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Tappers gain maple syrup insights

Carl Vogt shows the damage a spigot can create. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The business of making maple syrup promises some sweet returns if you're not allergic to hard work and have the patience to watch molasses drip.

Last weekend, the University of Minnesota Extension Service presented a syrup seminar in northern Hubbard County.

Nearly 20 enthusiastic tappers attended, learning tips from the basics (don't tap the wrong tree) to the more sophisticated (the more foliage on a tree, the better the sap production).

Extension educator Carl Vogt shared tips from his own decades in the forest and in his Twin Cities Extension lab, which he almost blew up one day cooking maple syrup.

"Seven fire trucks were there," he marveled. He'd forgotten the hot gooey mix on the burner and went to take a phone call.

"We don't recommend cooking this indoors," said Extension program coordinator Sally Shearer, re-stating the obvious.

Indeed, making maple syrup is an outdoor, winter endeavor. It's made in 14 states, including Minnesota, and four Canadian provinces.

The best sap comes from a sugar maple, Vogt said, but can also be harvested from red and silver maple trees and boxelder trees.

Using a PowerPoint demonstration and live exhibits, Vogt showed his audience how to tap a tree, how to let the sap run, how to collect it and how to cook it, using the "do as I say, not as I do" principal.

His Extension office "went up like Mt. Vesuvius," he recalled with a wry grin.

But he also teaches a sustainable way of tapping to keep the trees alive, recommending just a couple spigots inserted in a healthy tree.

He recommends using restaurant-grade equipment for commercial purposes.

Using an old pail or bucket is fine, but your syrup can end up with an undesired taste, especially if you've used a detergent or soap to clean the bucket after its last use.

It takes 43 gallons of sap reduced down to a concentrated mixture to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

The key is to steadily boil with adequate ventilation to vent the steam that boils off. And once the mix reaches boiling point, dispense with the "watched pot never boils" theory.

Keep your eyes on it at all times once it's reached the highly volatile boiling point. It probably wasn't necessary to remind his audience not to take a phone call while boiling the mix, but the humor of his explosion, and the demonstration of a black charred object that was his pot, reinforced the lesson with humor.

He demonstrated techniques for larger commercial operations, using a continuous feed evaporation process, and smaller operations, using a batch method.

Student Lyle Robinson said he and his Benedict neighbors were going to go in to an operation together, building a giant wood-burning stove out of an oil drum.

He said the cost of using propane tanks is too high for smaller producers if they want to make a profit.

If the class demonstrates the success Vogt promises, summer farmers markets will be full of sweet syrups, maple sugar, maple candy and maple fudge.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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