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Boiling maple sap is a sweet gig

A friend and I recently attended a small gathering where a couple of seasoned veterans shared the secrets of making a certain substance.

We learned that we could make the stuff in our own backyards, without any pesky government supervision or taxation. As per tradition, the fruits of our labors could be stored in Mason jars. The substance could be made using such simple tools as plastic barrels and a heated metal container. The time-honored heat source for refining this liquid is firewood, but nobody would think any less of you if you opted to use propane.

We were offered small paper cups that contained samples of the fluid that one of our instructors had recently made. “Whoa!” I thought after passing the stuff over my tonsils, “That’s mighty good maple syrup!”

The meeting was neither illicit nor clandestine. It was totally open to the public and held at the McCrory Gardens Education and Visitor Center in Brookings. Chris Schlenker, horticulture manager and groundskeeper at McCrory Gardens, and Master Gardener Perry Johnson gave a joint talk about the fine art of turning sap into sweetness.

(That’s Chris standing at left in the photo above, explaining the workings of his maple syrup setup to attentive students.) 

We were told that making maple syrup is a springtime tradition that dates back many centuries. Native Americans would collect maple sap in wooden buckets and turned the tree juice into liquid gold via the repeated addition of hot rocks. This was long before such modern advances as vacuum pumps, reverse osmosis, and the ability to document every single moment of your syrup-making journey on Instagram.

When I was growing up, pancake syrup was provided by a kindly lady named Mrs. Butterworth. She must have been somewhat of a narcissist as her product came in a bottle that was made in her likeness.

Chris and Perry scoffed at such products. Comparing imitation maple syrup to genuine maple syrup would be like comparing a model airplane to a Gulfstream G700. One of them isn’t even real while the other can transport you in ways that you could never imagine.

I had always harbored a secret yen to make maple syrup. Sadly, the ancestors who homesteaded our family’s farm failed to anticipate this future ambition of mine and planted mostly ash and elm trees.

About a dozen years ago we planted a sugar maple sapling next to our cattle yard. I knew it would be decades before we could harvest any sap and that it would take gallons of tree juice to produce enough syrup for a single stack of flapjacks. But I’m a patient guy. Besides, the smiling and silent Mrs. Butterworth was always waiting in the cupboard.

Chris and Perry’s PowerPoint presentation included photos of trees that are suitable for tapping for sap. Among the tree species was the boxelder, which, I was astonished to learn, is also known as the Manitoba maple.

I was floored. We have boxelder trees in our grove! One of them is located only a few yards from our house! It’s so close that I could run a plastic tube from the tree to a pot on our kitchen stove and from there to a stack of pancakes!

We learned many useful things that day. For instance, the hollow doohickey that you drive into a tree to collect its sap is called a spile. It’s fun when you pick up a new skill and expand your vocabulary at the same time. Just don’t spile it with a bad pun.

I learned that the shed where you boil sap is called a sugar shack. This also sounds like a small building where you meet up with your secret honey.

We were told that it takes 30 to 50 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. That sounds like a lot of work. It also explains why Mrs. Butterworth remains in business.

Perry and Chis seemed to be obsessed with numbers. One of them was 219.7°F., the optimal temperature at which one should boil sap. Any lower and it will take too long; any higher and you may wind up with hard candy – not exactly a terrible outcome if you ask me.

Another number they focused upon was 66.7%, which is the amount of sugar contained in maple syrup. Measuring sugar levels involves either a hydrometer or a brix refractometer. Making syrup thus means having an excuse to buy some cool new tools.

At the end of the presentation, Chris walked us out to his sugar shack. Looking at the evaporator and the pile of firewood suddenly made everything we learned in the classroom seem real.

“It’s a pretty sweet gig,” Chris beamed as he stood beside his syrup-making setup.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

 About the Author

Jerry Nelson
 Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which become a book of the same name. Dear County Agent Guy is available at

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