Sap to Syrup

Monel Chang, Executive Intern at Earthdance, writes about the the most recent experimental undertaking of the Earthdance staff: Making our own maple syrup.

by Monel Chang

We like to make our own here at Earthdance. We build our own buildings, grow our own food, bake our own bread, make our own granola, concoct our own truffles...but what about maple syrup? On my long morning walks along Prospect St. as the snow began to melt, I would see sap buckets put up along the road by our neighbors, and wonder-- what is it like to make your own syrup? On our drives into Northampton, I would see dozens of sugar maples tapped, with long lines of tubing connecting each one to a mother collection container the size of a small trailer. It looked intimidating and reminded me of the similar way in which dairy cows are sometimes milked.  

But sap collecting doesn't have to be so stripping and complex. One of our closest and nearest neighbors, Gopi, had about a dozen collection buckets hanging from sugar maples lining his front property. Towards the end of March, Gopi made a visit to Earthdance, and we began to discuss syrup. "It's close to the end of the season," Gopi said in response to my asking how his sap collection was going. "I can lend you some buckets," he said. "Really? What is the process like?" I asked. He began to describe how he collects the sap, making his own syrup with a small outdoor stove just steps away from his front door. To be blunt, it's a simple yet very time consuming and laborious process. After inserting the taps and hanging the buckets, one must collect the sap, according to it's bounty, up to three times a day. After storing, one must boil all of the sap until the temperature is 218 degrees Fahrenheit and the consistency is syrupy. Depending on how hot the fire is, it can take up to five hours just to get five gallons of sap to reach consistency. And, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. 
How much syrup would we make? Most of us had no experience making home-made maple syrup. How dedicated would we be to this laborious process? How much time would we toil over burning the sap, when we had so many other daily tasks? I had to ask myself, how much was I willing to dedicate to this process -- would it be cost and energy efficient to just buy my own maple syrup? Maybe. 
But it would be an experiential learning process, and further, there was a sense of urgency as the season was coming to a close. Most importantly, enough staff were interested in trying it out and tasting the end result, so I carried five taps with hooks and buckets down the hill from Gopi's house and set them up with Kalyan the next day.
We collected fifty gallons in total. Lucky for us at Earthdance, we have a walk-in refrigerator where we stored the sap until the season was over. Gopi graciously lent us his very own hand-crafted stove he used to boil his sap, and nearly every day for the past week, we've been burning off our sap. Thus far we've made one batch of syrup. It's a little gritty and smoky, but there is a lingering taste of "do-it-yourself", once the thin syrup has passed your lips. I wouldn't sell it. But I did put some on a waffle this morning.