The sap is running in the sugar maple trees, so it’s sugaring time in central Ohio.
Yesterday, I learned about making maple syrup the 1880s way at Slate Run Living Historical Farm in Pickaway County. Dave, an interpreter at the farm, led a short hike to the sugarbush to see sap-collecting in action.
To start, Dave explained that sugar and black maples produce the most sap with the highest concentration of sugar. He told us how to identify a maple tree, in case we wanted to try maple sugaring at home. He described how to look at the bark, examine the buds, and pay attention to its pattern of branching. Most trees have alternate branching, where limbs sprout at intervals; maple trees have opposite branching, where a branch or twig is matched with a twin on its opposite side.
Our first stop on our walk was to see a modern-day example of sap collection. Here, the sap is collected in thin plastic pipelines that run from tree to tree and end at a large, centralized plastic storage tank. Using gravity to drain the sap downhill through a network of tubing allows many trees to be interconnected and saves hours in the sap-collecting process.
Then, Dave shared some maple syrup lore with us, explaining how Native Americans were the first to make maple syrup. During the month called Maple Moon or Sugar Moon, tribes held festivals to celebrate spring and maple syrup season. Dave also told us that modern maple sugaring began with the availability of sheet metal in the 1860s, which allowed for the production of sap cans, evaporator pans, storage tanks, and metal spiles, or spouts. These implements increased production, making it a much faster and easier chore, but it’s still a labor-intensive project. Trees have to be individually tapped, buckets hung, and visited daily to collect the sap.
We crossed the road to watch Dave and his colleague tap a maple tree. Dave explained that a maple must be at least 40 years old before it is large enough to have its sap tapped without being harmed. They looked around the tree and showed us old holes where it had been tapped before. They selected a spot that was staggered from these older holes, took a brace and a bit, and drilled a hole in the tree with a metal crank. The hole was less than a half-inch wide and about two inches deep.
Next, they tapped a spile into the hole. In seconds, a shiny stream of clear, watery liquid trickled out. They hung a metal bucket under the spout, and the sap began to drip slowly into the bucket. Some of the buckets had “hats” on them to cover and protect the sap from rain, snow and debris that might fall inside the bucket.
Dave said if there is warm sunshine, the buckets will fill with sap in a day or two. If it’s cold or cloudy, it will take longer. He also explained that since sap is mostly water, it has to be boiled to remove most of the water. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
This week, Dave and his colleagues will pour the sap-filled buckets into a larger gathering bucket. They will haul the sap to the sugarhouse, a large covered area next to the farmhouse’s summer kitchen, and pour it into a large, flat-bottomed, shallow evaporating pan that sits over a fire, where the sap cooks until it becomes syrup. As it boils, the sap has to be watched carefully. If there’s not enough heat, it won’t turn to syrup. If there’s too much heat, the sap will burn or even explode. Skimming the sap as it cooks removes dirt and bark from it. When the sap sheets, it becomes syrup. Open the spigot on the pan, and out comes the finished syrup.
After our sugarbush hike, we visited the farmhouse. Built in 1856, the restored Gothic Revival building represents a typical middle-class home from the 1880s. In the farmhouse kitchen, we sampled maple sap, maple syrup, maple sugar, and maple gingerbread, all of which was made at Slate Run.
The lady presiding in the kitchen explained the different grades of maple syrup. After the syrup is finished, it is poured into small sample jars to be graded. The first batch of syrup is pale gold or Fancy Grade. This syrup has a delicate, sweet flavor and is about the color of apple juice. The syrup that comes next is darker, or Grade A. It’s a darker shade, and has a stronger maple flavor. The last syrup of the season is thickest, darkest and sweetest, or Grade B.
The sugarhouse was the last stop on our tour. Since last week wasn’t great sap-collecting weather, the sugaring process that took place in the evaporating pan was illustrated with water instead of sap. We saw hand-carved elder wood spiles and several different examples of how maple trees would have been tapped during the 1880s.
There are a few more weeks to go before sugaring is over for another year. Slate Run will have more maple syrup hikes this coming weekend, Saturday and Sunday, March 3 and 4, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. both days. For more information, click here.