Just one brief month. As the temperatures rise and the sun moves higher in the sky, the sharp winter edges fall off of each day. The promise of spring sweetness is underscored by the flow of sap in the sugar bush. What better reason to gather and party?
Before the sugar, red, and black maple trees stretched out their budding branches towards the warming sunshine and burst into full bloom, and just as the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of spring) rises, indigenous North Americans recognized maple sap as a source of energy. Gashing the tree trunks with stone tools and slipping a wooden tongue into the holes, the watery sap was collected in birch bark buckets. By the late 1600s French colonists were embracing maple sugar, sending it back home in small loaves and using both the sugar and its unctuous syrup as trade items, along with giving them as gifts. There’s no doubt that maple sugar was valued for its sweet rush as well as being easily preserved and transported. There’s historical documentation that 30,000 pounds of maple sugar was made in the vicinity of Montreal in 1706—and Quebec is still by far the largest producer of maple syrup in the world.
Fast forward to a quiet spot in northern Minnesota, to a remote 160-acre stand of forest. Filled with sugar and red maples. The Overland family, Todd and his wife Tiffany, with 12-year-old daughter Dakota and 9-year-old son Hunter, host a dedicated stream of family and friends every spring thaw. The ultimate of maple sugaring parties, a celebration that lasts for a month. Todd starts his story of how Muddy Foot Prints syrup came to be with a tale of an unruly 3 1/2-year-old. Tiny Dakota, who still looks like electricity can zing out of her fingertips, prompted her dad to take her out in the woods to run off steam. And as they wandered, discovered they had some of those same trees their friend Todd Hoadley down the road had on his property. Maples that his family tapped each spring for a few gallons of syrup. So on a lark the Overlands tapped 18 trees, collecting enough sap to boil down—outside over a wood fire in a 2x3-foot flat bottom pan. And in the process discovered a family passion.
The romance of maple syruping, those visions of a quaint bygone era of tin buckets strapped to the sides of trees, is somewhat diminished these days. A few years back Todd built what he originally planned to be both a hunting and sugar-cooking shack on a corner of his land. It evolved into a large barn-like structure that’s now used exclusively during the maple season, with profits from selling syrup to family and friends (and at the neighborhood bar) being plowed back into improvements. But romance aside, seeing the modern methods of producing maple syrup in action is extraordinary. Todd, after the first couple of years doing things rough style, upgraded their operation with a few amenities. Still without electricity or a well, a large generator fueled by propane runs the vacuum pump that helps the sap flow from each tree tap into narrow plastic tubes. It’s startling to see the maze of what appears to be blue laundry lines strung from trunk to trunk through out the woods and around the perimeter of the barn. The sap from all the trees eventually collects in a 250-gallon holding tank, held just until cooking can begin. It’s important for the sap to stay cold and be boiled down as soon as possible to avoid any chance of bacterial growth.
Not only does Todd depend on his dad Gordy to troubleshoot any engineering problems in his system, his brother Lance stops over every weekend to grill up lots of divinely aromatic snacks, and his Uncle Rocky stalwartly mans the sap cooking station. Furry companions, Benelli, Muddy, and Savage, roam the property, chasing squirrels and the occasional little kid.
Graduating to tapping 600 trees this season, Todd estimates they burned 3 to 4 cords of wood for their final 121 gallons of finished syrup for the year (to put things in perspective, it takes 100 gallons of sap to produce about 2-1/2 gallons of syrup—no wonder the real deal is expensive.) The most impressive part of the story is the closed system Todd has created: sap flowing from the trees; cleaning water spun off the sap; wood from the property chopped to burn for evaporator fuel.
Maple sap is only 2% sugar, so to achieve the uniquely-flavored thick syrup we love, it’s boiled to evaporate off the water from the clear, nearly flavorless liquid. The sap can also be run through a reverse osmosis filter to remove nearly 75% of the water. Todd does this to collect clean water in a huge tank, using it for washing up all the cooking equipment. And filtering out some of the water beforehand significantly reduces the boiling time—a bonus on days when the sap is running strong and cooking time is short. But on the weekends, as family and friends roll in to hang out, Todd prefers to let his Uncle Rocky just cook the sap from scratch—slowing down the process so there’s time enough to linger and visit on the fringes of the action. The heat radiating from the evaporator makes the room a cozy place.
The stainless steel cooking tray is designed with channels that increase the surface area, reducing the chances of burning the syrup as it cooks. Uncle Rocky adds wood to the fire every 12 minutes and can bring 40 gallons of sap to a boil in 22 minutes.
150 gallons of sap will take about 5 hours to reach the density and sugar content that Todd wants. He uses a sugar hydrometer to check the density of water to sugar, with the goal of concentrating the sugars from 2% to about 66%. As the sap cooks down the sugars caramelize, giving the final syrup its distinctive deep flavor of maple.
As fresh syrup is drawn off the evaporator, Todd packs ice into a large cocktail shaker. Then fills it halfway with hot syrup and tops it off with Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. A generous shot of this “Muddy Water” is worth hanging about for—and is even better with a splash of cream from Todd’s uncle’s near-by dairy farm. We’ve only had this incredible Northwoods cocktail at the source and believe it’s got to be true that it can’t be recreated outside the sugar shack.
Once you’ve tasted an unadorned spoonful of real maple syrup there’s no going back to anything else. The amber hue varies in different grades of syrup, and the flavor will vary depending on collection temperatures and how long the sap is cooked. This season has been warmer overall, so Todd’s syrup is a deeper amber than last year. Sap from early in the season tends to be clearer and will be lighter in color when cooked, while the sap that slowly runs as the maples begin to bud is cloudier and deeper in color and flavor (producing what is called “buddy syrup” that has an almost chocolaty taste). This marks the end of the party, when the days and nights stay above freezing, and everyone goes home to plant their gardens.