Ask anyone who makes maple syrup and they will tell you it's not a hobby, or even a job: it's an addiction. You start out with a couple of trees in your backyard and a pot on the kitchen stove, and before you know it you have 5000 taps and a pancake restaurant. We're not quite to that level yet, but every year we make a few improvements that help us make more - and better - syrup.
Last year our biggest improvement was finishing construction on the sugar shack, so that we could boil in comfort on those cold March days. Four walls, a roof, and a few windows made a big difference in our enjoyment of sugar season!
This year we are focused on improving efficiency for every part of the operation. The first big change we made was the addition of a vacuum tubing system for collecting sap. In the past every tree had its own short drop line and bucket. We would drive the tractor around with a tank on the back to collect the sap, laboriously carrying and pouring each bucket into the tank. Not only was this was very time consuming, but driving the tractor around the sugarbush left deep ruts in the soft spring ground. This compacts the sensitive forest soil and is unhealthy for the tree roots.
This year, we installed a vacuum tubing system. Every tap is connected to a small tube (the laterals) that funnels downhill into a larger tube (the mainline) and eventually into a holding tank. The sap is drawn through the lines with a vacuum pump, and the system runs continuously whenever the sap is flowing. The sap is then pumped back to our stainless steel holding tank at the sugar shack. This tank is actually Grandpa's old bulk milk tank - the double wall helps keep the sap cooler and stay fresh longer.
Collecting sap this way has two main benefits other that simply being more fuel and time efficient. First, it is healthier for the tree. Since the system is closed, it doesn't allow bacteria back into the tap hole, keeping the tap flowing and allowing the tree to produce longer during the season. Second, the sap stays cleaner and cooler than it would be in buckets. Clean, cold sap stays fresh longer and makes better tasting syrup.
Of course, this more efficient system has the potential to produce a LOT more sap! To handle the larger volume of sap we upgraded our evaporator with a raised flue pan. In the past we used a "flat pan," which has a flat bottom just like the cooking pans in your kitchen. A raised flue pan has many narrow vertical channels built into the bottom of the pan, which increases the surface area and helps transfer more heat from the fire to the sap. With the new pan in place we can now evaporate 50 gallons of sap an hour, as opposed to the 15 gallons an hour we were getting last year with the flat pan. With this system it takes less time - and less firewood - to produce the same amount of maple syrup.
Left: Our new (to us) raised flue pan. Right: Float boxes made from catering pans and stainless steel lunchboxes.
Finally, we automated the flow rate of sap through the evaporator by adding a couple of float boxes. As sap flows into the box, the float rises and closes off the pipe leading to the evaporator pan. New float boxes are very expensive, but luckily Curt was able to build his own using some catering pans and a couple of stainless steel lunch boxes! The first float box regulates the flow of fresh sap into the raised flue pan, and the second regulates the flow of partially boiled sap into our second, flat-bottomed finishing pan.
Now that we can boil more sap we'll probably need more trees to tap, then we'll probably need a bigger evaporator, then even more trees, and finally the real dream... a pancake restaurant!