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Sap to Syrup: All About Maple Syrup




We recently interviewed Jeremy Walters of Wagner’s Maple Sugar Camp. The Walters’ family is a second generation maple producer located in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. During the interview, Jeremy shared about their operation and discussed the process of making maple syrup.

Tell our listeners a little bit about your operation. 
I've been making maple syrup for over 30 years now. My family started out with about 25 taps and we just made maple syrup for ourselves and our immediate family. 

I remember whenever I was about nine years old, my father decided that he really did not have the time to make syrup anymore and one evening he told us that he was not going to make syrup this year. The next day at school, I thought about it and decided I wanted to make the syrup myself. I remember calling my father on the phone the next day after school, and I told my father that I wanted to put out a few taps. He said, "Okay, we'll do it this weekend." I said, "No, I wanted to put out the taps now, but I don't know which trees are maples.” He described to me on the phone which trees were maples, and I went out that evening and put out the taps.

The maple operation grew from there. Eventually, we had 300 taps and then 1,200 taps, and at that time they were all on buckets. Now we're at about 22,500 taps, and all of those taps now are under a vacuum tubing system. My fiancé Jenny helps year round, and I have many family members and friends that also help as needed. It's labor intensive enterprise and takes a lot of help during the season. 

In 2018, we purchased the Wagner farm in West Salisbury PA, which has a strong history of making syrup, clear back into the mid 1800s. We're fortunate because many of the original tools and maple producing equipment are on display at our farm and that includes a lot of the wooden tanks that were used and the wooden buckets, which are called keelers.  Most of those were made on the farm by the Wagner family.

The maple season is right around the corner. Could you explain the process of tapping trees and what is involved?
We are in the peak of the maple season, or we're just getting to the peak. Since we are a large operation, it's actually more of a year-round enterprise working on these maple projects. We bottle syrup and make products all year long as the demand arises. During the summer months, we try to replace the tubing that's at the end of its life cycle. In the fall, we walk all the lines to fix damage. It's quite labor intensive. We generally get a lot of damage by branches and trees coming down. For some reason, the squirrels like to chew on the tubing so we have to go through and fix all the damage where the squirrels bite into the tubing also.

Generally in January is when we start to tap. It varies year-to-year, because of the way the weather changes. We normally have about 10 or 12 people each year that assist in tapping. We walk all the lines and drill a 5/16ths hole with a cordless drill and insert a new tap each year. It takes a lot of time because we have almost a hundred miles of tubing in our four separate maple woods. 

Maple trees create an internal pressure when the tree freezes at night and warms up the next day. The pressure is what pushes the sap out. Since the trees need the freeze thaw cycles to run, the weather's ideal in the spring of the year. Once the sap starts to run, we have to walk all those lines several times during the season to fix the leaks. All of our tubing is under vacuum so it's important to keep the leaks fixed. The experts in Vermont at the Procter Maple Research Center, say that once you get to 20 inches of vacuum, each inch is about 5% gain in yield.

Once you collect the sap in storage tanks, explain what happens next.
Once we have enough sap, it's run through a reverse osmosis (RO) machine and removes about 85% of the water from the sap, which that saves us time, fuel and money. Basically what the RO is it's a pump and a filter, and the pump pushes the maple sap into this filter called a membrane which filters out the sugar. The water will go through the membrane, but the sugar won't. 

There's a lot of bottled water that's made with reverse osmosis, they use the water that goes through the membrane, but we use the water that doesn't go through, which includes the sugar. Some of our sap is actually concentrated at the pump houses where the sap comes from the woods and then we transport it with a tandem axle truck to the sugar camp.

Once it gets to the camp, we run it through another reverse osmosis machine to try to get it to about 20% sugar. Once it's about 20% sugar, it takes just a little over four gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. For comparison, the sap from the tree generally takes 50 to 70 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. 

Once the sap is at 20%, then we chill it in a refrigerated milk tank until we can boil it. We boil the sap on a 4-foot by 14-foot evaporator that is oil fired, and we burn about 14.5 half gallons of oil per hour. With this setup, we produce about 80 gallons of pure maple syrup per hour and once it comes off as syrup, we use a hydrometer to test it and we double check it with a thermometer to make sure it's at the correct density and the correct temperature. 

Finally, we run it through a commercial filter press and we hot pack it in 400-gallon stainless steel barrels until we need it for bottling or making maple treats.

Maple syrup is certainly the primary product produced at maple camps, but there are also a number of other handcrafted, delicious maple products. What other maple products does your operation make and sell?
Everybody seems to love the maple treats that we produce. We traditionally think of syrup on pancakes and there are so many other uses for it. 

There are a lot of treats that are great snacks that we produce also. Some of the things we make are maple sugar cakes, which are molded cakes of maple sugar. We make maple cream, which is a spread that can be used on bagels or donuts. We make maple taffy and also maple granulated sugar, which is a good substitute for cane sugar.

With all of these products, the only ingredient is pure maple syrup. They're just made by simply heating the syrup to a certain temperature. For then some of them, you have to cool it and then stir it, and others you have to stir it and use a special machine. But like I say, the only ingredient for those products is pure maple syrup. 

We also make maple coated peanuts, almonds and walnuts, and those are a big hit. During the season we make maple peanut butter bonbons, and we have a cotton candy machine to make maple cotton candy.

As we wrap up today, could you tell our listeners what you enjoy most about being a maple producer as well as anything else you’d like to share.
There are so many things about maple syrup that I really enjoy. To me maple is not only a business, but it's a passion. It's one of those enterprises, like a lot of farming enterprises, where it’s not something you get into with hoping to make a bunch of money and not have your heart into it. For maple, you have to have your heart into it. Fortunately for me, maple is a passion. 

I like to manage the trees in our sugar woods because I enjoy seeing the results of forestry management. To us, the woods is like a big garden so removing the undesirable trees helps the other maple trees grow, which ultimately produces more sap, which means more syrup. 

I also enjoy educating people about syrup because maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern United States and into Canada. Many people are not familiar with the process and most people are fascinated to hear about it. People especially love to the taste the syrup and taste the maple products.

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