C’mon, get sappy Making maple syrup a hobby that rewards in its own sweet time
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This article was published 04/04/2022 (429 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s the first weekend of April and the city is dotted with icy puddles and shrinking snowbanks. For most Winnipeggers, spring feels imminent. For Jordan Campbell, the season is already in full swing.
“This is the first sign of spring,” he says while standing in his backyard, stoking the fire under a blackened pot of bubbling liquid — “liquid gold,” to be specific.
Campbell has been making homemade maple syrup for three years. It’s a hobby that started on a whim when he realized the large tree behind his new house in Fort Rouge was a Manitoba maple. All it took to get started was some YouTube research and a few galvanized steel taps and buckets.
“I figured I would just give it a try,” he says. “It worked super well, so we just kept doing it.”
Last year, he produced an estimated 15 litres (four gallons) of syrup from the lone tree on his property. This year, Campbell is collecting sap from four spiles drilled into the large maple — he’s careful to space the taps adequately and avoid previous holes to keep the tree happy and healthy.
Sap starts running when daytime temperatures are above zero degrees and nighttime temperatures are below freezing. During syrup season, he checks the buckets daily and boils down the yield on the weekends.
It’s a low-maintenance hobby that’s become more about the process than the final product. Although, the final product is pretty great, too. His two year-old daughter, Ellie, is a big fan.
“We have a lot more waffles over the next couple of months than we normally do,” Campbell says.
Boil days start at 11 a.m. and can continue well past sunset. It’s a chance to spend some time outdoors and an excuse to get together with friends, who often pop by to chat and help with the fire.
“Basically, the point of doing this is to drink beers in the backyard,” Campbell says with a laugh. “It’s a good way to spend a Saturday.”
He’s fashioned a fire pit out of cinderblocks on the opposite side of the yard, a few feet from the base of the maple tree. A large metal pot sits on a grate atop the roaring fire, which he feeds regularly to keep the boil going. As the water from the sap starts to evaporate the clear liquid turns a rich golden brown. Campbell finishes the job inside on the stove, where he can monitor the syrup more closely.
“Once the temperature hits 219 C, stop: you have arrived — that’s perfect maple syrup,” says Ken Fosty, a certified arborist who has carved out a niche teaching Manitobans how to tap trees.
Over the last 30 years, Fosty has taught thousands of hobbyists how to collect sap and transform it into syrup.
“I love trees and this is just another benefit of trees,” he says. “A lot of people are shocked to know that juice will come out of a tree to begin with… and you can make a nice product for you and your family.”
While sugar maples are ubiquitous throughout Canada’s maple belt in southern Quebec, cold-hardy Manitoba maples, and even birch trees, can be tapped locally to make syrup.
Maples are identified by their reddish-brown branches and buds that grow directly opposite each other. Female trees also produce winged seed pods that spin like helicopters when they fall to the ground. Both male and female trees produce the same kind of sap, Fosty says.
To avoid damaging the tree, maples should be at least 15 centimetres in diameter before tapping. The necessary equipment can be purchased from most hardware stores and Fosty sells taps for a few dollars each through his home business, Manitoba Maple Syrup Services (manitobamaplesyrup.com), in Garden City.
He’s an advocate for doing things on the cheap and often uses old milk jugs or ice cream pails to collect his own sap.
Fosty demonstrates how to insert a tap on a piece of log in his backyard. Using an old-school wooden hand drill — although, a power drill with a standard 7/16 inch bit will also do the trick — he bores two-inches into the trunk at an upward angle.
“You have no business going to the centre (of the tree); all the action is between the bark and the wood,” he says.
Sap is a byproduct of photosynthesis. Trees transform sunlight into energy-packed sugars that are stored throughout their roots, trunks and branches. During springtime, when trees are coming out of their winter dormancy, sap starts flowing to help move energy through the system while the tree is creating new buds. The process lasts for a few weeks, until the weather warms up.
The amount of sap each tree produces can vary widely.
“Some trees will give you up to eight litres of sap in a day from one tap, where other trees will just give a couple of ounces,” Fosty says. “There’s a lot of genetic variability in how much flows out of the tree.”
About 150 litres (40 gallons) of sap are required to make four litres (one gallon) of syrup. It’s a huge ratio and one of the main reasons so few people in Manitoba are producing maple syrup for public consumption.
A few of Campbell’s friends have encouraged him to start selling his homemade syrup — which he’s dubbed Ellie’s Maple Syrup after his daughter — at local farmers markets. But between the time required and the cost of firewood, the project wouldn’t make for a very viable business. Besides, giving it away is part of the appeal.
“My friend’s parents… give me homemade relish and tomato sauce and I give them syrup. A buddy of mine brought pickerel over that he caught the other day and I’ll give him some syrup when it’s all ready,” he says. “It’s a fun little community-trade thing.”
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.