My dad has been making maple syrup on the McArthur lot (in Ottawa) for the last twenty-five years. I visited in March and helped him make batch #4. During the day, I engaged my dad in a little Q&A about the maple syrup process.
How did you learn to make maple syrup? I watched Walter (our neighbour) making it. He showed me how to drill the holes, and I read some articles about the process.
What makes a good maple syrup tree? Good sap producers are at least 10″ in diameter (the trunk) and have a large crown (upper part of the tree).
How do you know when it’s time to tap the trees? I don’t keep track of dates but usually the end of March, earlier if there’s a warm snap. This year I got started around the 10th.
How many buckets do you hang? I used 9 buckets in the beginning. This year, I’m up to 17 because it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
How long does 1 batch (about 6 pints) take to make? It’s a day’s work. I fill garbage pails full of sap, heat it up in two pots (on burners) in the garage, and then pour the warm sap into two pans on the firepit in the laneway. I just keep transfering from pail to pots to pans all day until I’ve run out o’ sap.
How many batches do you make in a typical year? It all depends on the weather fluctuations, but usually three or four. I may cook up a fifth batch next week as it’s supposed to go below freezing and back up again. It’s been a productive year because I’ve persevered. (Batch #5 was made five days later.)
Pot to Pan
What do you enjoy most about the process? It’s fun to get out of the house, especially in the spring after you’ve been cooped up all winter. You get out in this beautiful sunshine – it’s great.
Would you call this a one-man operation? Yep.
Sap to Syrup
What is most challenging about making maple syrup? Well physically, it’s chopping all the wood. But other than that, getting it off (the fire) at the right time so you don’t overcook it.
Have you ever overcooked the syrup? Yes – the day it all burned. It was almost ready, but I went inside and got side-tracked watching some crappy TV show, and when I came out the whole pan was just black. It had boiled down to the the point where the sugar caught fire, and the pan was like tar. It took a long time to clean that pan up, son of a bitch (laughs). We finally did and were back in business, but that was a whole day’s work gone up in flames. No fun at all.
How do you know when to stop cooking the syrup? I can tell by the look of the bubbles in the pan; they should be a caramel colour. And by the thickness of the syrup. It’s better to take it off a bit earlier than later, as I can always cook it a bit longer inside on the stove if I need to.
What’s next after it’s off the fire? Time to dump it through the filter, at least twice, usually three times to get rid of what your mum calls “sand”. Another mess-up happened one year before we had these factory-made filters. Mum thought she could make a filter, and she already had some black felt. These white ones are even made out of felt. Well, when we poured the hot boiling syrup through the black one, all this dye got washed into the syrup and, lo and behold, we had black syrup – not very appetizing at all (laughs). That was bad news; another day gone. You spend all day – boiling, boiling, boiling, cutting wood, feeding the fire, and whatya got? Dead syrup. So that was a bad day… but today is going to be a good day.
Pot to Jars
After filtering, what’s left to do? The syrup is pretty well ready to bottle after that. I sterilize the jars in the oven and boil the rings and lids on the stove. The trick is to keep the syrup warm for easy pouring.
Where do you store maple syrup? Well, I used to keep it in the cold cellar in the basement, but your mum didn’t like that, so any batches from years past are now in the freezer in the garage.
What determines the colour variations from batch to batch? Depends on how long it’s cookin’ on the fire. The longer it’s cooked, the darker it is. But also, each batch in a season becomes a bit darker than the last.
How would you rate this year’s syrup? Most excellent. I think batch #3 is the best I’ve ever made.
It was a great day, and I was able to bring some of the #4 Julie Dad batch back to Toronto for syrup loving friends.