Food and Drink

Sap’s Rising: Lessons from the Sugarhouse

May 11, 2015
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picture by Micah Sargent

picture by Micah Sargent

Everyone loves the taste of maple syrup, but some folks have no idea where this delicious breakfast treat comes from. To learn more about maple syrup production, I spoke with Tyler Mead, owner of Brook Bottom Boilers, a state-inspected, traditional, wood-fired sugarhouse, located in north-central Pennsylvania. He and his partners turn out about 100 gallons of syrup annually with a mixture of old school values and new school technology. Here’s an idea of what it takes to make the syrup you put on your pancakes this morning.

Where It Comes From
Each spring, triggered by the freezing and thawing cycle, sap runs up from the roots of maple trees. This sap, which contains an average of 2% sugar, is the fuel the tree uses to make buds and, eventually, leaves. Optimum weather conditions for sap production are 20 degree nights and sunny 40 degree days.

How It’s Made
A small hole is drilled in the tree and fitted with a spile. When the sap is running, it will trickle from the spile. In this beginning stage, sap looks like water, but has a slightly sweet flavor. Collection systems range from old school (buckets hung below spiles) to high tech (pipeline vacuum systems like Mead’s.)

Once the sap is collected, it is boiled to reduce the water content. It takes an average of 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. When the sap reaches 7 1/2 degrees above the boiling point of water (which changes with barometric pressure,) it is maple syrup.

To shorten the boiling process, commercial operations like Mead’s use specially designed reverse osmosis machines to reduce the water content before boiling. These machines spin the sap, creating high pressures (Mead’s runs at 350 psi,) and forcing water through an extremely tight filter, while keeping the sugar in the machine.

Other Maple Products
Besides syrup, sap can be boiled into maple cream or maple brown sugar.

Maple cream is heated to 18 degrees above the boiling point of water, cooled to around 125 degrees, and whipped to a smooth peanut butter-like consistency. It can be used as a spread, icing, or ice cream topping.

Maple sugar can be used in a granulated form as a replacement for brown sugar or pressed into molds to make maple candies.

These products require more time and skill to manufacture and prices increase accordingly. Mead says that “as a producer, I can increase my profits by about three times by making candies and creams instead of just selling it as syrup.”

Making Your Own Syrup
Mead is quick to point out that anyone with some maple trees can make their own maple syrup. He encourages those who want to give it a try to shop online and “buy a spile, a bucket, and a drill bit. Go out back and drill a hole in a tree, drive a spile in it, hang a bucket on it, and let the sap run in.”

When asked about boiling the sap into syrup Mead said, “you can make syrup right in your house, on your wood stove, or on a campfire out back with the kids at night. That’s how we got started. I had a little pan on a fire out behind the garage and that’s how we started making syrup twelve years ago.”

Why Make Maple Syrup
Aside from the obvious culinary benefits, making maple syrup is an enjoyable way to get outdoors in the early spring and spend time with friends and family. Mead said, “Making syrup is a huge family event for us and for anybody that’s never made syrup, to be able to come and see it is a lot of fun.”

Tyler gave a lot of credit to friends Jake Tomlinson, Seth Weaver, and Jess Scranton for providing sap and assistance in the sugarhouse.

Before leaving the sugarhouse, I was let in on a Brook Bottom Boiler tradition. “The Pan Burner” is the group’s customary post-boil cocktail, it consists of 2/3 Jameson whiskey and 1/3 maple syrup straight from the evaporating pan—served hot. Believe me, it’s delicious.

To contact Tyler Mead, learn more about Brook Bottom Boilers, or order maple products, visit www.facebook.com/BrookBottomBoilers.

Brook Bottom Boilers Photo by Micah Sargent

Brook Bottom Boilers
Photo by Micah Sargent

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