Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Bigleaf Sugar Bush

A dripping tap. CD Lloyd Photograph
The sap is running! For the last few days we’ve had the sweet combination of freezing nights, above freezing days, and ample soil moisture that are needed to produce Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) sap. The forecast looks very promising for the next week, so with luck we will get enough sap for several gallons of nectar al a Ent.
Up until now, this has been a pretty pathetic winter for maple syrup, but for strange reasons. Our first hard frost was October 29th, which is about normal. Then three weeks later winter came on strong with a major Fraser outflow event from November 19th through the 26th followed by one day without frost and another 13 days of consecutive frost. What should have been three perfect weeks of weather (during a period that on average only has 2 frost days) hardly yielded a drop, a fact that I attribute to the dryness of the ground and perhaps temperatures that didn’t get far enough above freezing (usually we have the opposite problem). The weather then turned warm and wet from December 11th to the 18th and when the next cold snap hit I got more sap in two good days than I did the previous three weeks. January only had nine days of frost (compared to an average of 21), but hardly any sap flowed, this time perhaps on account of the temperatures that weren’t far enough below freezing, or the ground being too dry again (as any skier will tell you, we haven’t received much precipitation this winter).

Here is a graph I made from data recorded at the Bellingham Int. Airport

However, last week our luck turned and we got a good soaking of rain that was immediately followed by freezing nights. Yesterday, when I installed a few new taps, I was rewarded with immediate flow, and today my dad and I rounded up 8 gallons of sugary tree water. Oh Joy!

I've noticed needle ice on some of our best maple sap days. CD Lloyd Photograph

Last year Katrina and I had so much fun making our own maple syrup that we decided to scale our operation up considerably this year. That meant finding more trees, purchasing more taps, and building a larger evaporator. Naturally, this was all done in my frugal forager manner, so aside from the taps and hosing, everything was built myself from recycled or scrounged materials.

Bigleaf Maple tap kit
I don’t camp out at my sugar bush, so my tapping equipment must be large enough to hold a few days of sap and tight enough to keep out rain, insects, and debris. I use 5/16” Tree Saver brand taps and connect them in pairs to a ¼” barb tee with about 6” of 3/8” OD vinyl tubing (both available at any good hardware store), and then connect another 12” of tubing to a plastic 5 gallon cooking oil jug that I scavenge from a local restaurant and wash thoroughly. The rig looks a little like a stethoscope, but works well. This year we tapped all of my dad’s maples, and his neighbor was kind enough to let us tap his as well, so all told, we have about 2 dozen taps (a modest operation). We certainly would like to expand. The presence of Bigleaf Maples is high on the priority list of our “perfect” piece of property.

My worn out mini evaporator and the nearly finished replacement
Scaling up meant saying goodbye to the hole riddled woodstove that my brother salvaged from a sunken boat, and hello to something larger. But what? It is difficult to pick up a used evaporator here in the Pacific Northwest, and I learned last year that setting a pot on top of a wood stove is terribly inefficient. For a while I hankered over professionally constructed evaporators build specifically for commercial scale sugar bushes, but sticker shock finally brought me back to my senses; I’m not ready for an evaporator that is rated for 5+ gallons an hour and costs $3K. Rather, I redirected my energy towards designing and building an evaporator better suited to my needs. 1-2 gallons an hour is more than sufficient, and cheap is best of all.

Door latch
I designed my evaporator around a 21 quart (full sized) stainless steel steam table tray- the kind you see in buffets and salad bars. For $5 at the scrap yard, I had myself an evaporator tray that didn’t require any welding. The stove box, however, was another matter. From the same scrap yard, I purchased a 4’x8’ sheet of 12 gauge steel and about 10 feet of angle iron for another $50. My stove dimensions are 12” wide x 25” long x 18” tall, so I started by cutting a 12” x 86” rectangle using a ferrous metal blade in my circular saw. I carefully laid out my corners, and then kerfed out ¾ of the metal thickness in each corner and bent the sheet into a cube. I cut the angle iron into four 24” long legs, and tacked them onto the corners. Then I cut a 12”x25” base and welded it to the bottom, and welded a small piece of steel to the back end of the stove top with a 3” hole and a short piece of 3” pipe for the stove pipe junction. The door was the biggest challenge, but I found a perfect oval of steel at the scrap yard, and coaxed my dad into cutting out the same shape with a cutting torch. We fastened the door to the stove with weld-able hinges, and I made a little latch out of a bolt, a strap of steel, and an old spring. Next I drilled two air ports in the front of the stove, and welded on short sections of 2” pipe. I bricked the inside, welded up a grate, and painted the entire thing with stove paint. The evaporator tray slides down into the firebox where the flames can hit it directly, and a stove gasket is glued to the rim of the evaporator tray to seal in the heat and smoke. This was my first welding project, so the first few were terrible, but by the end, I was in the flow and I am very pleased with the product. It didn’t hurt the pocket book either- my entire evaporator cost me less than $100.

The sugar shack ready for action.
I will probably replace the 3” stove pipe with 6” stove pipe when I get some, and have plans of eventually hooking up a fan to turbo charge the burn. If I don’t use a fan, I will install some perforated pipe just under the evaporator tray to add extra oxygen. My evaporator took a while to get going with a pan of cold sap, but once it was burning hot I evaporated 4 gallons in about 3 hours on my first try. The fire box is big enough that it will burn for an hour or more between refueling, which is a nice interval for working on other projects.

Usually I only evaporate my sap to about 50 percent sugar concentration and put it in canning jars or in the freezer until I have enough to “finish” a large batch. However, Bigleaf Maple syrup has been so long anticipated this winter that I just had to finish the most recent batch. Now, ¾ of a quart of amber syrup glows brightly from the pantry. How sweet it is! I can’t wait to check the taps again.

A nice boil
Liquid gold. CD Lloyd Photograph
 Special thanks to Christian Lloyd for three of his excellent photographs. You can read about his sailing adventures and see more of his work at Life on Water.

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