Mid-Season Update from the Sugar House

maple sap collection

Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup – In the Making

I’m hoping and praying we are a little shy of the mid-point in this maple syrup season, at least as regards maple syrup production, but I think it’s likely that we are at about that point.  I plan for sap flow for 4 to 6 weeks from initial tapping, and we tapped February 16-18; gee whiz, now that I look at it we just passed the two week point.  Seems like it’s been a lot longer than that!  Okay though, I’m grateful for at least the possibility of more sap flow in front of us than behind us.  There is a little break in the action here, no evaporation today, and it looks like we are nearing the end of Sap Run 3; I will evaporate the last 400 gallons from Run 3 tomorrow, and that should yield 9-10 gallons of syrup.  And, this break gives us a little time to make some additional process improvements, and to reflect on, naturally, what has gone well, and what hasn’t gone well.  Let’s get to it.

Maple Syrup – What Went Well

  1. Without question, the most gratifying part of this season, has been the opportunity to involve more members of our Community.  In the Sugar House conversion (Sam, Gene, and Tommy), tapping (Carl and Max), sap collecting, (Joey, Carl, Jonah and Max), in the Sugar House (Tabitha), and in firewood production (Brian, Tabitha, and Max).  It’s first because it is a big component of The Purpose.
  2. Against all odds, or at least against my tendency to procrastinate, the Sugar House, Leader Evaporator, and sap collecting processes and systems, were ready, enough, to start the season.
  3. Once I got the hang of operating the Leader Evaporator Inferno Arch and Revolution Max pan set, which did not take long, the equipment is simply kicking ass.  Last year I would evaporate all day, and yield one gallon of syrup; this year the new equipment is churning out a gallon per hour, on average.  Awesome.  We are able to evaporate about 50 gallons of sap per hour.

    maple syrup evaporator

    Leader Evaporator Inferno Arch and RevMax pan set, with Marcland auto-draw off.

  4. The Marcland Auto Draw-Off equipment; I don’t think I could do it without auto-draw off.  This piece of equipment measurest the temperature of the syrup pan outlet to a tenth of 1°F, and opens/closes the draw-off ball valve automatically.  Perfect syrup every time, no guesswork, no further processing (additional reduction or dilution) necessary.
  5. The sap transfer systems.  This involves getting the sap from the bucket on the tree, to the evaporator.  Some of it came together at the last minute, thanks to Gene and Tommy, that being the transfer from the 275 gallon sap storage totes to the evaporator.  Works like a charm.

    Maple sap transfer process schematic

    Maple sap transfer process schematic

  6. The “new” evaporator operation checklist.  Full attention is required.  The worst that can happen; running the pans dry while the arch is cookin’ with a 1,000°F stack temp.  Empty pans won’t survive those temps.  The evaporator only holds about 40-45 gallons of liquid, and we are evaporating at about 50 gallons per hour.  If the evaporation is not made up with new sap addition, big trouble is not far behind.
  7. Our relationships with Leader Evaporator and Sugar Bush Supplies.  These are the two key equipment and maple syruping supplies vendors that we choose to do business with.  They step up every time, and provide great counsel.

Maple Syrup – What Didn’t Go So Well

  1. The filter press has been driving me to distraction.  It is a 5 element press, and I keep blowing holes in one of the 10 filter papers, which basically means the syrup passes through the press unfiltered.  Do-over.  Do-overs are not okay; there is simply no room in the production schedule for re-doing anything.  I cannot store much syrup, by design (inventory is wasteful), so if I can’t move the syrup from evaporator to bottle, I cannot run the evaporator.  Then of course, I only have the minimum storage capacity for sap; approximately 1 gallon per tap, and it cannot be stored long before it goes “off,” which is to say it ferments.  This is as close as you can get to single piece flow; if one step in the process is broken, the whole process comes to a halt without much further ado.  Fortunately, in consultation with the Leader technical representative today, we found the problem, a manufacturing defect in one of the filter frames in the press.  A new frame is being over-nighted to me today, and I’m very excited about having this equipment problem resolved.

    maple syrup filter press

    Leader Evaporator 7.5″ Clear Filter Press, foreground

  2. Sap transfer from 30 gallon collection barrels, to 275 gallon totes and the head tank.  I had one 5.5 gpm 12VDC pump on hand, and it was not enough to both move sap from barrels to totes, and to maintain the level in the sap head tank.  This resulted in my sap collectors standing around smartly while the pump worked to move 120 gallons from four 30 gallon barrels.  You do the math.  I enjoy employing people, but having people standing around is not to provide sustainable employment; quite the contrary.  I quickly ordered and put into service a second pump, though this problem might require some additional thought as we ramp up to 1500-2000 taps next year.
  3. The weather in general, but rain in particular.  Early in the season we got over 2 inches of rain in a two day period.  The rain made a mud-hole of the 2-track through the woods, not to mention sections of our driveway, and perhaps more importantly, it washed away all of our snow.  The snow, because it reflects light, keeps the woods cooler, and we could have used some cooler overnight lows for better sap flow.
  4. Firewood.  We started the season with too much green, wet, and/or rotted wood on hand.  Fortunately Brian and his team stepped up, and we are in good wood.  I am able to start the evaporator quickly, attain 1,000°F stack temp in short order, and maintain that stack temp readily.  And, we have a plan in place to get the wood on the ground for next year, this year.
  5. “Golden” Maple Syrup, that’s the lightest color on the scale; we have not made any, and it’s unlikely that we will.  We would need sugar concentrations in the sap north of 3%, we’ve been running between 2.1 and 2.5%, and that is not going to happen.  Conversely, sugar concentrations are likely to go down as the season progresses.  Lesson learned.

Maple Syrup – “Executive” Summary

With what we have evaporated, and what I expect we will yield tomorrow, we stand at about 35 gallons of syrup, against a goal of 125 for the entire season.  Frankly, I’ll be disappointed if we make less than 100 gallons.  Having said that, we have climbed the learning curve quickly; I couldn’t be more proud of the team.  I’m confident that whatever sap the trees offer up, we will be able to convert it into Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup.

And, perhaps this next bit is most telling. I think we have done well in relation to Planning for 2018 Maple Syrup Expansion.  In the larger context, I had planned to go to 1,000 taps in 2019, and 2,000 taps in 2020.  We will have to do a thorough “post mortem” on the 2018 season when it is complete, but assuming it looks like we are on track, I plan on jumping next year to 1,500-2,000 taps straightaway.  This year could have gone better I suppose, but it has gone pretty well; no show-stoppers.  Tripling or quadrupling production next year would be less of a challenge than the 10x change from 2017 to 2018.

I hope you will stay with us.  And, Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup is available for pre-order now in our Shop!

All the best, and kind regards,


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2 replies
  1. David Wilderrmuth
    David Wilderrmuth says:

    Thanks for the update John. A question; When you secure the operation at days end, what do you do with the sap in the pans?

    • John Newell
      John Newell says:

      Hi David. Of course the short answer is, “it depends.” Every day, flow through the syrup pan, that’s the front 2ft x 2ft pan, is reversed. So, at night when I shut down, after the syrup pan has cooled to say 150°F or so, I draw off from that days syrup draw-off location, about 2 gallons of “sweet.” This is the concentrated sap that is closest to being syrup in the evaporator. The next morning, since flow is being reversed, that 2 gallons is added back to the syrup pan at the new draw-off location. This helps to establish the new/reversed density gradient in the syrup pan. Under normal circumstances, I do nothing with the concentrated sap in the flue pan; the flue pan is the 2ft x 4ft pan at the back of the evaporator, closest to the smoke stack, and is where the bulk of the evaporation takes place. Now, if I’m looking at a few days in front of me of warm temps, say above the low 40’s, with no new sap coming in, and hence no evaporation taking place, then I need to do something different with both the syrup and flue pans. For the syrup pan, I draw off all of the liquid, and put it in a 5 gallon bucket labeled as such. Then, I draw off all of the liquid in the flue pan, which takes about eight 5 gallon buckets. Then, I take all nine buckets to a friend who has a cold storage unit he keeps at 33°F. I also rinse out the pans with fresh water, as best I can. When I intend to restart, I fetch the nine buckets and reload them into the pans, and we are good to go. Clear as mud?

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