Making Maple Syrup, Another Wisconsin Tradition

by Free Speech on March 21, 2011

Lodi, WI~

Lodi Valley News serving Lodi, WI & the Lake Wisconsin area with local information since Earth Day 2008.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the many happenings that Wisconsinites are  experiencing this time of year as we say good-bye to winter and welcome the return of spring. Some spring signs are the many birds and waterfowl species that are returning to their summer haunts or migrating thru Wisconsin on their way to northern nesting locations, the awakening of many animals after a winter of hibernation, the emergence of early spring flowers like the Siberian squill, crocus’, and tulips, the migration of many fish species (walleye, sauger, northern pike) to areas where they will spawn as the water warms later in spring, buds appearing on many trees, and there are many more harbingers of spring to numerous to mentimaple syrupon.

Being in the outdoors as much as possible, I look forward to many of these spring signs. I happened to be at Leystra’s Venture Restaurant in Sauk City, my favorite early morning breakfast and coffee spot, where I ran into Jim Leystra, the restaurant’s owner. Jim’s a great outdoorsman, who manages to spend much of his time hunting, trapping, and doing about anything that the outdoor world has to offer while still being at his restaurant at 4:00 am to start the baking and cooking for his 6:00 am opening. The topic in our conversation went from how the walleye fishing is going to his current outdoor project of tapping his own maple trees and making maple syrup. Jim owns a piece of property in rural Sauk County that Honey Creek runs through and contains many maple trees that Jim has tapped for the last two decades. Jim’s been making maple syrup since the 1980’s and with some gentle prodding explained this spring tradition and ritual to me over coffee.

I’ve been to a “sugar bush” before as a child and just remember my grandfather dropping ladles of hot syrup into the snow for maple syrup candy. But, I never learned the whole syrup making process till meeting Jim at his property and observing the operation first hand.

No one really knows who first discovered that you could make maple syrup and sugar from the sap of maple trees. But, we know that maple syrup was an important commodity in the economy of Native Americans. Indians living along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes used maple sugar and sugar for bartering with the white fur traders.

All maple trees like the sugar, red, black, and silver maples produce a sugary sap that when “cooked down” will produce sweet syrup. Some maple trees produce more sap and a sap with higher sugar content. Leystra told me that he watches the buds that appear on the maple trees for when its time to begin the tapping process. Ideally, what one wants to get the sap flowing is weather with warm days that have a temperature in the upper 30’s during the day and a cool temperatures in the 20’s at night.

Jim likes to have a maple tree for tapping be at least 20 inches in diameter, though some people tap trees with a diameter of only 10 inches. Next, you have to drill a hole to put your tap or spout into and most syrup makers use a drill bit of 7/16 inch to make a 2 inch deep hole, if you are using standard store taps. Look for an area on the trunk that is clean and unblemished to tap. One also doesn’t want to drill a new tap hole within 2 to 2 ½ feet of an old tap hole. Drill the taphole with a slight upward angle so that the sap can flow freely. Tap the spout gently so that it fits tight into the hole, but not so tight that the wood splits. You will want to drill your taphole about 3 or 4 feet off the ground so that it is convenient to work with once the sap starts to flow. Five gallon pails make good syrup containers and will hang on any commercially bought tap. Be sure to cover the pails so that you don’t get water, snow, or foreign matter into the sap. Trees with a diameter of 20 inches or less should not have more that one tap, trees with a diameter from 20 to 25 inches may have 2 taps, and trees over 30 inches in diameter may have 3 taps. Never have more than 3 taps on any one tree.

maple syrupHow much sap or syrup that you get out of a tree depends on the method of tapping, the size of the tree, and seasonal differences or weather. The average taphole can produce from 5 to 15 gallons of sap per year. However, under the right conditions, a maple tree can produce as much as 40 to 80 gallons a year. Remember, that it takes about 10 gallons of sap to produce 1 quart of maple syrup. Jim also said that it takes him 30 to 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. The average maple tree produces a sap with sugar content from 2 to 3 %. Sugar content can vary from the time of day it was taken with higher sugar content in the morning than the afternoon. Leystra gets up to 20 gallons of sap per day when things are going well and close to 5 gallons on a normal day.

Now that you have got the maple’s sap flowing and collected, it’s time to start the cooking and syrup making process. Jim Leystra does his “cooking” outside at his land and deer camp. He has made a cooking surface and stove out of firebricks which won’t split or crack under the hot fire. Leystra has a huge supply of dry oak and elm to keep his fire continuously burning. A hot fire is necessary when cooking the sap down into syrup. During the syrup making time, the fire and sap are always cooking. As the sap cooks down, more and more fresh sap is regularly added to the cooking sap. The sap is cooked in a pan about 30” X 30” and kept about ½ to ¾ full on the hot fire.

Jim told me that he always cooks the syrup outside in the open air because he learned the hard way that the boiling syrup gives off a sugary steam as it evaporates and the sticky substance can get on everything if cooked indoors.

Keep your sap cool if you have accumulated more than you are cooking because the sap like milk can sour and collect bacteria. Boil the sap as soon as possible. When the sap changes color to amber it becomes sweeter. Now is the time to strain your maple syrup and let it settle for a week or so to have the maple sand settle before finishing the syrup process. Jim brings the syrup back to a rolling boil and filters it again before bringing it back to a low simmer or about 200 degrees F. Ideally, sap becomes maple syrup when it reaches 66 to 67 per cent sugar content at 7.1 degrees F above the temperature of boiling water which can vary with elevation and barometric pressure. You can find the boiling point of water by using a candy thermometer to test the sap when it begins a rolling boil.

The final process is canning your syrup which should be done at 180 degrees F. Pour the hot syrup into sterilized canning jars and seal. Fill them full so that there is little air in the jar. Lay them on their sides for a better seal. Store your syrup in a cool dry place and if opened be sure to refrigerate the opened jar because it may be contaminated otherwise.

Now’s the best part of the operation, cook some pancakes or waffles and enjoy another of springs bounties!

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