The Final Syrup

Welcome to the final installment of Maple Syrup on the Baessler Estate, a chronicle of our journey to my childhood home in Pennsylvania to make maple syrup. You can read parts One and Two here.

After visiting my cousin’s professional operation, we returned to my house to finish the day’s work. While we were gone the two pans boiled down enough to be combined into one.

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We continued to let the sap boil for about as long as it took to roast and eat some hot dogs and get frustrated with a crossword puzzle. It’s all about precision timing.

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Once time was up, Ben and my dad moved the pan from the fire. It’s much easier to work away from the smoke.

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Next came the filtering. When you’re boiling outside in a big open pan, you’re likely to get – for lack of a better term – bits. Sticks, flakes of ash, sediment from the sap buckets, and other unsavory things might be floating in the syrup. My dad transferred some of it to a bowl.

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And ran it through a cloth into another bowl.

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We then ran it through a second filter. The filters in this case are old tie dyed napkins from my childhood.

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We collected the clear, filtered syrup.

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And hung out the filters to hose them down. My mom was a big fan.

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Finally it was time to put out the fire. We pushed away the cinder blocks so they wouldn’t shatter with the sudden cold water, and doused the whole area.

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The next morning the syrup was still a little runny, so my dad boiled it down more on the stove. Once it had reached a good consistence, he canned it in quart jars.

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For all that work, we got six quarts, or a gallon and a half of syrup.

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While the jars cooled outside, we made another batch of pancakes and enjoyed them with some more of last weekend’s syrup.

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All in all, it was a rousing success! There was some talk about how maple syrup ever became a thing, considering the time, investment, and resources involved. Since we’re not scraping out a living in the Big Woods, though, it makes for a fun weekend and a yearly savings on the order of tens of dollars.

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And a pretty cool blog topic.

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Big Time Syrup

To break up the day and get some extra culture in us, Ben, Phil, Will, and I went on a field trip to my cousin Tom’s professional maple syrup operation.

(If you have no sense of context, go read Maple Syrup on the Baessler Estate first. Or just accept the fact that my friends and I went to Pennsylvania to make syrup with my dad, and carry on).

My cousin Tom lives fifteen minutes outside of town on the ancestral family hill where the Perkinses, my mom’s family, have lived for generations. In the 1940s my grandparents bought this land (down the road from their own families’ properties) to start a dairy farm. Late in her life, my grandma sold the old farm to my cousin. The cows are long gone, but he uses the land to grow Christmas trees and make maple syrup. The old farmhouse (also gone) used to stand roughly where the sugar shack is.

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It’s actually directly over the house’s old hand-dug well, which they use to draw water for cleaning the equipment.

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It’s also near these four old pine trees, planted by my four uncles when they were kids sixty-some years ago. My poor mom and aunt weren’t born yet and missed the tree boat.

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My cousin Tom was off helping someone else with their syrup and couldn’t give us a tour, but my uncle (also Tom) gave us the rundown on everything.

The real star of the show is the reverse osmosis machine, made by the Amish of all people. The whole point of boiling sap is to release most of the water as vapor, leaving the sugar behind. Syrup is just very concentrated sap. Sap is just 2% sugar, though. There’s a lot of water to be removed, and the reverse osmosis machine can help.

Osmosis occurs when two liquids, one pure water and the other water with dissolved sugar, are separated by a water-permeable membrane. Water naturally wants to equalize the sugar concentration in the two liquids by flowing from the pure side to the sugar side and diluting it.

But wait, you say! Don’t we want concentrated sugar-water? Osmosis is just going to add more water to sap! We don’t want osmosis! We want the revers- oh.

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Reverse osmosis inverts the process by applying a pressure to the sugar side and forcing some of the water backward through the membrane. What’s left on the sugar side is all the original sugar with a lot less of the original water, or something much closer to syrup.

There are practical limits to reverse osmosis, and you have to boil away the rest of the water to get to pure syrup concentration levels. It gets you a whole lot closer, though, and cuts hours off the necessary boiling time.

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After going through the reverse osmosis machine, the highly concentrated sap is moved to the boiler. It’s a whole lot fancier, but at its heart it’s the same as my dad’s setup. The sap goes in the long, flat pan that runs the length of the boiler. (It’s the part with all the mechanisms sticking out of it).

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Underneath the pan is a wood-fed furnace that heats the syrup, just like with my dad’s operation.

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After the sap has been boiled, it runs through a filter to clear out any debris that might still be floating around. It did come out of the woods, after all.

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Next comes the finishing process, where the syrup is boiled in small, controlled batches. Big vats over a wood fire are good for the long haul, but getting it down to just the right concentration takes more precision.

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Finally the syrup’s ready to be packaged. The machine on the left is the bottler, where bottles are filled one at a time by hand. The machine on the right is a candy maker, for crystalizing the syrup into maple sugar candy.

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Depending upon the time of year or just how the trees are feeling, you can see different variants in the color of the syrup. These are samples they keep on hand to demonstrate the color difference.

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Better than that were the samples kept on hand to demonstrate the taste. Nothing was boiling that day, but there was enough leftover for us each to get a shot glass of syrup.

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It tasted amazing. I was told I should shift my beer brewing to syrup making, since syrup “actually tastes good.”

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After checking out the machinery, we went on a broader tour. This is the cross section of a sugar maple that a neighbor cut down, purely by coincidence, in just the right spot to reveal old tree tappings. The tree continued to grow, but the drilled holes stayed exactly where they were. If this tree is 135 years old, it must have been tapped… what? 40 years ago? 50?

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Long ago as it was, the detail is still so sharp. You can clearly see the point from the tip of the drill bit. You can only sort of see, but we could feel very well, the grooves along the length of the hole where the drill turned.

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We wandered the grounds a little to see what else was going on. Another of my uncles, Jim, is an avid beekeeper, and he’s getting my cousin Hannah – the daughter of syrup cousin Tom – into it. (Afterward Will said he’d never heard so many family members’ names thrown around in a single conversation).

Hannah has four hives – the red one is a split, or one colony in the process of being separated into two. She may not have to deal with angry neighbors like we do in the city, but she has her own problems – the whole area is wrapped in electric fence to keep the bears away.

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Hannah also keeps chickens, and as we were leaving my aunt Marsha slipped me a dozen eggs to take to my parents.

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I was also slipped a bottle of syrup, so in exchange I’ll do a shameless plug. If you’re ever in Northeastern Pennsylvania, please go see my cousin Tom at Stone Crop Farm for maple syrup and Christmas trees!

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The syrup is 100% pure and 100% from the land of my ancestors. What more do you need?

 

Maple Syrup on the Baessler Estate

Last weekend a pilgrimage was made.

Defying all odds that we wouldn’t get our act together, Ben, Will, Phil, and I drove six hours to Pennsylvania to make maple syrup with my dad.

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When I was young, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. The first, and arguably the coolest when you’re a little kid, is Little House in the Big Woods. It’s a non-stop festival of rough-hewn timber, smoked hung meats, and maple syrup. One spring my dad and I decided to recreate the maple syrup chapter in our own not so big woods, and a tradition was born.

Of course I got older and too cool for projects. Then I got even older and moved away. My dad has kept on boiling sap, though, tapping the trees every three years or so to replenish supplies.

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This winter the syrup stash was running dry, and my dad hinted that he’d love some help. There were rumblings of interest among my friends, and by golly four of piled into the car and drove well into the night to help (read: watch) my dad make syrup.

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On Saturday morning we woke up bright and early, but my dad was up much brighter and earlier getting the fire started. He stacks two rows of cinder blocks and builds a fire between them. The fire goes strategically next to the patch of bamboo that’s been trying to take over the garden for the past twenty-five years. It’s part scorched-earth policy and part threat – he throws some dug up bamboo roots on the fire where the rest of the patch can see it.

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The pans are legitimate maple syrup boiling pans, bought off of someone or other when I was a kid. Who knows how old they are. The wider, flatter one on the left is for boiling down new sap. Every now and again the sap on the left is transferred to the deeper pan on the right, where it continues to boil and refine.

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My mom thinks it’s just the right size for a funeral pyre and worries what the passing cars must think.

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With the weather so unseasonably warm, my dad was getting overrun with sap. Late winter and early spring is the time to tap trees, when night temperatures are low but day temperatures are relatively high. This see-sawing is what really gets the sap flowing. Days up in the 50s and 60s really get the sap flowing, apparently, and he was quickly running out of space to store it all. To make way for more sap, he did a boil the weekend before, producing about a gallon of syrup. To build up our strength for the day ahead, we made blueberry pancakes and bacon to enjoy with some of last weekend’s bounty.

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All fueled up, we got to work. The Baessler Estate is about two acres, which is small as Estates go. It’s rich in sugar maples, though, and more than big enough to sustain my parents’ pancake habits. As this was an educational trip, my dad showed us how to tell a sugar maple apart from a regular maple. It’s all in the tips – the buds of a sugar maple end in sharp points, like these. Regular maple sap can be made into syrup, too – it just won’t be as sweet.

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Our lesson learned, we took off into the woods to collect the remaining buckets. This tree has two obvious holes from past harvests. It’s been tapped this year using the hottest new plastic technology.

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Most of the buckets are these old fashioned aluminum ones that hang directly from the spout and have cute little hats to keep the snow out. These too were bought when I was a kid and we wanted an authentic Little House operation.

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We trooped around collecting buckets. By a stroke of luck, all the sap was frozen solid.

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This made all the buckets nice and stackable.

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On top of being frozen, the little buckets weren’t particularly full. They’d all been emptied the week before for the first boiling. Each of these is, then, about a week’s sap production for a single tree.

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We set the buckets by the fire to loosen the ice, then dumped them into the flat wide pan.

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The real money, however, was in the big trash barrels. A couple of the larger trees were plugged directly into these. They also served as the storage tanks for when the smaller buckets filled up. We had a couple hundred gallons of sap in these barrels, and it was all frozen.

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The hope was that if we hacked at it long enough with the ax, we’d hit a liquid center of much purer sap. By leaving it out to freeze, we were essentially distilling – separating the frozen water from the liquid sugar.

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After some serious hacking, we did hit liquid. A taste test proved that it was indeed a heck of a lot sweeter than the ice. We scooped the liquid into the pan and threw the frozen to the elements. Did we lose some sugar to the ice? Probably. But we were burning daylight and this felt like a lucky break.

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With all the sap in the pans, it became a boiling game. So really a waiting and fire-tending game. All in all it’s a process of about ten hours.

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At my mom’s suggestion, we split up the day with a field trip to my cousin’s commercial maple syrup operation down the road. It was a day packed with educational experiences. Too packed for one blog post. Join us next time for a look inside a real working Pennsylvania maple syrup sugar shack.

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And the time after that for the stunning conclusion to Maple Syrup on the Baessler Estate.