Father-son team tap into syrup-making tradition

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Tue., Feb. 28, 2012
Johnathan Florence and his dad, Daniel, adjust the sap collection system on one of their maple trees. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Johnathan Florence and his dad, Daniel, adjust the sap collection system on one of their maple trees. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

So why are there empty soda bottles and milk jugs dangling from the trees at the Florence home on Main Street? Actually, they’re not empty. The warm spring sun hitting the bark starts a steady drip of maple sap into each container – drops that will add up, very slowly but surely, into some homemade maple syrup.

Daniel Florence and his son Johnathan (J.D.), 13, first tried tapping the maple trees on their property two winters ago. Using secondhand and improvised equipment – including the recycled bottles – they’ve begun a small-scale backyard maple sugaring project that has grown each year since.

“We’re just starting out at it,” said Daniel, who readily admits to not being an expert with the facts and figures of syrup production. He’s not even sure what types of maples he has in his yard. “We have a few different kinds,” he said. “I’m not good at identifying them, but they all have sap you can break down and they all produce good syrup.”

The harvest has been small – last year’s yield was just over a gallon, said Daniel, the result of condensing 40 gallons of sap. This year, with the mild weather, the pair got an earlier start and has hopes to increase production. But it’s decidedly a low-tech process. “You can start out in this and spend up to $150, or you can start small,” said Daniel.

As winter turns to spring, sap rises in the trees to begin their season’s growth. Starting in February, the Florences began drilling short upward-pointing diagonal holes into several maple trees on their property, spaced at 12-inch intervals around the trunk. J.D. said that the holes should be “just under or just the right size for the tap,” which can be either metal or plastic. The Florences have some of each type, and on some trees a tubing system allows more than one tap to feed into a single gallon milk jug.

The drilled holes “swell up after a couple of days, so they’ll fit the taps perfectly,” said J.D. The taps funnel clear sap into the container hanging beneath. According to Daniel, different varieties of maple trees will produce saps of slightly different colors. At the end of the season, the holes don’t get plugged, as most sources agree that “the tree heals itself in about three years. There’s nothing detrimental.”

The sap is stored until the end of the season, and the Florences team up with their neighbor, Greg Zabel, who also taps backyard trees, to cook down the sap to produce syrup. If done indoors, the steam can make for a sticky kitchen, so the process is generally done outdoors. “We did it in a turkey fryer last year,” said Daniel. “This year our neighbor has a woodstove.” They will need to construct wind barriers around the stove, he said, to prevent the lightweight stainless steel buckets from being blown over while the sap is boiling.

It’s a labor-intensive process for such a small yield, but it’s been a fun father-son project. “There’s just something about doing it yourself – the pride and wholesomeness of it,” said Daniel, who watched his father do maple sugaring years ago and now is passing the process on.”He’s got it in his blood, too,” he said of J.D., who handles the drill with confidence and checks and empties the jugs daily.

The end result will be maple syrup for the family table. Daniel said he likes his syrup best on waffles, but J.D.’s favorite serving method is a taste of the sap right out of the collection jugs – “like maple water,” he said.

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