Sugaring Off in Ohio

A highlight of my recent trip to Ohio was an afternoon arranged by my friend Nancy: a visit to Valley View Woodlands, a farm in western Champaign County, to talk with Marc Stadler about his maple syrup operation.

The weather was perfect: below freezing at night, in the 40s and sunny during the day, the sort of day that inspires a middle-aged sugar maple to convert its stored plant starch into sugar and send it roaring up the tree in a column of sap. Maple sap becomes syrup when it’s tapped from the tree and cooked down, a process known as “sugaring off.”

Marc taps his trees the old-fashioned way, with metal spouts and five-gallon buckets; larger operations run tubing from the tree right to a tank in the sugarhouse. If you look closely at the photo (above right), you can see a drop of sap falling from the spout (bucket removed for purposes of taking the photo).

I was surprised to learn that maple sap is clear, not amber; it looks and tastes like water. The  color and maple flavor develop as the sugar carmelizes during the cooking process.

As the temperature rises in spring, the microorganisms that help turn water into sap become more and more active, which in turn results in darker and stronger-tasting syrup. Mid-season syrup is a medium amber and has the classic maple-syrup taste; late-season syrup is darker and has a stronger taste, which Valley View Woodlands uses for maple candy and maple-coated walnuts and pecans {I swoon just thinking about how good the nuts must taste}.

The sap buckets are emptied into the steel holding tank (at the top of the steps in the photo at left). From there, the sap is pumped inside to the evaporator, where it’s heated and reduced to syrup.

The syrup must be monitored constantly during the process to assess the concentration of sugar. Below, Marc holds a syrup hydrometer that he has just used to check the density of the sap after drawing off some into the testing cup in his left hand. Although it looks as if he’s about to dip the hydrometer directly into the sap, he’s actually using it as a pointer as he talks about how the syrup flows through the different sections of the evaporator.

The perforated walls in the background are not traditional sugarhouse architecture; the Valley View sugarhouse was originally a corn crib. It provided just the right amount of ventilation on the day Nancy and I visited, but apparently it can get pretty moist inside on rainy days.

A traditional wood-fired stove heats the evaporator with hickory, apple, and other logs from the farm’s woods.

The drawn-off syrup is then filtered before being taken to the house for final processing and bottling. Alas, I missed the bottling part, but it gave me a new appreciation of the pint of maple syrup we have in our refrigerator. I’m looking forward to catching up with Marc this summer and bringing home a trunkful of syrup and candy and candied nuts!

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

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7 Responses to Sugaring Off in Ohio

  1. Whichever come first, the red-wings or the sugaring buckets, is when I know spring’s coming. Seems to me it’s the sugaring buckets that are first, though. There are loads of them around here as we have a couple of sugarhouses in town. And ah-yep, they’re the old fashioned way, too. Until I learned the process of getting from tree to refrigerator, I never had an appreciation of maple syrup.

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  2. MaryWitzl says:

    Now I’m picturing maple syrup on ice cream, drizzled over fried bananas and cream, running down the sides of a buttery stack of warm pancakes… Sigh…

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  3. I learned so much! I had no idea that it starts out clear like water. I, too, have a new appreciation. This would make a great article for teachers.

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    • Anne Bingham says:

      Thanks, Catherine. I saw my first chipmunk a couple of days ago — spring is really here! We still have piles of snow in the shade of houses, etc., but spring bulbs are starting to send up shoots.

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