Lots of science in making maple syrup

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press Greg Olson checks gauges as water is separated from sap while making maple syrup. The process is much quicker and more efficient than in the old days of making maple syrup. Water and the condensed sap are separated and stored in separate stainless steel tanks.

BARK RIVER — Making maple syrup is more scientific than one may think. The concept, evaporating water out of sap, sounds simple enough, but Mother Nature tries to throw a few curve balls into the process.

Each year around February, producers of maple syrup start tapping trees in hopes of a good year in profits. This year, local producers started tapping later and taking longer due to amount of snowfall over the winter.

“This year it took three weeks, partly due to all the snow on the ground at that time,” said Stefanie Klee, who owns Jasper’s Sugar Bush in Carney with husband Emil.

Producers of maple syrup use plastic pipes connected to taps instead of buckets to get their sap. The days of picking pails are over for Greg Olson of Olson Bros. Sugar Bush in Bark River.

“We have 11,000 taps now connected with a pipeline, no pails,” said Olson. “Checking lines is more efficient then picking pails. Rainwater and dirt would blow in, then pails would blow off the trees into the woods … chasing pails, always fun.”

For a maple syrup producer there is work to be done in the woods everyday. The pipe system has to be checked for leaks or squirrel destruction. Squirrels cause a lot of problems chewing the plastic lines.

Once taps and lines are in place, producers rely on Mother Nature to use below-freezing nights to push sap down the tree, and the thaw during the day to release the sap. Freezing and thawing is an important part of the process.

Sap flows through the pipelines using gravity or pumps, to rest in stainless steel holding tanks before going through the R.O machine.

The R.O., reverse osmosis machine, is the first step in separating water from the sugar minerals in sap. It is much quicker than the old-timers way of doing it, stirring the sap in a cauldron over fire, slowly evaporating the product. The R.O. takes approximately 80 percent of water out of the product. Pure water is discarded to a tank used later for cleaning, while the desired condensed product is stored separately.

Mother Nature controls the sugar and water content in sap. According to Olson, sugar content is up this year.

“A little higher than last year,” said Olson. “Others have text me showing five brix, we’re at three and a half brix, just down the road from them. It’s just mother nature. You get what you get, and that’s it.”

A brix is a measure of sugar in liquid, one to one. 66 brix equals 66 percent sugar, the standard amount of sugar in syrup.

When enough condensed sap is in the holding tank it is sent to the evaporator to start the cooking process. Using natural gas, wood or fuel oil, the evaporator heats up the condensed sap, through a series of pipes heated by steam and flues for more surface area, slowly heating syrup to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jasper’s Sugar Bush continue to cook the product using wood, as was done previously.

“Depending on the season, we use any where from eight to 10 cords of wood for production,” said Klee.

Once the condensed sap is in the evaporator the cooker must stay attentive to the process. Temperatures should stay consistent to not burn the syrup. The barometric pressure is taken into consideration when cooking. As the syrup moves through the evaporator the cooker continuously checks the sugar content either using a refractometer or hydrometer. The hydrometer is the tool of choice locally.

The cook takes syrup from the evaporator and pours it into a tube the hydrometer is lowered in. It floats in the syrup showing the cook the percentage of sugar in syrup, by measuring the density of the liquid. This continues until the desired consistency of sugar is in the syrup. If sugar content is too low cooking continues, if it is cooked too long it may burn. Klee takes the syrup off the evaporator a bit earlier than the hydrometer indicates.

“We take the syrup off the evaporator slightly under because it continues to cook and steam off after,” said Klee.

When syrup is at it’s desired consistency it is pumped into a filter press for its final finishing before going into a barrel for storage and bottling. Syrup is pumped through the press and the filter paper grabs onto solids that end up looking like a type of honeycomb when the press is taken apart for cleaning.

Syrup is held in barrels until the time comes for bottling when it is warmed again to aid in pouring and sealing.

Michigan is prime to become a huge maple syrup state, as only a small percentage of maple trees are actually tapped. Many maple syrup producers sell in the Upper Peninsula.

Jasper’s Sugar Bush has been in the family since 1885, five generations ago, when Henry Jasper, Klee’s great-great-grandfather, started making maple syrup. Klee and her husband took over the business last year. Jasper’s first cook this year was March 24.

Jasper’s Sugar Bush is located at W1867 County Road 374, Carney, Mich., 800-646-2753, email address jasper@alphacomm.net, on-line at www.jaspermaple.com and Facebook.

Olson Bros. Sugar Bush started in 2009, when brothers bought the business from their uncle 10 years ago. They have had three cooks this year, two barrels a cook.

Olson also works as a tree harvester and struggles seeing sap releasing from trees when harvested.

“It’s sometimes hard to see maple trees harvested,” said Olson. “I have seen the trees leak a lot of sap when harvested and stacked.”

Olson Bros. Sugar Bush is located at 2358 F Road, Bark River, Mich., 906-789-0198 and Facebook.

So the next time you pour syrup on your pancakes remember there’s a lot more in that bottle than what is seen by the naked eye.