Every year, when I burn the season's orchard prunings, I watch the piles of flaming foliage and smoldering embers and regret that all that heat will be wasted.
Every year, around February or so, I run across feature articles in the newspaper or on the radio about making maple syrup. "That would be fun," I think, "but it takes so much energy to boil down the sap."
Sometimes the most brilliant ideas are also the most obvious.
Last winter, I read Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the classic 1962 foraging book by the wild food guru Euell Gibbons, and learned that ALL kinds of maple trees produce sap that can be reduced to make syrup. Sugar maples, predictably, have the highest sugar content, but they're not the only sap producers. Looking around my yard I saw no sugar maples, but we do have a couple sizable other maples, with quite a few smaller trees that will be big enough in just a few years.
I made my decision after pruning season: Instead of burning all the clippings, I hauled them to an out-of-the-way spot at the far end of the property, and stockpiled them there until the following winter. I also threw in some carcasses of invasive callery pear, and other branches that blew down throughout the year.
I bought some spiles and tubing and I saved empty milk jugs, and this February, when daytime high temperatures were mostly in the 40s and overnight lows were in the 20s, we tapped the trees. Our trees are still small, so we only used three taps, two of them in the largest silver maple.
As the jugs filled up, I swapped them out for new jugs. But where should I store the collected sap? Sap spoils quickly at temperatures above about 40 degrees, and we had several warm days in February. Large-scale operations start boiling as soon as they start collecting, so the sap doesn't have time to spoil. The traditional method of keeping the sap fresh is to heel the jugs or buckets into a snowbank, but Mother Nature didn't offer us any snow pack. I could keep the jugs in the refrigerator or freezer, but that would offset the benefit of using "free" energy for boiling.
I spied the tub of fish water on the back porch. This is the nutrient-rich water that I drain from the fish tank and save for watering plants. It freezes for much of the winter. On warm days, when it thaws, there is usually a chunk of ice still floating in it. In the shade on the north side of the house, it would stay cool enough to keep the sap chilled.
In late February, I checked the weather forecast, and nearly panicked. Temperatures were expected to jump more than 20 degrees overnight...and stay there. There was no way I would be able to keep my sap fresh. It was time to boil.
I assembled a wood-fired evaporator from some cinder blocks, an old campfire grill grate, a wire rack from a derelict refrigerator, and a couple large pans. With a virtually unlimited supply of firewood, the only challenge was to keep the fire burning hot for as long as it took to evaporate about seven gallons of water. It took two solid afternoons to reduce the 30-35 quarts of sap that I started with.....
... down to about three quarts of amber liquid. I took the pot inside, strained the juice (there were charred embers and sticks and other debris in it), and finished boiling on the kitchen stove. Final yield was about a pint and a half of rich, sweet, precious syrup--that I made myself.
The usual ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1. I used more dilute varieties of maple sap, and I might not have boiled it far enough (it's still pretty runny), but my yield was actually better than I expected. Economically, making maple syrup is NOT cost effective...except, maybe, for someone who has absolutely nothing better to do with her time.
What's the value of the syrup? Well, I don't think it's a coincidence that it's color can be described as "golden."