2016 Maple Syrup Season Lessons Learned

This season was disappointing in some ways, and a grand success in others.  On the disappointing end of the spectrum, is the low yield this year.  This low yield was due to a confluence of factors, some within our control, and some not.

  1. We got into the woods late, we tapped late, as our process was not yet ready for sap.  We started tapping, and collected the first sap, on the 28th of February, all 100 taps were not in until March 3rd.
  2. The weather did not cooperate very well.  We had a couple of decent snows, but it warmed up so quickly that the snow melted in a couple of days.  In prior years we had used snow to keep our sap cool until we could get it processed; no such luck this year.  The result of insufficient cold storage was that some sap never made it to the evaporator.
  3. By March 13th I was evaporating the last of the sap, and there was no sap flow favorable weather in the 10-day forecast.

So for us it was a two week season, as opposed to the usual four to six weeks, and in that two weeks, we had five days of no sap flow, between March 1st and the 5th.  The short story is, we ended up with about a quarter of the syrup that I had been planning for.

On the grand success end of the spectrum, is everything we learned, and the enjoyment of doing the work and sharing it with our community in Michigan, on Facebook, and with all of you here on the blog.  Based on what we learned, I anticipate that we will do much better in the spring of 2017.

To ensure that we actually do better in 2017, we will be making a number of improvements to the process this year, based on the lessons learned in the table below.  I have highlighted in yellow some of the key things that did not go well, and in green some of those that did go well.  Solutions have not yet been identified for all of the problems, but Geri and I met and have already decided that while some things will stay the same, there will be some changes for next year.  We decided to:

  • not tap more trees, we will stay at 100 taps
  • expand the capacity of the Half Pint; specifically an arch extension kit and pan will be added, which can increase evaporation rates by up to 65%
  • add a combustion air blower to the Half Pint(together these two modifications to the Half-Pint should take it to 100 tap capacity)
  • improve water management in front of garage/sugar house
  • put a wood chip/pea gravel “floor” in sugar house
  • and we will not finish the syrup in the Half Pint; we will draw it off when it is “near syrup,” and finish it in pans over propane burners
These decisions have mostly to do with what it would take to go bigger than 100 taps.  It would take a larger evaporator than the Half Pint, and the evaporator I have in mind would require a larger sugar house; there would probably be a need for some labor help, more buckets and taps, more sap handling and syrup finishing equipment, etc.  That is simply more than we want to take on, while at the same time ramping up the Sawyer and Soaper businesses.
The decision regarding how to finish the syrup has to do with the fact that temperatures at the Half Pint draw-off are relatively unstable, especially when drawing off, which is to say the temperature can climb to well above 219°F.  If the temperature climbs above 219°F the syrup is too dense, and if the syrup is dense enough, 68 Brix or above, the sugar can precipitate out after it is bottled.  Not good.  In my view, a cause of the temperature instability is the small capacity of the evaporator, and another is that the heat under the Boiling Pan cannot be quickly modulated.  In any event, there is too much risk in burning the syrup, so we are changing the process to ensure we produce great syrup, first pass.
I will leave it at that for now.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments; I respond quickly.
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— John, 09 May 2016(See the Process Flow Diagram at http://swmichiganhomestead.blogspot.com/2016/03/maple-syrup-process-flow-diagram.html)


2016 Maple Syrup Season Lessons Learned
Process Step Lesson Learned Comments
What did not go well?
0 Process Management Need to develop an evaporator log sheet based on checks per 8 minutes White board worked well, but not a permanent record. Fix it for 2017.
0 Process Management Pallet flooring was better than nothing, but unsafe Melting snow and rain, plus condensation from evaporation. Fix it for 2017.
0 Process Management Equipment cleaning is an issue Investigate for 2017.
0 Process Management It was very wet and muddy at the front of the sugar house Fix it for 2017.
0 Process Management Personal hygiene facilities needed Using the house is okay for now; when more help is required we will need facilities.
0 Process Management We were not ready, enough Develop timeline for 2017 set-up.
0 Process Management Being tapped in Feb would have resulted in much more sap/syrup Develop timeline for 2017 set-up.
0 Process Management Too many trees, not enough evaporator Expand evaporator capacity in 2017; Consider Half-Pint extension, combustion air blower, propane-fired finishing evaporator.
0 Process Management Freshness of sap is KEY It should be like looking through water; milky sap has gone off.
0 Process Management We were not ready with pricing, labeling, marketing
1 Obtain Necessary Equipment & Supplies Needed to get the evaporator earlier for construction and installation Adjust plan for 2017 accordingly.
3 Tap Trees Need to mount the inverter, stable and dry, in/on the Ranger Fix it for 2017.
5 Sap Handling A barrel lifter for the 30 gal barrels to/from the back of the Polaris would have been handy This may not have been required had we had enough evaporating capacity, or enough storage (275 gallon tote) capacity.
5 Sap Handling More 30 gallon barrels These may not have been required had we had enough evaporating capacity, or enough storage (275 gallon tote) capacity.
5 Sap Handling Electric sap pumps would have saved time (look at solar powered (12VDC) well pumps) Investigate for 2017.
5 Sap Handling The 30 gallon barrels move around too much in the back of the Ranger Fix it for 2017.
5 Sap Handling The funnel/filter was not well secured to the top of the 30 gallon barrels; it would move around and even come off altogether Fix it for 2017.
5 Sap Handling Definitely need labor for collecting if we go bigger Not going bigger in terms of taps for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap Need to manage condensation; it was getting wood and equipment wet inside the sugar house Investigate for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap We do not seem to be getting as much syrup as I expect from a given amount of sap. Is it true? If so, why? Investigate for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap The process of removing foam is messy; what can be done? Investigate for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap The measuring wire for pan depths could have been longer; Geri’s hands got hot using it Fix it for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap Wood needs to be in sufficient quantity, local to the sugar house, and of correct size Fix it for 2017.
6 Remove Water from Sap Size of evaporator; plan for 3 gallons per day per tap “worst case,” and plan to evaporate it in 20 hours of operation See expansion plans for 2017. Use this rule of thumb for later years.
6 Remove Water from Sap More, and DRY wood (see YouTube “Maple Syrup with Skip Drake 42 min 1920×1080” for 3-step firewood process)
6 Remove Water from Sap Evaporation on this scale (Half Pint, 5 – 7 gallons per hour) is not truly continuous flow; the syrup/”near syrup” comes off in batches.  It is also typical to go past the “syrup state” of 66 Brix at the boiling point of water plus 7 degrees; density reduction is then required. Plan for drawing off as “near syrup,” finish under tighter control over propane burners.
7 Syrup Finishing Need syrup/”near syrup” storage for before finishing/filtration and bottling Investigate for 2017.
What went well?
0 Process Management The regular 6-8 minute process checks
3 Tap Trees The 1000W inverter worked pretty well, maybe a little under-powered for the 3/8″ drill for tapping This solution to insufficient drill power from battery powered portables, will not scale to 1,000 taps, but it’s good for 2017.
5 Sap Handling The Polaris Ranger was indispensable Also used in process step 3 Tapping Trees.
6 Remove Water from Sap The pan depth measuring wire worked extremely well and was convenient
6 Remove Water from Sap White board for recording evaporation process management
6 Remove Water from Sap Good lighting is a must The string of 5 LED lamps worked very well in the sugar house.
7 Syrup Finishing The filtration and canning unit worked well
7 Syrup Finishing Reducing density process worked
4 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Another great article. I have researched harvesting syrup a little. It is something I would like to try but I’m not confident in the evaporation process. Can you write and article covering that process?

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Thanks Jeff! As you rightly point out, I have not written an article specifically regarding the evaporation process. I will do that.

  2. Jen
    Jen says:

    Really enjoying reading all your articles about sugaring – thanks so much for sharing the knowledge! Just liked you on facebook so I can continue to follow along. Did you end up writing the evaporation process article Jeff asks for above? I can’t seem to find it if you did. Thanks!

    • John Newell
      John Newell says:

      Hi Jen! Thank you so much for reading, commenting and following. Much appreciated. We have made a lot of changes since I wrote that post, but the fundamental process stays the same. I have intended this year to do a walk-through video of the process, and a blog post to go with that video. Unfortunately the season is late in coming this year and we have yet to evaporate. We should be evaporating this weekend if the forecast holds true. I will inform you when that is done; of course if you subscribe to the Blog you will get all posts the next morning at 6 a.m. ET. Are there particulars related to evaporation that you are interested in? I want to be sure to address those particulars. Thanks again Jen. — John

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