Doug’s father Barney, was the original Maple Syrup Man in the family with help from his son Doug and grandson Jamie. After Barney’s passage, Doug and his son Jamie took over and updated/upgraded the operation. Jamie has since grown up and has his own children now, but the family tradition of maple syrup production continues to bring them together every Spring. Doug doesn’t sell his syrup. He simply gives it away to friends and family, which just adds to the charm of concept. I even wrote a posting (Sweet Contraband) of the time I gave a precious bottle to a buddy for presentation to his fiancée’s parents. I can proudly say I made Doug’s syrup known from San Diego to Toronto. My buddy particularly liked “The Story” as he termed it. “This isn’t just any maple syrup. You couldn’t buy this even if you wanted to” he assured them. “The only way to get this stuff is … if you know a guy … who knows a guy …”.
As I see it, there are 5 basic steps in making maple syrup.
Wood … a lot … of wood.
As much as 5 tons of it must be cut down, cut into 16 “ lengths, split, and stacked up to dry, a year before you even think about tapping trees. Doug prefers soft wood as it produces a faster and more intense heat.
Step Two – Correctly ID and tap the Sugar Maples.
How Doug could tell a sugar maple from any other tree impressed me more than anything else he taught me. With the exception of birches, I couldn’t tell one tree from another. He could tell by the bark. I quickly learned to recognize the healed-over spile tap holes from previous years. I tried impressing Doug with my suddenly miraculous ability to identify sugar maples, but he didn’t seem to notice (Damn!).
Doug’s ATV had a trailer in tow. In it were numerous 2 gallon pails, lids, a cordless drill, and spiles in a bucket of isopropyl alcohol. Why keep spiles soaking in alcohol? If after tapping the trees, you get a cold spell and the sap stops running for a few days, the alcohol keeps the hole disinfected. That delays the tree’s healing response, keeping the spile active until the sap starts flowing again. As well, I expect the alcohol would protect the tree from infection. Doug taught me to tap across the east to west sides of the trees only, as he’d found North taps to be less yielding.
Doug sets ~ 100 pails every year. Tapping takes only a few days (unless you have an annoying blog writer, slowing you down and getting in the way). But at least I tried to do my bit by helping to push the ATV up a hill. It was having difficulty in the rapidly slushing snow, back in the bush.
As we were tapping, a pair of granddaughters appeared and began assisting with the task at hand. Doug asked them to deliver us some supplies from the ATV. I was surprised to see one (about 10 years old) fire it up and make the delivery while the other sat on the back of the seat holding onto her big sister. Doug complimented them on their ATV handling. Who wouldn’t love having a cool Grandad like that ?
Step Three – collecting the sap
We’d just finished tapping when the headlights of Doug’s son Jamie’s ATV came bounding through the bush, also with a trailer attached. The ATV stopped and Jamie, his Wife, their children, and a couple of family friends scrambled in every direction. Gathering pails of sap, they carefully navigated the knee to waist deep snow, and poured them into the big 65 gallon tank in the ATVs trailer. What had been a quiet bush-lot moments before, was ringing with excited shouting and children’s laughter. Doug’s family drops by whenever sap collection is warranted, and the whole procedure is repeated. Sometimes it’ll be days between collections and sometimes it’ll be twice the same day. The trees dictate when they’ll share their bounty.
Step Four – primary boil-down
This is the long drawn-out section that everyone’s familiar with. I tend to think of it as the “romantic” step. This is what most people think of, when they think of maple syrup. The long hours of relative inactivity that everyone thinks, is all there is to it. Just standing there, poking at the fire, stirring the pan contents, shooting the breeze with interested visitors, petting Belle, the neighbour’s dog. Adjusting the flow of fresh sap into the pan. Poking the fire. Loading more wood into the fire. Stirring the pan contents. Yeah, this is the stage at which I assured Doug that I’d be found with a snifter of raspberries and vodka in my hand, and the syrup shack in flames as I quietly dozed away in a drunken stupor on a lawn chair in the Sun. This is why I make wine, not syrup. No open flame involved.
While Doug runs a “batch operation” he extends it by a system where he fills a cold pan with sap, which has a spigot running into the primary boil-down pan. As the contents in the primary boils down, he simply adjusts the flow of fresh sap to maintain a balance between viscosity and heat. I asked what he does at night as I figured, he’s gotta sleep sometime. He just fills up the pan, stokes up the stove, and lets ‘er go for the night. Come morning, the cycle repeats itself. Doug filters the contents of the primary pan into a container and takes it to the Finishing-off building, to complete the final boil-down and fills the product into bottles.
Step Five – finishing off.
Doug transfers the resultant 2.5 gallons (from 125 gallons of sap) to the smaller, deeper finishing off pan and uses propane for the final boil-down. This is because the primary pan is too large an expanse to get the depth for the thermometer, and even heat distribution. As well, a propane valve is considerably more controllable than a wood fire. He aims for 219° F.
From his first batch of the season he boiled down 145 gallons of sap, to get 14 – 500 ml bottles. Ranger and I watched as he got 20 bottles from the batch he invited us to observe (things are improving as the season advances).
I was reminded of myself making wine, as I watched Doug basically ignore the analytical instrumentation. Like me, he based his assessment on the visuals, gut feeling, and dead reckoning. Color, bubble size, and degree of surface foam were his instruments. The only tool he took seriously was the thermometer. Even my inexperienced eye noticed when the boiling action became more of a convection current flow, and the color turned amber/brown. When Doug saw that, he glanced at the thermometer and started getting his filters ready. I can really appreciate that “more of an art than a science” approach. I spent 30 years working in laboratories, relying on equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell me when I’d done my job right. So just looking, sniffing, and tasting to determine when the job is done, is rather satisfying.
Before we left, Doug showed us where he had to cut down an old tree, and found a spile hole completely healed over.
He was making a cross-sectional view of a spile insert for his grandchildren to take to school. The teacher liked it so much that he was asked to make a few more for the local schools as an educational aid.
Just for fun, last year I made a batch of maple sap wine from some of Doug’s leftover sap. I made up a label with a picture of Doug on it, pasted it on a bottle, and gave it to him. He told us a story of how he announced to an associate that he wasn’t gonna make syrup anymore. When asked why, he presented the bottle of wine I’d made for him, and declared “I’m gonna start a winery instead !” We laughed as he filled the first bottle of the batch with the sweet amber-gold of his passion, and continued to fill 19 more.
It’s going to be a good year.