Sweet treat

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Maple sugar production is in the air

By Lisa King

Doug and Ruth Welch love eating maple syrup – they eat it on, well, just about anything.


"I don't eat it as much as I'd like to, but I put it on just about everything," Doug Welch said with a sheepish grin as he checked the thermostat on part of his maple syrup collection system on his farm in eastern Shelby County.

The evaporator, complete with a cast iron door that he opens to throw in a couple more logs, sits next to a huge pile of neatly stacked firewood that lines one entire wall of what he affectionately calls his sugar shack.

That's where he and his wife make maple syrup.

When Welch pours 5-gallon bucket after 5-gallon bucket of raw sap into the 100-gallon tank of the machine, it doesn't look much like what you pour on your pancakes.

But as he cranks up the machine, stoking it with log after log, it doesn't take long for the smell of boiling syrup to fill the air.

"When the evaporator is going really strong, the sweet smell coming off is really amazing – that's one of the things I like best about this process," Ruth Welch said.

The couple also grows blueberries and raise goats and chickens on their Blues End Farm on Woodlawn Road, but the maple sugar production, while not extremely lucrative at an average yearly yield of 24 gallons, is enough to cover the cost of its production and provide a little extra cash.

Beside, it keeps his family and friends supplied with maple syrup far superior to what you can purchase in a store, he said.

“I know I'm biased, but this is some of the best, if not the best, pure maple syrup I've ever had,” he said holding up a small bottle.


Collecting sap

“First, you have to identity your trees, tap your trees and have the equipment needed. I do it by hand, I don't have an electric drill,” said Welch walking through a wooded area several hundred yards behind his home carrying some of the tools of his trade – two five gallon buckets.

“You have to watch the trees and, when the sap is dripping, you collect the sap, put it into an evaporator, and boil it,” he said.

Welch explained that collection season begins in January, and he has already had two collections this month.

“The first time sap flowed, we got maybe fifty or sixty gallons of sap, maybe one gallon of syrup,” he said. “If you boil it down too far, it'll burn. We got a good flow yesterday and I've been collecting again this morning. So far, I've got forty gallons.”

Friday’s weather conditions were perfect for collecting sap, he said, gesturing toward several trees that sported buckets suspended under dripping spouts.

“Three seasons ago, we produced twenty gallons of syrup, two seasons ago we had fourteen gallons of syrup and last season, with the warm weather, we had seven gallons of syrup,” he said.

“What I'm looking for is days like Sunday, twenty-nine degrees the low, fifty-two degrees high,” he said. “Below freezing warm, that's a day like today, it's fifty-five degrees now, but it was thirty-two degrees this morning. So I was out collecting and the taps were already running, and I'm going to have to collect again this afternoon,” he said. “Today is perfect weather.”

Collection season runs until about the end of February to the first week of March.

Doug Welch paused, then started toward one of the more than 100 sugar maple trees that contain a 3-gallon sap collection bucket – some of the larger trees contained two buckets.

“This tree over here, we call Big Mama, and it's got two buckets on it,” he said, patting the tree affectionately.

“We found it pretty early – it usually flows good. If we get two or three days a week that we're collecting, that's pretty good.”


Cooking syrup

Trekking back to the sugar shack, he sniffed the air appreciatively, reminiscing about the 17 years he and his wife spent as missionaries in Africa for the Presbyterian Church.

After returning to the United States, the couple – he is from Florida and she, Minnesota – decided they wanted to spend their retirement in a rural area, and chose Shelby County because it was the most beautiful, peaceful place they could find.

“We knew that we loved the outdoors, nature, living off the land kind of stuff, and we thought ‘Here's our opportunity,’ and we looked around and found this land here and bought it,” he said, gesturing around the 66-acre property with a substantial forest of sugar maples in back.

When they bought the property 11 years ago, they were still looking for ideas on how to make the land support them in a way they enjoyed.

It didn’t take long for them to find their niche, said Welch with a chuckle.

“I asked a forester to come out and go through the woods with me, and he asked if I was going to produce maple syrup,” said Welch. “Up to that point, I had no idea about making maple syrup.”

After getting the idea, he and Ruth turned to an unlikely source for help.

“Do you remember Euell Gibbons?” he said. “When I was a kid, he was a naturalist who helped sell natural foods and he wrote a book called Stalking Your Wild Asparagus. In it, he described all the natural foods you can find out in the wild, and he talked about making maple syrup and we still have the book.”

Both he and Ruth love everything about making maple syrup, from stocking up firewood for the evaporator to patiently tending the cooking process, and even the hard task of carrying those heavy 5-gallon buckets of sap – each bucket weighs 40 pounds – back to the shack.

The sap is poured into the evaporator’s tank.

Welch pointed out that the sap looks completely different in its raw stage.

“The sap is clear, it looks and tastes like sugar water,” he said. “It takes roughly fifty gallons of sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup.”

“I want it hot because I want that sap boiling,” he said, opening the door of the evaporator, which in front resembles a pot-bellied stove, and throwing in a couple more pieces of firewood.

“It varies but it takes three or four hours of boiling,” he said, adding that the boiling point of sap is 219 degrees, seven degrees higher than that of water.

When that process is complete, it’s taken to a small kitchen in the garage where it’s boiled again, then strained through huge filters to remove what he calls sugar sand.

How does he know when it’s finally ready to call syrup?

When the large hygrometer, basically a large thermometer, begins to float, he said.


Sweet treat

The couple eats maple syrup on many foods, and extends the sweet treat to their guests in the bed and breakfast in the basement of their home.

Just like they share the labor of making the syrup, they also share the labor of dealing with the finished product – she cooks and he eats.

In addition to enjoying their homemade maple syrup over pancakes, waffles, ice cream and even cornbread, over the past decade, Ruth Welch has perfected many dishes made of maple syrup.

“I make an amazing maple-cranberry scone,” she said. “I also make something called a Triple B pancake – it's buckwheat and bananas, and the maple syrup is the main ingredient.”

She chuckled when considered another very popular dish.

“I make a maple cream cookie that a lot of my friends ask me for my recipe,” she said. “Those are my three favorite recipes for maple syrup.”

But don’t forget its use as a garnish, she said.

“With fried apples, instead of using brown sugar, use maple sugar – it’s really good,” she said. “You can put maple syrup on anything.”