City trees are just as good when it comes to maple syrup
Monday, April 08, 2013 9:55 AM
Todd Johnson gets sappy with a drill.
Todd Johnson stands next to the maple tree he tapped in his front yard in Chatfield.
It's intravenous sweetness on tap.
The hard part is being slow with the drizzle.
"I'm a tree driller," said Chatfield resident Johnson. "I first started two years ago. I have a friend out in the country who taps trees, and I thought, 'I have maple trees, and city maple trees are as good as country maple trees,' so I thought I'd do this the cheap way instead of buying the metal tree taps like they have in Vermont, so I headed to the hardware store and bought a drill, some buckets and tubing."
The self-proclaimed "tree driller" has a sweet habit that most townies just don't consider - he's tapped his front-yard maple trees to collect sap to boil down into maple syrup, a process that takes a good cool spring, plenty of patience and some big pots and pans.
"When I decided to do this, I had to do some research, and Mr. Google knows all, and I also figured that the Minnesota Extension Service would have a lot of information on maple tapping because it's from Minnesota, and that was really helpful," Johnson added.
Once he got the basics, he decided it couldn't be that hard.
"Normally," he said, "people tap with metal taps, but I decided to get a drill bit and the same size tubing and a bucket with a lid to keep the squirrels, branches and leaves out, and I got almost a gallon of maple syrup from the two trees in my front yard."
Johnson elaborated on the reasons why most people who live in town don't give maple syruping a thought. "Most people don't think you can do city trees, or they think that you need a lot of trees. I have four trees tapped," he explained. "Yes, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and there's no way my trees will make that much sap, but I will go out and check my buckets, and overnight, the five-gallon buckets will be full."
He noted that the flexible tubing coming out of his maple trees looks somewhat like intravenous lines used at a hospital, and that passersby often question what he's doing to his trees.
"People are curious all the time," Johnson said. "If I'm out in the yard, someone always stops by to ask about the trees. I always worry that the neighbors aren't going to like the buckets by the trees, but we trade that with giving them a bit of syrup when it's done."
There are only about two weeks in mid- to late-March when he can tap his trees, and the difference is visible in the sap that comes from each tree - the earlier sap is lighter and boils down to syrup with a less intense flavor, and the later sap has a darker, richer flavor. Johnson stores his collected sap in a sports cooler until he has enough for the season.
Once he's collected as much sap as the trees and weather permit, he hauls the sap into the house and sets up shop in the kitchen, where his wife, Brenda, helps him reduce the gallons of sap to approximately one or two gallons of pure maple syrup.
"I clean up my two white buckets and the tubing from the hardware store and put that away in the garage, and then I have a pretty nice stainless steel soup pot that I use to boil sap down," Johnson described. "The first year, our kitchen was under construction so I used one of those big white roasters you find at churches, heated the sap in it, then put it in a pot on a portable burner, but now that we have a kitchen, I can use a big soup pot. A lot of people use a big iron kettle over a fire, and I thought it would be cool to do it outside, but there's not enough sap."
Once the sap gets to the right consistency, Johnson likes to use a thermometer to see if it's seven degrees above boiling, or 217 degrees. He admitted to being a beginner, so uses the temperature to make sure he stops boiling the sap at the right time.
He said, "The first time I boiled it, I went too far and had maple candy, but I didn't know that if you just add more sap, you can boil it down to syrup again. As long as you don't burn it, there's not much you can do wrong."
The family's long-awaited maple syrup is then poured into self-sealing Mason jars, and the anticipation begins once more, but this time, for something so tasty that the Johnsons and their daughter, Annaliese, have to ration how much they drizzle on their waffle fixes.
Johnson stated, "Log Cabin Syrup? I don't even use it anymore. We have syrup that we can tell we made earlier and later - earlier comes out light-tasting, and as the weeks progress, it gets darker and sweeter. Unfortunately, with only one gallon, it goes too quickly. One waffle fix and it's gone. And no, I don't even use Log Cabin anymore...we did have a person who sells maple syrup at a farmer's market. I'd almost prefer not to have pancakes if I don't have real syrup."
Johnson truly enjoys his home-brewed maple syrup enough to expand his "yard-isan" skills to include other edibles.
"It would be nice to have a few more maple trees...if I had a few more trees around, I would tap those, too, but I guess this little production is big enough for me. It's that easy, and just a couple of trees will do it," he said.
Johnson concluded, "We've planted some apple and pear trees, and I've tried full-fledged gardening, but our yard was too shady and has so many walnut trees that not much will grow. My experiment this year is walnut trees...I read that the syrup from walnut trees is sweeter than maple."
But for now, Todd Johnson is happiest drilling for his sweet tooth.