February 2006 Issue
Tap into Ohio's maple trees and enjoy a regional delicacy.
If you are fortunate, you'll hear the "plink, plink..." of the first drops of the colorless, lightly sweet sap hitting the bottoms of metal buckets hanging on tapped maple trees. After the sap is collected and water boiled off, the resulting syrup is poured over pancakes and candy is made in the shape of maple leaves.
In Ohio, the sap runs only about four to six weeks, beginning about mid-February, depending upon the weather. Freezing nights and warmer days (above 40 degrees) are needed. But how sweet it all is.
"Nothing beats Ohio maple syrup," says Gary W. Graham, extension specialist, natural resources, with the Ohio State University Extension Center in Wooster.
Ohio ranked seventh or eighth in maple syrup production in the United States during the past few years, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But preliminary reports for 2005 showed the state ranking fourth, behind Vermont, Maine and New York. In 1840, the year of the country's first agricultural census, Ohio ranked first, when it was 90 percent forested.
Today, only a handful of Ohio maple producers consider their operations to be full-time occupations. Another 1,000 to 1,200 are hobbyists or see their sugaring work as a supplemental cash crop, according to Graham. Geauga County is the state's best-known sugaring area, with its soil and moisture conditions favorable to growing maple trees. But the art of sugaring is practiced across the state to some degree.
Sugaring was traditionally an important business to early Ohio farmers during the first quarter of the year when money was tight and spring vegetables were still months away, says Debbie Richards, president of the International Maple Institute, founded to promote pure maple syrup and discourage adulterated products. Richards' grandparents founded Richards Maple Products in Chardon in 1910, hauling raw syrup out of their sugar bush by horse and wagon. Today the family taps about 200 trees, and uses 25,000 gallons a year to make syrup and more than three tons of maple sugar candy.
Richards is an equipment supplier for Ohioans who want to tap into the hobby. She believes between 75 and 80 percent of people who try it once will, well, stick to it, or at least try it again, whether they have one maple tree in their front yard or 200 on wooded, rural acreage.
Basically, there are seven steps in the sugaring process.
Find the right tree. Sugar maple (Acer saccharium) trees are the best to tap, although red, black and silver maples will also produce syrup. An average sugar maple offers sap with about a 2 percent sugar content. (Graham recently received a grant from the North American Maple Syrup Council to test the sugar content of the "super sweets," maple trees being developed by The Ohio State University and researcher Howard Kriebal that may yield 4 percent or more sugar.)
Trees selected to be tapped should be at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter, measured about 4 feet off the ground. Tapholes (usually no more than two) are drilled on a slight slant upward about 1 1/2 inches into the trunk. A collecting spout (tap or spile) is placed into the hole. Some producers, including David Patterson of the sixth-generation, 116-acre Patterson Fruit Farm in Chesterland, are gradually converting their spiles to a new, smaller type that requires less drilling and causes less stress on the tree.
"Everyone is interested in protecting the life of a maple tree," says Patterson, who manages 1,200 buckets on his family farm and gathers between 750 and 3,000 gallons of syrup a day during the season, depending on the weather.
Collection. Eighty percent of sugaring operations in Ohio (one of 14 states in the country that produce maple products) use a bucket system hung on spiles to collect sap, says Graham. Any clean, food-grade container can be used, including plastic bags or milk jugs. Containers that once held pickles, vinegar or other strong flavors should be avoided for obvious reasons. And make sure anything washed with soap is thoroughly rinsed.
The Ohio State Extension says an average tap will produce six to 10 gallons of sap. About 42 gallons of sap are needed to make one gallon of syrup, which is one of the reasons a gallon of pure maple syrup is about $40 to $60. (The process is also labor intensive.)
"Raw sap will spoil as quickly as milk. Refrigerate it if you can't boil it right away," says Richards.
Some sugar farms use miles of plastic tubing for collection. Hundreds of lines of tubes attached to a tapped tree meander through the woods to storage vats or a sugarhouse. At the largest sugar bushes, it can look as if the trees are wrapped in a giant spider web. The closed collection system means sap is not exposed in the semi-open containers that hang on trees and also eliminates the arduous job of getting the sap out of the sugar bush. Graham says there are pros and cons for all collection methods.
Evaporation. Syrup is made by boiling and concentrating sap that has been checked for twigs, leaves and other debris. A commercial operation or serious hobbyist uses a continuous feed operation. Sap (which is 98 percent water) is added to a large flat evaporator pan over a heat source, changing it to syrup.
Patterson uses a large, gravity-feed evaporator that can handle 200 to 210 gallons of sap an hour, making four to five gallons of syrup. His tourist-friendly sugarhouse uses an automatic draw off system operated by push buttons on a wall panel to control the temperature of sap being processed.
"It's a rough process with all that bubbling, foaming and boiling. You don't want to burn it," says Patterson.
Storage and evaporator equipment can be expensive for the hobbyist, especially now, says Richards, because newer standards call for safe, easy-to-clean, but costly, stainless steel. Most families making syrup just for their own enjoyment don't need a professional evaporator. The batch method, using a roaster or a 24-by-18-inch pan with a large surface area (instead of something like a tall spaghetti pot), is fine. Sap may be added as the water boils off, a process that can take anywhere from 10 hours to two days depending on the size of the pan.
Finishing. Finished syrup boils at 7 degrees F above the boiling temperature of water, taking elevation and weather conditions into consideration. The high heat will kill bacteria. For most amateur and professional producers, this is the tricky part. Both the temperature and density of the syrup is critical to the syrup's taste. A candy thermometer can be used by the weekend sugar maker. A hydrometer to check the density of the syrup is also needed. A measurement of 66.5 Brix (66 percent solids) is ideal.
Richards offers a word of caution. Finishing can be done on a kitchen stove. But the initial boiling should be done outside or in a sugarhouse, unless you want to see wallpaper peel from steam damage.
Filtering. Hot syrup should be filtered to remove "sugar sand," a natural accumulation of minerals from the earth that make the product cloudy, according to Richards. When filtering a small amount of syrup, she suggests pouring it through several thicknesses of wet flannel, terry cloth or commercial filter papers that are available in cone shapes or flat sheets. It's a slow but important process.
The USDA set the original grading system for syrup, but different states use different terms. In Ohio, the general types include Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber. The classification is based on how much light can be transmitted through the syrup. Generally, the lighter color syrup will have a more mild maple flavor; a darker color means a more intense maple flavor. Color is determined by many factors, including location of trees, weather and soil, not on processing.
"A lot of people think the lightest syrup is best and many people won't produce dark syrup. But when people buy a light amber syrup it doesn't taste like Aunt Jemima and they think it's thin and not as good. And that hurts the industry," says Graham.
"It's personal preference," he adds. "I like a dark amber syrup. I want that maple taste on pancakes or cereal."
Packaging and storing: Syrup that will be used immediately can be refrigerated. For longer shelf storage, it must be hot packed at 190 degrees in a sterile container.
Pour - over French toast, waffles or ice cream. Mix it in tea. Use it to make salad dressing, veggie dip, popcorn balls or ham glaze. Enjoy!
The cost to become a backyard maple producer depends on how much equipment is on hand, what can be borrowed and what must be purchased. Richards figures about $7 per bucket and spile (or 25 cents a foot for poly tubing), $35 for a hydrometer and cup, $20 for a candy thermometer and $200 to $300 for stainless steel boiling pans. Add in the price of storage containers, filtering material and individual containers that range from canning jars and plastic jugs to beautiful glass bottles shaped like maple leaves.
Syrup won't completely freeze because of its high sugar content. But it can be stored in ice cube trays in the freezer for delicious slushy cubes that can be added to tea or coffee or eaten like maple snow cones.
"Maple products are a delicacy for most people. But there is room for more production in Ohio. Not all the trees have been tapped," says Graham.
That's good news for sweet tooths across the state.
Sap to Syrp
The following events, displays and stores will satisfy your sweet tooth.
Burton Log Cabin and Sugar Camp
Burton Town Square, 440/834-4204. www.burtonchamberofcommerce.org. The log cabin in the center of town has sugaring exhibits; open Feb. 15â€“Christmas week, Tues.â€“Sun., 9:30 a.m.â€“4 p.m.
Geauga County Park District, Swine Creek Reservation, Middlefield and Parkman Townships, main entrance 16004 Hayes Rd., 440/286-9516. Sugar-bush trail, sugarhouse, folk music and maple treats; Sundays in March, noonâ€“4 p.m.
Geauga County Maple Festival
Chardon, 440/286-3007. www.maplefestival.com. April 20, noonâ€“10 p.m.; April 21â€“22 10 a.m.â€“11 p.m., April 23 11 a.m.â€“7 p.m. Maple products and displays, arts and crafts, entertainment
Maple Sugaring Days
Hale Farm & Village, 2686 Oak Hill Rd., Bath, 330/666-3711. www.wrhs.org. March 18â€“19, 25â€“26, 10 a.m.â€“4 p.m. Demonstrations and exhibits of maple sugar production, crafts, dancing, pancake breakfast
Maple Madness Tour
Geauga County Tourism Council and OSU Extension, 800/775-8687. www.tourgeauga.com. March 11â€“12 10 a.m.â€“4 p.m. Do-it-yourself driving tour of about 20 commercial sugar bushes in five counties, including two Amish-run operations on Saturday only.
Maple Sugaring Weekend
Lake Metroparks Farmpark, 8800 Chardon Rd., Kirtland, 440/256-2122, 800/366-FARM. www.lakemetroparks.com. March 11â€“12 9 a.m.â€“5 p.m. Maple syrup production demonstrations, pancake breakfast
30th Annual Maple Syrup Family Festival
Malabar Farm State Park, 12 miles southeast of Mansfield, one mile west of St. Rte. 603 on Pleasant Valley Rd., Lucas, 419/892-2784. www.malabar farm.org. March 4â€“5, 11â€“12, noonâ€“4 p.m. Demonstrations of early sugaring techniques, sugar camp and sugarhouse, maple products, musical entertainment
Maple Syrup Festival
Hueston Woods State Park, College Corner, 513/523-6347, ext. 21 or 28. March 4â€“5, 11â€“12. Sugar bush tours 10 a.m.â€“4 p.m., syrup samples
Patterson Fruit Farm
11414 Caves Rd. (store), 8765 Mulberry Rd. (sugarhouse with displays and demonstrations, sugar bush), Chesterland, 440/729-1964. www.pattersonfarm.com
Richards Maple Products
545 Water St., Chardon, 440/286-4160. www.richardsmapleproducts.com. Sugar bush, store open seven days a week.