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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!!