MT. ZION - The days are getting longer, the nights are smelling fresh and green and if you listen closely enough you might be able to hear the drip drop of sap falling into buckets across the hills and valleys.
Late February into early March is easily one of the most favorite times for many. Spring is just around the corner and the sap begins to run.
Making maple syrup is a time honored tradition passed down from generation to generation in many families. But also something easily enough picked up by intrepid homesteaders and back yard farmers in the city alike.
It really doesn’t take much, just a tap, a bucket, and a hot stove or fire pit.
Delores Steele-Chamberlain shared her recollections of tapping trees on the banks of the Wisconsin River in her book River Stories: Growing up on the Wisconsin. And now, her grandson and great grandson, Andreas and Atleigh Transo are keeping the tradition alive.
In the early afternoon Last Sunday, March 7, Andreas along with his son Atleigh and girlfriend Bambie gathered around a small homemade pit in the backyard of his family’s land in rural Mt. Zion. The trio watched as the sap steamed away in a rolling boil next to a cast iron griddle full of Lefse.
“We’ve gathered about 40 gallons of sap so far,” Transo shared. “We don’t have a huge operation, it’s pretty primitive, but it’s about tradition and teaching Atleigh.”
Andreas keeps in the tradition that many old timers remember in using homemade sumac taps.
“He (Dace Chamberlain) would make spigots to tap the trees so that the sap would flow out,” Delores recalls in her book. “He would cut sumac branches that were about a half-inch across and cut them up into twelve-inch lengths. Then he would take a red-hot length of a wire coat hanger and burn the pithy center out of the sumac. When it was hollow all the way through and he had the center hole big enough to allow the sap to flow through, he would cut it into four inch lengths and whittle one end down so that it would go into the hole in the tree more easily. He would need one, two, or three spigots for each tree, depending on the size of the tree and how much sap it would yield.”
Chasca Dremsa, son of the late Francisco (Doug) Dremsa also remembers working with his father making sumac taps and harvesting sap.
“We would go and harvest lengths of sumac for making taps and Dad (Francisco) would heat up a wire and burn out the cork center of the Sumac,” Dremsa recalled. “He would whittle the sumac at the tree to get the perfect fitting tap. He wouldn’t hang his buckets like many do, but rather attach a length of hose to the tap, and run it into a five gallon bucket that sat on the ground, tied to the tree with twine. This way he was able to run more than one tap into the same bucket and not lose any with hammering in a nail to hang the bucket with.”
When it comes to bringing in the harvest, there are also many methods to the sugary madness.
“In the old days they had horses and bobsleds with collecting barrels to gather sap,” Delores recalls in her book. “Dace didn’t have that luxury, so it meant carrying the sap to the fire in five gallon buckets. It also meant many, many trips since the sap had to be gathered at least twice a day at the peak of the season. Nothing was so upsetting as to go to a bucket and find it overflowing with sap.”
On the sunny Sunday, many hands made light work at the Delores Chamberlain’s family land as Andreas, Atleigh, Bambie, Chasca and his sons Thatcher and Waylon Dremsa, along with this reporter worked together pulling sleds and emptying small buckets into the blue barrel.
“At the end of the day, when the stars first come out and we are collecting the last batch, the snow crunching under our feet and the sound of the sled, the sound of the buckets, the excitement of how much we get and then being able to look up at the stars while we work, that’s exactly what I want to pass on to Atleigh,” Transo mused about the romance of the season.
For Dremsa, bringing in the sap was part of their livelihood as his father would cook large amounts to sell at the Dane County Farmers Market. This meant not only tapping a lot of trees, but bringing reinforcements to get the sap from point A to point B.
“My dad didn’t have a large elaborate system for as much sap as he gathered,” Dremsa chuckled. “After we would get it gathered he would put it in containers that had a handle and a lid and use a seatbelt to strap them together and he would swing them over his horse like saddle bags and carry them down the hill to the cooking hearth. It was a lot of work to cook such a large amount, but it was a nice shift in the gears of seasonal work. It was nice to be outside in weather that wasn’t frigid and cold and to be working side by side. Getting to drink the sap and taste the syrup was a pretty good bonus too.”
Delores too remembers unusual ways of bringing in the sap.
“In some years the water would be up in the bottoms and we would go from tree to tree in a boat to gather the sap,” Delores wrote. “While this was inconvenient for us, the children loved checking the buckets with the boat.”
Typing “making maple syrup” into Google yields thousands of results and different methods. Including the different trees that you can tap.
Of course, the traditional favorite is the Sugar Maple. But in addition to the old favorite, there are nine other species of maple available to tap. Different trees offer different flavor profiles, which can also be affected with how you cook, the climate, weather and time of season when it’s boiled. This means that generally, no two batches are alike.
The Sugar Maple is the first choice and by and large the best yielding tree. With the highest volume and concentration of sap it also boasts a sugar content of approximately two percent. On average, sugar maples will produce for 20 days across a six week period and can produce roughly one quart of syrup for each tree tapped.
The next choice for tappers would be the Black Maple. Frequently confused with sugar maples, this tree has a similar sap that is nearly as sweet as the Sugar. They’re most easily separated by their leaves as a black maple tends to have leaves with three lobes and a sugar with five.
Red Maples can also be tapped for the sweet liquid. They generally have a lower yield and tend to bud out early affecting the quality of the sap towards the end of the season. Nonetheless, some operations only tap Red Maples for their product.
The beautiful Silver Maple is also available for tapping. However they tend to have a lower sugar content, coming in at only around 1.7 percent. This often reportedly results in a lighter colored and thinner syrup.
A very common maple for Wisconsin, the Norway Maple is said to not be nearly as sweet as a sugar maple, but similar in flavor.
One of the more surprising and common trees that can be tapped is the Box Elder. In a pinch these can be used to create your favorite pancake topping. Although it should be noted that while it takes roughly 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup, a Box Elder’s sap ratio is closer to 60 or more gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup due to its low sugar content. It is also noted that the syrup can sometimes have more of a sorghum taste over the traditional maple flavor many desire.
Birch trees were also a popular tapping option long ago for folks in Norway and Sweden. Birch syrup also requires a significant amount of sap, calling for around 110 gallons of cooked down sap to make a single gallon of syrup. Paper birch has the highest sugar content of all the birches and is considered best for large scale tapping, however, it’s sugar content is still less than one percent on average.
Ambitious tappers have also attempted tapping various nut bearing trees.
The Black Walnut is a popular choice for syrup connoisseurs. It is said to have a unique, light and refreshing taste.
Butternut trees produce a smooth light syrup. The tree is of concern in Wisconsin according to the DNR so there aren’t said to be a TON in the area, but some old farmsteads may have a healthy grouping of them available to tap.
Additionally, tapping trees isn’t just a North American tradition. In Korea, the Gorosoe tree is tapped and cooked down into syrup. The flavor is said to be mildly sweet and taste a bit like weak green tea.
“Hard maple trees are better than the soft maples for syrup-making,” Delores shared in her book. “Because it takes a lot less sap to make a gallon of syrup. Twenty gallons of hard maple sap or thirty gallons of soft maple sap should yield about a gallon of the thick brown syrup, in our experience. It may be that the hard maple trees grow where there is less water and therefore produce a sweeter sap. Soft maples that grow in wet areas most likely have a more diluted sugar content.”
Delores also echoes the sentiment that both Dremsa and Transo shared. That tapping trees and cooking syrup is more than just work, it’s about company and celebrating a new season on the horizon.
“The time passes with storytelling, visits from friends and neighbors and sometimes music and singing,” Delores wrote. “Wieners and marshmallows are roasted and even some beer drinking goes on during the late hours of the night. It’s a happy time and many of the people who stop by sometimes stay all night long to enjoy the glow of the fire and the festivities.”After the sap is collected, it often boils from sun up to well into the night as Delores describes. For smaller operations like the one Andreas has, the prep for tasting the final product is easy. Pick up the pan and set it in the snow to cool, and you’re ready for pancakes. Other larger operations may need to wait a tad longer for theirs to be cool enough to taste. But, when it comes to the joys of making maple syrup, operations big or small, a good time is always had by all.