallons of sap down to a measly 2.5 gallons of syrup. We also spent another 2 nights at home finishing off the syrup on the stovetop in a more controlled setting.

Last spring we used a $40 turkey fryer we bought as a last minute decision as a result of our last minute decision to make syrup. It took FOREVER to boil the sap down. This year we upgraded. After looking at hugely expensive sap evaporators for sale, we went the homemade method. A really great article from Mother Earth News gave us the general idea we needed. A bunch of cinder blocks, a handful of buffet serving trays and some wood (which we have no shortage of at the property) were all we needed. Since we are thinking about making our evaporator a firepit/grill for summer month’s use in our future backyard, we made a temporary one for this year. No firebricks or mortar necessary. We also used an old piece of tin roof laid across the opening and some logs to hold it in place as our door. Nothing too classy, but it worked for this year and there is always room to improve, right?

The Evaporator! A picture is better than any description I can write.

The Evaporator! A picture is better than any description I can write.

When putting our evaporator together, we decided on a location near our barn and next to one of the many stacks of wood we have lying around. We needed to keep the fire going to keep the sap boiling. We leveled out a 3’ long line and places our first level of blocks down and then continued to stack them 3 rows high. The pans we were using were full size, 4” deep stainless steel buffet pans I bought online. They are about 20” X 13”, so we laid the next line of cinder blocks 20” away, parallel to the first blocks so that the pans could fit in between them tightly. The most complicated part was the back and the chimney. The Mother Earth News article doesn’t go into detail about how to make sure your smoke has a way to escape, and how to ensure it is not escaping into your face and boiling sap. At the back side of the evaporator, between the 2 rows of cinder blocks, we placed 2 rows of blocks to create a “U” shape. For the third row of blocks in the back, we left a large gap (about 6”) in the middle between the blocks. This would be the start of our chimney. We then took blocks we broke in half and stacked them on top of the gap, with the cinder block holes facing up. This was 4 stacks high and created the chimney. Finally, more blocks were stacked in the back to block any holes. To help force the hot air and smoke from the fire, up and out of the chimney, we also added another block with a 2” paving stone on top of in the very back of the structure. I am not sure if this is a necessary step, but it worked great for us.

Start the fire!

Start the fire!

Clear sap starting to get hot.

Clear sap starting to get hot.

Once the evaporator was build came the fun! For our first weekend of evaporating, we had collected about 75 gallons of sap the week before. We started the fire up, set the pans in and filled them up! It took a while to get them boiling, but after we had a good bed of coals, we were in business. To help with the process, we did get the ol’ turkey fryer out of storage and use that to heat the sap up before we added it to the pans. The evaporator was so much more efficient than the turkey fryer that by the time the turkey fryer had gotten a batch of sap to boil, the evaporator had already vaporized the previous batch. Awesome!

Starting to get really hot and bubbly - make sure to skim off that foam periodically or it will burn to the side of your pan.

Starting to get really hot and bubbly – make sure to skim off that foam periodically or it will burn to the side of your pan.

Can you tell which pan gets more heat? The dark middle pan was the hot spot, evaporating a lot faster than the other pans.

Can you tell which pan gets more heat? The dark middle pan was the hot spot, evaporating a lot faster than the other pans.

Throughout the day we kept adding more wood and more sap, while slowly watching the liquid in the pans turned from crystal clear to amber. At the end of each day we evaporated the sap down real low in the pans and then poured them all into a container to save for finishing on the stove top at home. After the first 2 weekends we had over 6 gallons of almost-syrup crammed in our fridge. After our first night of finishing some of the syrup on our stove we realized we could/should have reduced the sap a lot more outside. Our whole house was a steamy mess. Moisture was flying through the air, our kitchen walls were dripping with condensation and everything was hard to see through the thick fog in our kitchen. We made sure the next weekend to evaporate it much further down outside before bringing it home.

A lot of steam in a little kitchen - see the moisture running down the wall? This is why most evaporation is done outside...

A lot of steam in a little kitchen – see the moisture running down the wall? This is why most evaporation is done outside…

Last year we were very nervous about how long to boil the sap down. We stopped it much too early for fear of going too far and ruining the whole batch. We ended up with delicious, sweet liquid, but it was way too watery and not packed with the full flavor finished syrup should have. No matter how much you read, or how many people you talk to, it’s hard to know when syrup is done until you see it at least once. I was a nervous wreck the whole time we did our first batch this year. My husband kept insisting, “It’s ok, just wait.” We had even prepared ourselves and bought a refractometer beforehand. This nifty little contraption takes a few drops of your liquid and gives you a Brix reading, which translates into how much sugar is in your liquid. Beer makers use them as well to know how much sugar is in their wort before the yeast eats it all and turns it into delicious alcoholic beer. What made me nervous about the refractometer we bought was that maple syrup has a brix reading of 67 or so and the lowest reading our meter did was 58. We had to get the syrup really close before we would even know if this thing worked! But patience paid off (but only after tasting spoonfuls of syrup all night…I felt a little lightheaded from all the sugar by the end) and we finally got a reading! Our syrup was done! Out of all the hints and tips I read about how to tell if you finally have syrup, none really made sense or worked for me. I will tell you, however, that I noticed once it was really close, when you took the pan off the heat, the syrup still boiled in slow motion. It was so thick that it would not instantly stop boiling like water does once off the heat.

The bubbles from boiling are starting to get really thick...getting close.

The bubbles from boiling are starting to get really thick…getting close.

In the end, we got a little over 300 oz of syrup for the approximate 130 gallons (16,640 oz) of sap we collected. We canned them all in glass jars, turning them upside down so the hot liquid sits on the jar lid to help it seal (no water bath needed like when canning anything else). Now it’s time to make some pancakes!!

Finished jars upside-down to seal.

Finished jars upside-down to seal.

Evaporator - 11

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Garlic is coming up! Spring is on it’s way!

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Tree Tapping

With all the cold weather up north and the last snow storm that smacked the eastern half of the country a week ago, it’s hard to fathom that spring is around the corner. But I can feel it! Geese are flying north; more and more robins appear each day; I have heard a lone frog calling the past two nights down by our creek; and most importantly, we have tapped our maple trees for sap! I am sure that you have all indulged in the sugary treat known as maple syrup (and I hope its not of the flavored high fructose corn syrup variety), but few know of the actual process of turning the clear, slightly sweet sap that pumps through maple trees in early spring into the amber liquid we smother breakfast treats in.

  • Did you know that it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup? The sap is boiled and boiled and boiled some more to evaporate excess liquid, leaving us with the finished product.
  • While sugar maples (Acer saccharum) have the highest concentrations of sugar in their sap, silver maple, red maple and black maple are all good candidates as well – you just have to use a few more gallons of sap to get to your gallon of syrup.
  • A maple tree that is tapped for its sap, should be at least 10” in diameter – making it approximately 30 years old.
  • Sap collection season is short – as soon as it is warm enough to make the sap flow you can start collecting, but as soon as the buds on the tree break, the season is over since the sugar content of the sap suddenly decreased and changes the flavor of the sap.
  • After a tap is taken out of the tree at the end of the syrup season, it heals over on its own; a new hole, in a different location, will be drilled and used again the following year.
  • Each tap will produce an average of 10 gallons in a season – which equals about 1 quart of syrup.
The start of our sap production in 2013. This all boiled down to enough syrup for one breakfast.

The start of our sap production in 2013. This all boiled down to enough syrup for one breakfast.

Growing up, my parents made maple syrup. Before last year I had never attempted it on my own. Before last year, I also never realized how little I had to do with the process growing up – I didn’t quite remember, or know, how the whole process worked. Luckily for me, tapping trees and making syrup isn’t super complicated. Last spring, after cutting down a tree that was in the way for our future driveway, we noticed that it was gushing sap out of the stump. Lightbulb!! We can tap trees!! We can make syrup!! So that’s what we did. Living in the “south”, people don’t really make maple syrup that much. How many times have you gone to a store and bought West Virginia Made Maple Syrup? My guess is none. Finding supplies on a short notice was next to impossible, so we improvised. After a quick trip to Lowes and 3 food grade buckets and 10’ of ½” tubing later, we were on our way! We picked out 3 maple trees on the edge of our tree line and slowly drilled a hole just big enough for the tubing to snuggly fit into. We shoved the tubing in the hole, drilled a similar hole in the lid of the bucket and put the other end of the tube in the bucket. Viola! Easy, simple, cheap. And it worked! Our small production of 2013 gave us a few pints of syrup to last through the year.

2013 Sap collection with no spile. Simple and cheap.

2013 Sap collection with no spile. Simple and cheap.

This year we wanted to amp up production a little more. We decided that we would tap 10 trees instead of 3, and upgrade our evaporating method from a turkey fryer to a cinderblock contraption I will talk more about in my next post. My dad had bought a handful of spiles online and sent me ½ of them, so we would have a better seal on our trees. Spiles are small, hollow pieces of plastic or metal which are inserted into the drilled hole of a tree until they are snug. Either a tube can be pushed onto the other side of it to collect the seeping sap, or a hook is on the bottom side where a bucket can be hung to collect the drips. As I learned last year, they aren’t necessary, but make things a bit easier, tighter, and less wasteful.

Sap starts flowing in the spring and runs the best when days are warm (in the 40’s) and nights fall below freezing. The sap will run for about a month, but the best collection time is the beginning of the season when the sap is flowing strong and sweet. To collect the sap:

  1. Gather supplies: food grade buckets with lids (or some people use food grade bags), tubing that fits snug over the end of your spile, a drill (hand drill preferable, but not necessary – see #3), the correct drill bit size for your spile (most likely 5/16” or 7/16”), small hammer or rubber mallet.

    Food grade buckets ready to collect some sap.

    Food grade buckets ready to collect some sap.

  2. Identify suitable trees. Sugar maples are ideal, but as mentioned above, red, silver and black maple all work too. Look for a tree with a large crown; this indicates that more sap will be flowing up through the tree to help feed all the different limbs. You also want a tree that is open grown, or on the edge of the woods. Put your tap on the sunny side of the tree. While these aren’t imperative to sap collection, they will help speed up the amount of sap flowing through the tree each day.  

    Drilling the holes in the bucket lids for the tubing to fit in.

    Drilling the holes in the bucket lids for the tubing to fit in.

  3. Drill a hole in the tree 3-4’ off the ground. Angle the hole slightly up and make it about 2” deep. If you are using a battery operated drill, be sure to drill very slow, otherwise you could end up cauterizing the inside of your hole, sealing it up and stopping the sap from being able to flow out. This is why a hand drill is preferable.

    Slowly drilling the hole in the tree for the spile.

    Slowly drilling the hole in the tree for the spile.

  4. Clean any debris out of the hole and gently tap your spile into the hole until it is snug. Make sure not to force it in too hard or you can crack the wood of the tree, causing your hole to leak.

    Gently hammering the spile into the drilled hole.

    Gently hammering the spile into the drilled hole.

  5. Attach your tubing, or hang your bucket, with your lid to keep out bugs, bark and other undesirable objects. If you are leaving your bucket on the ground instead of hanging it from the spile, put some logs or other heavy objects around it to keep it from blowing over.
    Tubing going into the bucket lid, keeping the bugs out.

    Tubing going into the bucket lid, keeping the bugs out.

    The whole setup: spile, tubing, bucket and a piece of wood to keep it in place.

    The whole setup: spile, tubing, bucket and a piece of wood to keep it in place.

  6. Check back every day or so to empty out your buckets and keep an eye on your progress. Keep all collected sap in a cool place until you are ready to evaporate it. After too many days in the warm it can spoil.
    Catching a drip of sap from the spile.

    Catching a drip of sap from the spile.

    Our stockpile of snow keeping the sap cool until evaporating time.
    Our stockpile of snow keeping the sap cool until evaporating time.

    When the time comes and you are swimming in sap, boil it!! Check back next week when I talk about that.

Delicious Poison Ivy

So it has been a little while since I have posted. In an attempt to get away from the cold and take a vacation before the craziness of spring and building a house this summer, my husband and I ran away to Costa Rica for 12 days. I had originally wanted to write at least 1 post while there but couldn’t find anything about vacationing in the tropics relevant to this blog, and I didn’t really see any reason to make everyone jealous of the sunshine and warmth 😉 However on our last day there I realized that maybe the tropics and West Virginia do have a little bit in common.

I guess to start this story, I need to mention that the major reason we decided on going to Costa Rica was because I have a number of friends from Costa Rica (AKA Tico’s) that I worked with years ago in Colorado during my ski bum phase. For  years I have been promising that I would visit. So, lucky us, we had a free place to stay while in the San Jose area at my friend Alejandra’s parents’ house. Even though they lived in a suburban area, they have a large yard with a bunch of fruit trees….see, there are already some similarities between them and us, haha. The largest tree in the front yard was a huge mango tree. Last year when we went to Thailand we were surprised, and disappointed, to find out that Thai’s eat their mangos green, not ripe. Apparently, Ticos do the same thing and Alejandra’s father was determined to show us how delicious it was. So out to the yard we all went and picked some green mangos, right off the tree. As a warning, our host made sure to show us that if you don’t pick the mango correctly, they will spray out a milky white liquid that if you get on your skin can cause a mild reaction. We were careful. We went went inside and he prepared the mango in thin slices, covered in lemon juice and salt. I have to admit, it was pretty good; probably better if you don’t imagine that it was a mango and should have been sweet and juicy. Nevertheless we ate up and then packed up and went to the beach, where we stayed in a cheap hostel, drank local beer, and got nice and burnt to a crisp the way only a gringo who hasn’t seen the sun in 4 months can.

Mango tree in Alejandra's front yard

Mango tree in Alejandra’s front yard

Have I lost you yet? Are you confused what any of this has to do with poison ivy or similarities between the tropics and West Virginia? I promise I am getting there.

So the next morning my husband woke up in our hostel with tons of red, itchy spots all over his arm and both legs. Uhhg, we had only been in a foreign country for 2 days and he gets bed bugs? Yuck. For the remained of our trip he itched and itched; the heat and humidity didn’t help. We figured it had gone systemic and was a bad reaction to the actual bites because more started to show up here and there, just as the original spots were finally disappearing. Even upon returning to our friends house, her parents and aunt who is a nurse agreed they were bed bugs. Uhhg.

I kept getting frustrated however that new spots kept popping up. And I thought it was really strange that they were only on 1 arm from the elbow down, and both legs from the knees down. Everything covered by shirt sleeves and shorts weren’t affected. But we were assured poison ivy, which my husband is pretty allergic to, doesn’t grow in Costa Rica. We didn’t want to doubt the locals.

Finally on our last day there I looked up on the internet “Costa Rica plants that cause allergic reaction.” I came across a page that mentioned someone who would have weird reactions when they ate green mango when they visited Costa Rica. Hmmm. I did anther search of reactions to green mango. There was something mentioning “Urushiol.” Sound familiar at all? Anyone who has been affected by it probably knows what it is. Urushiol is the oil in poison ivy, oak and sumac that make you break out and itch like crazy. Yep, mystery solved, mango leaves, stems, sap and sometimes the skin of the fruit contain urushiol, which can cause contact dermatitis, especially in people who have a history of reacting to poison ivy. Wikipedia has a page on mango and on urushiol that discuss this. Most people from the states don’t know this fact probably for a few reasons: 1) we don’t eat green mangos, and 2) even if we did, they are most likely treated and washed before they would make it to our markets. Why didn’t our Tico hosts know this, or even heard of anyone having a reaction? My guess is that while they are exposed to the oil in low doses when they pick them, prepare them and eat them, if they were to have a reaction from the oil, it would be subdued by these low doses. This theory of mine comes from other materials I have read how for generations, Native Americans have eaten the new, shiny leaves of poison ivy in the spring, when the amount of urushiol is low. This helps their bodies grow immune to the effect of the oil. Personally, I have never tried this. I don’t react very much to poison ivy, but in the past my husband has taken homeopathic treatments similar to this where he bought a few vials of liquid that contained low doses of the oil and were supposed to lessen, or stop, your reaction to the plant for that season. Similar to vaccinations we receive at the doctor’s office for many other diseases. A low, or weakened, dose introduces the vector to our body so that our body knows what to fight.

Its funny how things like that work. My husband thought he would be safe eating a fruit that he loves and has enjoyed many times in the past. Little did he know poison ivy’s cousin was lurking in the dark. At least we learned something, and of course its better than having bedbugs!