Get Growing: Making maple syrup at home

  • Brown relishes the sugaring ritual, because “it makes you feel like spring has arrived.” Supplied photo/Mickey Rathbun

  • “Old timers would say that you should never tap before March 1st,” he said, “but that’s changed because of climate change.” Supplied photo/Mickey Rathbun

  • “What I like about my technique is that it’s very basic,” said Brown. Supplied photo/Mickey Rathbun

  • Richard Brown, who’s been sugaring since 1975, recently switched from 7/16-inch to 5/16-inch spouts because they are less harmful to the trees. Supplied photo/Mickey Rathbun

  • Brown relishes the sugaring ritual, because “it makes you feel like spring has arrived even though it’s a month away.” Supplied photo/Mickey Rathbun

  • “What I like about my technique is that it’s very basic,” said Brown. “You pour the sap into the pan, you get the fire going and you walk away.” Supplied photo/Mickey Rathbun

For the Gazette 
Published: 3/28/2019 4:49:38 PM

When rheumatologist Richard Brown made his first batch of maple syrup in 1975, he went the rustic route. He used coffee cans to collect the sap and “banged out” lids for spouts. He boiled the sap down in a big pot over an outdoor wood fire. His total yield? A single quart of syrup. “The ashes from the fire fell into the pot,” he recalled, “so the syrup was very ashy-tasting.”

When he made that first tangy batch, Brown — a fit and active man who likes to ski and hike — was earning a master’s degree in forest science at Yale. Although he has maintained his passion for the outdoors, Brown went on to medical school and put his maple sugaring on hold. After an internship, residency and fellowship, he settled in Albany in 1990 and resumed his syrup making.

 

As Brown’s life has evolved, so has his technique for making maple syrup. In Albany, he ditched his coffee cans in favor of two second-hand buckets and spouts he bought at a garage sale. He eliminated the ash problem by boiling the sap down on his kitchen stove. But he had another problem. Although he didn’t have ash in his syrup, the process of boiling 20 gallons of maple sap in his kitchen made the wallpaper peel. “It got too steamy inside,” he said.

He moved to Amherst in 1995 and began making syrup again. He tapped two sugar maples in his own yard and five trees at a next-door neighbor’s property. To spare his kitchen walls, he built an outdoor fireplace with cinder blocks and a three-foot chimney and boiled his sap there. He bought several more second-hand buckets and upped his game by having Amherst Welding make him a special stainless steel boiling pan to hold about 15 gallons of sap.

“Maple sugaring was a lot of fun when the kids were little,” said Brown. He has two sons from his first marriage and three step-children. “Some kids from the neighborhood helped out, too.”

In 2012, Brown moved his practice to Greenfield and took his sugaring equipment with him. At his 13-acre property, he now taps 20 trees in the woods beyond his house, collecting 80 or so gallons of sap every season. He has switched from 7/16-inch to 5/16-inch spouts because they are less harmful to the trees. Brown explained that sap production is highest when daytime temperatures are in the upper 40s and nighttime temperatures drop into the low 20s. “Old timers would say that you should never tap before March 1,” he said, “but that’s changed because of climate change.” This year, he started in late February and will continue for four more weeks or so, as long as the sap runs. If the nighttime temperature stays above freezing for an extended period, say, 5 days, the trees will stop producing sap and dry up.

An accomplished woodworker, Brown built a special sled using two old pairs of skis as runners to carry the 6-gallon buckets in which he collects sap from the trees. He empties his buckets at least once a day when the sap is flowing quickly. When sap slows down, he checks the buckets every few days.

To facilitate the boiling process, Brown purchased an evaporator second-hand that he keeps in a shed behind his house with his other sugaring equipment. The evaporator looks like an oil drum on its side, with a cut-out on the top where the boiling pan sits. He builds a fire inside the drum to heat the sap and keeps the fire burning hot. He uses mostly pine, cut on his property, which burns fast, requiring him to refill the firebox every 30 minutes. If he can’t tend the fire so often, he switches to hardwood, which burns slower. “But you want as high heat as possible to boil the sap down quicker so you can process more,” he explained.

“What I like about my technique is that it’s very basic,” said Brown. “You pour the sap into the pan, you get the fire going and you walk away.” He has avoided more complicated evaporation systems that have separators and drains. “They require constant attention and fiddling, and I don’t have the patience for that!” he said.

To check when the sap is sufficiently condensed, Brown puts a sample into a small, narrow cup and inserts a small tool called a hydrometer, which measures the water content of the syrup. When the boiling is finished, he pours the syrup through a filter, a cone-shaped piece of felt, to remove particulate matter, or “scuzz,” as he calls it.

Fortunately for Brown, his neighbor in Greenfield happened to be an ace sugar producer who lent him equipment and gave him lots of useful advice. The neighbor, who recently moved away, invented a clever gadget that maximizes the collection of filtered syrup by spreading out the filter surface so it doesn’t clog as much. “With this more efficient filter,” said Brown, “you’ll get an extra pint of syrup out of 80 gallons of sap.”

The final step in the syrup-making process is bottling. Brown heats the syrup in a coffee urn and then pours the very hot syrup into sterilized bottles. “I used to pour it through a funnel,” said Brown. “But that was very sloppy. I’m still learning.”

Syrup making is a ritual that Brown cherishes. “It makes you feel like spring has arrived even though it’s a month away.”

 Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcominggarden eventsSpring pruningworkshop at BBG

Spring is a great time to assess woody shrubs for shape, structure, and winter damage. On Apr. 6 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge will offer a workshop focused on learning by doing. Ron Yaple, owner of Race Mountain Tree Services in Sheffield, MA, will demonstrate how to renovate, rejuvenate and shape shrubs and small ornamental trees for structure, health and optimal growth. Plants covered will include viburnums, lilacs, witch hazels, deciduous azaleas, sweetshrubs, crab apples and ornamental cherries. Participants should dress for the weather, bring pruners, work gloves and a bag lunch. Yaple is recognized regionally as a premier arborist and a dedicated and knowledgeable teacher of arboriculture. Members: $25/nonmembers: $35. For more information and to register, go to: berkshirebotanical.org

Western Massachusetts Master GardenersAssociation springsymposiums

The second and third WMMGA spring symposiums will take place Mar. 30 at Holyoke High School from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Apr. 6 from 8:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. There will be breakout sessions for classes and workshops and other informational activities. These symposiums are a wonderful opportunity to learn, meet new friends and reconnect with old friends and clear the cobwebs from our winter-addled brains. For more information, go to: wmmga.org

Attracting birdsto your garden

On Apr. 3, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., the Hitchcock Center in Amherst will host a presentation about creating the right habitat for birds in your yard and garden. Hitchcock Center naturalist Ted Watt will discuss the special lives of some of these birds and talk about plantings and other means of attracting birds to share your habitat. Reconciliation Ecology is a new term to describe our efforts to make our living spaces friendlier to other species. Watt will hand out a list of plantings that are “bird-friendly.” Members: $8/nonmembers: $10. For more information and to register, go to: hitchcockcenter.org




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