What’s the main ingredient of Zoar Tapatree Pure Maple Syrup? Hard work!

Now that Deanna and Paul have pulled the taps and produced over 20 batches of syrup, plus two seasonal blends, I have no excuse to delay writing my tale of making Batch #4 any longer. No stranger to the North Country, I have seen local maple syrup operations in action and have even attended seminars on the topic.

One of several 5 to 15-gallon collection buckets collecting sap throughout the woods.

One of several 5 to 15-gallon collection buckets collecting sap throughout the woods.

I have seen the “old way” of doing things – a tap and pail – and several “high tech” methods including the running of lines from individual trees to a main line, leading downhill to a 400 gallon collection tank. From the collection tank it was pumped back uphill to another tank mounted in the back of a truck, then carried off to the sugar shack for evaporation. The latter process is the one I had in mind when I was asked to spend a day on the farm assisting in the sap harvest. I had visions of flipping a switch and watching the syrup travel up a line, against gravity, to a truck which would then back up to the sugar shack and connect right into the evaporator. Too easy! But, that’s not quite how it went.

For three weeks prior to my syrup farming eco-tourism “vacation” I had been touring the Northeast with my band. Good fortune aligned my second of three days off during the 36 day tour just an hour away from Rodman, NY.

Paul transferring sap from a 15-gallon container to a 6-gallon bucket for extraction from the woods.

Paul transferring sap from a 15-gallon container to 6-gallon buckets for extraction from the woods.

I was really looking forward to spending my day off with Deanna and Paul, rolling up my sleeves, getting out from behind the computer (I am Tapatree’s webmaster), and learning the craft of making syrup – or, sitting in a lawn chair, drinking coffee, and watching sap evaporate, as I had envisioned it.

Imagine my surprise when Deanna handed me a pair of snowshoes and said, “Follow me.” We hiked out into the woods to a group of about one hundred trees just down the hill from Zoar Road. There were lines running from the trees, just as I had imagined, only these lines did not connect to a main line. Instead, groups of six to ten trees terminated in a 15-gallon container.These containers were overflowing and had to be transferred to smaller 6-gallon buckets so that we could carry them out of the woods. Hey…where’s the pump? No pump. Up to eight of these 6-gallon buckets (each weighing about 48 lbs.) were loaded into a sled and pulled uphill, either by me with Paul giving an assistive push from behind, or the opposite. Either way, it was exhausting. Now, this is not to say that there was no automation involved at all.

Automation - a tractor to carry the 6-gallon sap buckets back to the sugar shack.

Automation – a tractor to carry the 6-gallon sap buckets back to the sugar shack.

Once we pushed the buckets to the top of the hill, we loaded them into the bucket of the tractor and Paul drove them back to the sugar shack. We then unloaded them from the tractor, carried them up a ladder, and poured them into 55-gallon collection tanks.

Wow! That sure was hard work. Time to sit down and watch the sap evaporate, right? Not yet. We had 200 more trees to contend with, only this time they were out of reach of the tractor. We would have to haul it all in by sled. I was so excited to hear that news. This continued from 8:00 a.m. until about 9:00 p.m. with just a few breaks to eat and to get the evaporator started boiling down some of the sap into syrup. In all, we emptied each collection bucket at least twice and hauled in nearly 300 gallons of sap that day.

From there, we spent several hours manning the evaporator, keeping the sap levels up and watching temperature gauges to know when it was time to move the forming syrup to the next step of the evaporation process. Finally, I was able to sit in a lawn chair and enjoy the company of good friends with food and conversation. (Click on the gallery below to see full-size photos of the evaporation process.)

As one can see, sap evaporation produces quite a bit of steam. Luckily, Zoar Tapatree rests in a community of many talented friends. Day Two of my work-ation involved the installation of a custom built cupola. Handcrafted by local carpenter, Ben Peyton, this large cupola would ultimately solve the steam and condensation build up problem in the sugar shack. Syrup production halted so that we could cover up the evaporator and cut a large hole in the roof above. The trees, however, did not receive the memo and continued to send sap down the lines, overflowing collection buckets in the woods. April 2nd was overcast and windy; not ideal for cupola installation. Still, Ben, his son Benny, Paul, and I were there and the cupola needed a boost to reach its perch on the roof. I suppose I received guest privileges and avoided roof duty. Thank you, gentlemen. I still get the chills thinking about Paul and Benny up on the roof for several hours. In the end, all were thankful for their sacrifice and steam now exits the shack with ease.

I spent the rest of my tour, conservatively spooning Zoar Tapatree pure maple syrup on my hotel waffles. This act sparked many conversations in hotel breakfast nooks across New York and Pennsylvania. I was always ready with my war stories of wilderness survival and an extra spoon to share the magical taste of Batch #4 – a bit sweeter, I thought, having witnessed its complete journey from tree to jar.

Will McCulloch
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Will McCulloch

Will is a musician, woodworker, photographer, writer, foodie, designer, and the creator of this website. He currently resides in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area.
Will McCulloch
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