Tapping Maple Trees: The Sweet Evolution of One Man’s Maple Syrup

darrell

Is it the comforting smell of burning wood that was cut by his own two hands? Is it the joy felt from joining Mother Nature to usher winter into spring with a seasonal ritual? Or is it the quiet satisfaction of watching someone’s face light up when they get a mouthful of liquid gold from his cherished backyard sugarbush? It’s probably all of these things—plus many more that he keeps to himself—that drive Darrell Horn into his pole barn every spring to transform the sap from his maple trees into tasty syrup.

Darrell, 84, has been tapping trees and removing their sugary nectar for four decades. He’s spent thousands of dollars and hours refining his strategy to maximize maple syrup production. His sugarbush—admittedly “small” by mass maple measures—is bigger than ever this year, with 700 trees tapped and flowing even as you read this. For too long now, I’ve enjoyed an annual mason jar of Darrell’s incredible small-batch syrup without lifting a finger to contribute. Finally, I joined the tapping team this year to earn my keep and get an inside look at this sweet operation.

joshdrill

drill

It all starts with drilling holes in sugar maple trees. Some smaller trees get just one hole, while bigger ones receive up to three. We did it using battery-powered drills with drilling-depth limited by pre-installed stoppers. There’s a “sweet spot” when it comes to drilling for sap—not too deep, not too shallow. Insert a spile to drain the sap and you’re on the road to syrup. Pray for freezing nights and warm, sunny days to get a good run of sap.

sublines

tap

Some folks hang bags or buckets from the spiles, but Darrell’s sugarbush is wired with a complex maze of plastic tubes, each serving its own purpose. The light blue line pictured here is connected directly to the spile. Sap runs from this line into the darker blue lines, which then feed to a larger vacuum line.

vacuumlines

joshdarrell

When the trees are tapped, Darrell turns on two vacuum pumps back at his pole shed. The black vacuum lines pictured here suck the sap from his entire sugarbush at 16 psi to two holding tanks. The lines have to be carefully checked before tapping every spring, and repairs are almost always a given.

tanks

Darrell’s sugarbush is separated into two sides: east and west. Each side’s primary vacuum line brings the sap into one of these tanks. From here, the sap will travel to the RO machine (see below).

RO

RO, or reverse osmosis, is used to remove water from the sap and concentrate its sugar content. The sugar in maple sap is what makes it possible to create syrup, but it takes a lot of sap to get a small amount of syrup. Sap comes out of the sugarbush with an average sugar content of 2 percent (Brix), the rest being water. According to a study by the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College, “43 gallons of 2-percent sap must be boiled down to yield a gallon of syrup.” To be classified as syrup, it needs to be evaporated to a minimum of 66 percent sugar. This is where the RO machine becomes money.

Cooking sap to turn it into syrup is a time-consuming affair. Until this year, Darrell’s sap went straight to his evaporator from the bush. At times, he’s been known to fire up his evaporator at 6 a.m. and tend to it well past midnight. This year, by using his new $5,000 RO machine, he’ll reduce his cooking time by more than half, because two RO cycles of the original 2-percent sap will concentrate its sugar content to 8 percent. And let’s not forget about the fuel savings. Speaking of fuel …

pile

Taste just a drop of Darrell’s maple syrup and you’ll be spoiled for life. It’s the best. A key to its rich, signature flavor is his wood-fired evaporator. Many—probably most—real maple syrups you’ve purchased are fueled with gas or oil. You can’t beat the flavor of Darrell’s authentic smoky syrup.

evaporator

This is the evaporator—where the magic starts, where the clear sap begins to turn into gold. The sap is cooked in two “pans” on the evaporator at different temperatures, one at a time, until a hydrometer confirms it’s the right consistency. From here, the cooked sap is dumped into old metal milk cans and transported back to the house for its final, meticulous boil on a stovetop and its ultimate transformation into finished syrup.

In a great year, Darrell's sugarbush will yield somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 gallons of maple syrup. It's poured on piles of pancakes, but as you'll learn if you keep reading this blog, it's also an excellent complement to a variety of wild-game recipes (for Joe's drunken sugarbush venison chili recipe, click here. Darrell's biggest concern is to produce enough for his family, friends, neighbors and his church's annual pancake breakfast. He sells the rest to local markets, but there's no price tag to match the value of this liquid gold.