From a 21st Century standard, specifically within West Michigan’s Cascade community, my friend Chris is a regular enough guy. He’s a family man with a background in IT who operates a small software development business. In most ways, he and his family enjoy the many amenities and conveniences of our present time. His differences however, and the impetus to our friendship, lay in the fact he’s cut from a cloth of a past generation. A life-long learner and constant tinkerer, he’s the kind of guy who hunts for meat, changes his own oil, and fixes broken plumbing. Each spring, he’s liable to be found cruising the neighborhood and local woodlots by headlamp, bucket in-hand, collecting sap for his maple syrup operation.
Introduced last summer by way of a mutual friend, Chris and I quickly honed in on our own side conversation while our three families hiked up the Empire Bluff Trail near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Among all of our shared interests, syrup was something of which I had no prior familiarity. Chris offered to let me in on the action, but we’d have to wait for spring.
Meanwhile, our friendship took form. We spent time bowhunting together during the fall. The leaves were in full color then, and while driving he continued to educate me on things from the syrup realm…Michigan comes in fifth place in overall syrup production at ninety thousand gallons. Yet, the volume of mature Maple trees far outweighs the competition, and we only utilize 1% of ours. I learned there’s a difference between sweetness in the sap from each sub-type, Sugar Maples are the best, followed by Autumn Blaze and Reds, but they’re all good producers. He told me of the natural health benefit to swapping out other sweeteners for maple syrup. It’s full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals; He uses it on everything, even stirring it into his morning coffee. Each year in Michigan, ninety thousand gallons syrup are produced. He was shooting for 10, at the time this seemed relatively simple. Through the winter I could hardly wait to see how would all play out.
On a February afternoon, when the gray clouds broke to reveal a bluebird sky, Chris called saying it was time to run his tap lines. I headed over to his in-laws and found him in the middle of a freshly swept barn floor, neatly arranging various piles of equipment. There were bulk bags of different plastic parts lying next to industrial-sized spools of blue colored tubing. We loaded all the parts, a drill, thermos of hot water, and the blue coils into a couple rubbermaid bins and set out.
He had pre-identified the 50+ trees we’d be tapping and marked each with pink flagging. Smartly, he had also dropped pins from each on google earth and printed off a map. Starting with a fine specimen on the perimeter of one particular cluster, we drilled a neat hole about 1” deep. We did this high enough on the trunk to include seven or eight more on the same line. Each tree was tapped slightly lower than the previous, allowing gravity to work all the sap into one collection point on the last one.
With the same enthusiasm we shared on the trail in Empire, we talked about the wonderment of the natural world. This time though, I was mostly listening to Chris while lugging equipment through the snow covered forest. He was like a talking encyclopedia…The ideal tree is 10” in diameter or 30” in circumference. To tap a tree effectively, you must angle the hole slightly downward. The ideal location is somewhere between 2.5’ to 5’ up the trunk, and on the SE side if possible, where the warming sun will first greet it, and thus maximize the collection window. Michigan’s season starts sometime in February and runs through March, when night time lows dip into the 20’s and daytime temps reach 40. Sap runs during this freeze/thaw cycle. To make good syrup, you need lots of sap, the ratio is roughly 45:1. Nothing needs to be added. You just need to boil it in order to make syrup. Taps are removed at the end of the season, and quickly begin to heal, resembling a belly-button just a year later.
While we were in the woods I was thinking…if he makes 10 gallons, that’s 450 gallons of sap. I’m scratching my head as to how one would load, haul and then boil down that kind of volume without full-time dedication and a commercial kitchen. We cut the tubing at the final tree, dropped a collection bin underneath it, and set off to hang more before calling it a day.
During the heart of the sap run, I checked in with him a couple more times. The first, to see the boiling phase, said to take place in his backyard sugar-shack. While driving through the fog and light rain, I pondered the same thoughts from our bluebird day in the woods. The required workload is too significant. The equipment would have to be of commercial scale, and probably expensive. Either that, or it would have to exude a double-dose of good old fashioned American ingenuity. I arrived honestly dumbfounded, both counts of my doubts in question were promptly wiped. Approaching between houses into the dark backyards of the subdivision, I could clearly see his sillhouette against the ½ chord of stacked cherrywood, his shadow dancing while he stoked at the fire. The uninformed might think they’ve stumbled upon a meth-lab. I’m welcomed to “The Sugar Shack” – a self-made sap stove, which includes a custom-welded stainless tray, filled with 30 gallons of boiling sugar water, set atop cinder block walls. Underneath this and behind the cast iron door, the fire burned hot with coals. There’s a makeshift damper, and a plywood roof to keep out the cold drizzle, which has started to pick up since my arrival.
He teaches while he works, and I’m all ears. The best way to reduce sap is to go in stages. The first stage is where most of the water content is boiled off, it reduces the raw sap into something which much resembles sugar water. I taste it. Sweet, but not syrup. After getting some photos and chatting for awhile, the words stopped, our attention turned toward the crackling of coals and the bubbling of sap. Weird finding this kind of tranquility in a neighborhood, but to call any of this normal would be a stretch. An Owl swoops in from above and startles us out of the quiet trance. It’s time to turn in. While I’m packing up, Chris says the final stage will be done in the kitchen, where better temperature control and the use of a hydrometer come into play.
I dial up his cell a week later and he’s back at it, this time his kitchen just as he mentioned. He invites me in and I see several pots boiling over the range. He works like a mad alchemist, constantly dipping a beaker into the foaming swirling liquid and pouring small samples into a stainless tube. This tube is part of his hydrometer – a glass gauge filled with hash-marks and a weighted bottom, calibrated to measure the density of a specific liquid. He explains how it works, but it’s hard to concentrate at this point, I just want to see syrup. There’s a small margin for error here, a matter of seconds can determine success or failure, which results in an inedible burnt candy like substance, ruining the pans and laying waste to all the sweat equity involved. With channelled focus, he beckons my attention towards the range. I look inside to see a swirling mirror-pond beneath a break in the froth. It’s finally taken on the amber color I’m more familiar with, and a candy-sweet aroma fills the air. I’m stuck inside of a childhood memory, a boyhood Saturday morning, licking my lips while anointing my waffles with the warm liquid. He opens the oven, where bottles are staged waiting to be filled. Once filled, they’re overturned (to heat-treat any bacteria), and labels are carefully placed. They’re as presentable as any salable item I’ve ever bought from the store, but he’s saving them to give to friends and family.
Before I leave, the chef grabs a spoon from the drawer, adds warm liquid from the pot and hands it to me for taste. I’m humming the Mary Poppins tune “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” I just took mine, and I’m positively impressed with where it came from.