Where the (maple) magic happens

Posted on April 8th, 2017

Out See Go

By Chris Engle, contributor

Two weeks ago I wrote about tapping maple trees for their crystal-clear sap that Ivan Witt turns into prized, golden maple syrup.

The time for Ivan’s alchemy has arrived.

He invited me out last weekend to the “sugar shack,” his backwoods laboratory built of rough-sawn lumber where wood smoke and steam billow from every crack and seam in its walls.

Drafts are of no concern to Ivan as he throws the shed’s sliding door open, venting steam and heat from a massive contraption of stainless steel wherein hundreds of gallons of syrup boil off every hour.

Steam escapes from the evaporator, a giant machine of stainless steel where sap is boiled off, leaving behind sweet syrup. Photo by Chris Engle

This gleaming machine is the evaporator, the beating heart of Ivan’s syruping operation. It consumes a face-cord of firewood every two hours and guzzles gallons of sap every minute. It’s Ivan’s job to make sure she is well fed and his friend, Dennis, helps fulfill the two-man job.

Ivan and Dennis feed the furnace with firewood. Photo by Chris Engle

I’m standing at the cast-iron hatch of the furnace when Dennis pulls it open to reveal white-hot coals inside. My camera wants to melt in my hands as I snap a picture and back away, giving Ivan and Dennis space to feed the beast with split logs. They slam the hatch shut, and the furnace roars as an electric air turbine blasts oxygen into the combustion chamber.

A freshly-fed furnace powers the evaporator. Photo by Chris Engle

All this heat is absorbed by sap that’s fed by gravity into the evaporator from an elevated tank. The whole thing acts like a car’s radiator, exchanging heat from the furnace for steam, all the time condensing the watery maple sap into an intensely sweet, caramelized syrup.

But just like a car radiator needs a constant supply of coolant to work, so does the evaporator, and Ivan works fast to truck sap to his sugar shack. Should the evaporator run dry, it would dramatically overheat and melt in a matter of minutes — a backwoods version of the Chernobyl meltdown.

Every couple hours during a boiling run, Ivan drives his pickup to the sugar bush where sap flows from trees and through tubes into a giant collection tank. Using a pump and hose, he drains the tank into the one in the bed of his truck, then hurries back to the sugar shack to feed the evaporator. It’s always thirsty.

Boiling-hot syrup pours from the evaporator. From here it will be filtered and bottled. Photo by Chris Engle

This process continues until there’s no more sap to run that day. Ivan keeps a hundred gallons of distilled sap in the sugar shack and feeds it into the evaporator at the end of the day to cool it down as the flames go out. This “hungry water” as he calls it is devoid of minerals. It does double duty as it strips the calcium, potassium and other elements left over from the boil from the inner walls of the evaporator.

When all is said and done, 500 gallons of sap are reduced to a mere 10 gallons of syrup, which is filtered and bottled warm. It’s all this effort, and the fact sap only runs a couple weeks every year, that make maple syrup such a delicacy. That, and because it tastes so good.

Witt’s syrup is available at the Downtown Gaylord Farmer’s Market through Stacy Jo Schiller or by calling or texting Witt, 370-9754.

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