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.
It’s actually directly over the house’s old hand-dug well, which they use to draw water for cleaning the equipment.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Underneath the pan is a wood-fed furnace that heats the syrup, just like with my dad’s operation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It tasted amazing. I was told I should shift my beer brewing to syrup making, since syrup “actually tastes good.”
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?
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.
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.
Hannah also keeps chickens, and as we were leaving my aunt Marsha slipped me a dozen eggs to take to my parents.
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!
The syrup is 100% pure and 100% from the land of my ancestors. What more do you need?