Maple Syrup

Spring of 2016 will be our inaugural year Maple Syrup from the woods out back in our ravine. I will need to pull together a few new things before this fall so that I can tap the trees I found down the hill, in the snow, from Feb 8 through the end of April. The sap will run at some point between those dates, and my favorite weather girl (who sleeps to my right) will need to watch for 20F overnights with 40F+ days. I can draw a tighter circle around March 15 through April 15, but nature tends to choose the exact dates, so I will be ready before and after that window.

I already planned an evaporator that will cost under $200 to build from two 55gallon drums, 30 8″ cinder blocks, and 4 full size 6″ deep steam table trays for the sap to boil down, along with a chimney flue pipe and hinges for the door to add wood and clean out the burn chamber.

This will need to be setup and ready to go before the first snow, including ropes and/or a rope ladder to get up the hill and/or move our gear around when the hill is snow covered. Most of the way up our hill, we walk upright with our hands on the hill ahead of us… It is crazy steep. Some spots are straight up and others actually “ledge out”. We do have paths up the hill, but those paths are still almost straight up. We have not attempted it in the snow yet.

Because the walls of the ravine are so steep and deep, we decided to cook in the ravine and just lift the concentrated sap out of the ravine, rather than hauling hundreds of gallons of sap uphill. It takes 43 gallons of 2% sugar sap to get 1 gallon of 66% sugar syrup. Boiling it downhill means saving literally tons of lifting.

1 ton = 2,000 lbs
about 8 pounds per gallon
440 pounds per 55 gallon drum
5 drums per ton
5 drums times 55 gallons = 275 gallons sap
Boiled down to a 1:43 ratio = 6 gallons syrup
11 lbs per gallon for syrup = 66 pounds to drag/lift up the hill.

I will lift the 66 pounds or so of syrup, rather than the ton of sap required to make it. Those are obviously rough estimates, figured with some fuzzy math to eliminate decimals and to do some rounding, but there is an absolutely monster difference between 2000 pounds and 66 pounds. The sap will be boiled off and evaporated in the ravine. Now we have to get a half ton of cinder blocks down the hill safely (30 blocks at 36 pounds each = 1080 pounds). One thing is clear… We need much more rope than we have now.

Many of the trees I’ve found out back appear to be silver maple, which is a 1% sugar sap… So I need to boil roughly 86 gallons of that sap to get 1 gallon of maple syrup out of these trees. I have found some young sugar maples (2% sap), but they cannot be tapped yet. Hopefully there are some older ones out back, which I will be mapping out and marking soon to make plans on time, bottles, and other details of next spring.

The true goal/test of maple syrup (by law) is 66% sugar. Vermont is slightly higher. Maple sugar will begin to occur about 70-75% sugar. My goal will be 68% sugar as read by a hydrometer I need anyway for brewing honey into mead and syrup into a maple wine.

Another method is to boil the liquid until it is 7.3F above the current boiling point of water as adjusted by barometer and altitude. I will stick to measuring the sugar by hydrometer.

Sugar maple is the favorite type of maple for many syrup makers, but on my property there are at least 25 Silver maples that will receive 42 taps, or spikes as they are called. A silver maple will produce twice the sap of a Sugar maple, but with half the sugar content in the sap. This means you get the same amount of syrup, but you have to boil twice as much water out of the sap to get there. Commercially, this is not a good thing because not costs and time involved with the additional heating, but my wood fired maple evaporator has tons of dead wood in the ravine to fuel it.

In my first run through the woods down there, I found years worth of firewood that is standing, but dead and totally dry. I hear my house with wood all winter, so I trust my judgment on that fuel supply. Besides that, I found a 100+ foot pine on my neighbors land that is dead and even though it will burn fastest than the oaks I plan on using, there is several years worth of wood for sugaring in that pine. Yes, I will ask permission before dropping it, but who wants a 100+ foot dead tree within 75 feet of their house? At least when I drop it, I get to pick the direction it falls in. I have played with dropping trees many, many times and am proud of the fact that I can drop the tip of a 50 foot tree between two broom handles spaced 6 feet apart every time. Field goal style!

So, what kind of sugarbush am I sitting on? With 42 planned taps for 2016, and conservatively getting 10 gallons per tap, that is 420 gallons, maybe double that on good years. That will boil down to about 10 gallons of syrup. At $40 per gallon in 2014, that is $400 in the first year, covering my $200 evaporator setup. It will also cover $60 in spikes that I can use for many years to come and a slew of 5 gallon homer buckets and 55 gallon blue barrels for storing sap until I can cook it down.

Accepting that 1 gallon per hour is evaporated from 1 square foot of surface area in rapidly boiling water, and a full size steam table tray is just under 2 square feet of surface area, having 4 trays on my two fire barrels will allow me to boil off 8 gallons per hour.

On the heaviest flow days, I estimate 200 gallons from 42 taps (rarely, this is a HUGE estimate, but possible), and on regular days around 40-80 gallons of sap. That ‘boils down’ to between 5-10 up to 25 hours per day spent watching the fire, refilling pans with sap, and smelling oak and pine burning, mixed with maple scented steam.

I know this math all looks weird, but these are rough estimates to help build out a plan of attack and will need to be adjusted for my specific trees, my specific evaporator, my specific weather, etc

In the world of homesteading, everything is subject to change at any time. Being adaptable and overcoming adversity by improvising is great, but having some kind of plan always helps to keep me on course until I need to deviate and implement a course correction.

Friends, family, and neighbors can expect syrup in your 2016 Christmas stockings!

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