Yesterday was clear and cold... too cold for the sap to run.
But Wednesday, between Dad's trees and the ones by our house, we collected another 30 gallons.
That meant we had enough to boil!!
The process starts with consolidating the sap buckets, first into fifteen gallon buckets, and then those go up into a big 110 gallon drum that Dad has rigged up on a high shelf of sorts in the barn. A sump pump is used to get the sap up to that drum, and from there it gravity feeds through a one inch tube into the boiling room. You can see that tube on the wall to Dad's left in the bottom picture below.
The evaporator pan sits on top of the cooking arch, where a fire is kept blazing hot through the whole process. Dad has a stack of small (1 to 4 inch diameter) sticks of wood of various types right outside the evaporator room. The wood is primarily pine, which burns very hot but very quickly, and ash, a hard wood which burns not quite as hot but lasts much longer. During most of the boil, he keeps a mix of hard and soft woods to keep the temperature up, but allow some time to breathe between stokings. Right before taking off syrup he stokes the fire with tiny pieces of the soft wood to finish things off super hot.
The photo below is of the inside of the arch, after all was said and done today and it was cool enough to take a picture. This lets you see the dropped baffles from the rear part of the cooking pan. Those baffles allow for faster boiling of the sap at the beginning of the process when it is still mostly water.
There is a "float", which uses the same concept as the float in back of your toilet, that keeps the raw sap flowing from the big feeder tank into the back left corner of the pan. In the picture below you can just make out the top of the float in the upper section; the sap is coming in through that brass tube on the left. As more and more of the water boils off, the sap thickens and naturally flows through the various chambers, moving first to the "right" and then "forward" in the pan.
The picutre below shows the front two chambers, with the most finished syrup on the left. The metal bar that's sticking up just to the left of center is the stopper that can be placed between the two chambers to prevent flow between them. There's another of these in the far right corner of the picture, allowing you to plug the flow from the back to the front of the pan when needed.
Sap can contain anywhere from less than one to two percent sugar. That means it takes anywhere from about 50 to 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. So how do you know when you've boiled off enough water and you have officially made syrup? You use the handy dandy gadget below, which has markings to let you know when you've hit seven degrees above the boiling point of water. It even allows for calibration to adjust for differences in atmospheric pressure by allowing you to adjust the temperature at which your water boils on any given day.
Here it is: the first batch of sap coming off!
On the left you can see the valve and drain from which the sap is coming out, through two layers of paper and one layer of thick felt filter. On the right, you can get an idea of how much we got; it turned out to be just over a gallon!
I was in charge of the valve during this process, and at the time we had not rigged up the hooks to support the filter, so I was holding those too. I didn't do the perfect job and the syrup dripped just a little onto the handle of the pot. While that was an unfortunate loss, it provided the perfect opportunity for tasting the syrup fresh and hot. It was amazing. When boiling, you are surrounded by the smells of maple in the room - to then get the taste on my tongue too was like having a whole-body maple experience!
Of course, we really hope this won't be the only time we boil this season, so after all this we still have to prep the evaporator so it can sit until we can fire it up again. To do this, we plug off the back three chambers, add all remaining raw sap and concentrate it down to the point that it won't freeze if left in there for a few days. We drain the more finished sap from the front two chambers into the milk container you see below, and set it outside to cool. Do you like the sylin' lid that Dad uses with it? We'll put that sap back in the evaporator when we start it up again.
Finally, we rinse out the big storage tank and the front two chambers of the evaporator with fresh water to keep down any bacterial growth that might happen before using it again.
So how did this first batch syrup turn out? Other than knowing it is just amazingly tasty, we can also get a real "grade" of the syrup using this test kit. Our syrup from today is in the little bottle in the middle. It's hard to tell from the picture, but each of the four test jars are different colors. To get the grade you find where your syrup falls in the range. The test syrup has to be at least as light or lighter than the reference syrup.
I forgot the straighten the bottles to make the labels easy to read, but the grades range from "Vermont Grade B" as the darkest, to "A Dark Amber", to "A Medium Amber" down to "Fancy Vermont" which is the lightest and considered the finest syrup. Ours fell right between the dark and medium ambers, so it's technically a dark amber. As we won't sell this though, I'm not too worried about the color and personally, I actually like the darker syrups as I think they have more flavor.
Finally, my parting random shots for the day: my parents and The Bug in the evaporator room after we'd taken of the syrup for the day (note the big smiles of relief that the work was done for the day!), and the little guy playing with all the exciting things to be found (including floor drains) in his Pa's magical barn.