Two months for the maple crew: How UConn’s Forestry club turns tree sap into liquid gold

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February 22, 2019 

It’s 1 p.m. in the afternoon. A layer of snow coats the ground and the small, wooden building tucked away on the side road off of Horsebarn Hill.  

All is quiet — save for the rumble of a truck engine as it rolls its way down the road. University of Connecticut natural resources professor Thomas Worthley emerges, his breath fogging the air. While it’s still cold, it’s finally above freezing as Connecticut slowly lurches its way to springtime.  

The warm afternoon and the cold night before can mean only one thing: It’s the perfect day to get to the sugar bush. 

“That gets the saps flowing,” Worthley said.  

UConn’s Forestry and Wildlife Club, with the help of the Forestry Crew, spends February through March tapping sugar maple trees for the treasure inside — hundreds of gallons of sap which, when boiled down, yields the maple syrup so many use to drizzle over pancakes and oatmeal. UConn’s Sugar Bush is one of 34 sugar houses open to the public in Connecticut, and it is operated entirely by students.  

Worthley has been an extension professor at UConn for nearly two decades and has overseen UConn’s maple syrup production for about half that time, providing guidance and institutional memory to each new crop of learners. 

“The sugar maple operation is just one of the activities we manage,” Worthley said. “While it’s mostly self sustaining, someone needs to stay on top of the whole thing.” 

Most of the Forestry Club, surprisingly, aren’t natural resources majors, Worthley said. They join for the experience and the education. 

“There’s a learning curve. That’s part of my role,” Worthley said. “They learn a little about forestry reserves. They do something real. They can experience using tools and equipment. Building a woodfire is not something most people get to do every day.” 

Students begin to trickle in, piled up in cars that crunch over the slush and ice on the road.  

Natural resources and environment (NRE) senior and one-year member of the Forestry Crew Meghan Coleman is on her second sugar run this year. Several students scurry around her, grabbing drills, valves, gas cans and a pump and tank setup into Worthley’s truck.  

“I’ve learned a lot,” Coleman said.  

The crew is hoping for a good run this year. It takes 40 gallons of sap to yield one gallon of syrup, and last year’s haul was scanty from a lack of warm days. The higher temperatures are critical, Coleman said, since it makes the sap rise from the tree’s roots and up to the branches.  

Once the truck is set up, the students get ready to set out for the sugar bush — a patch of sugar maples they use to tap. It’s part of the UConn Forest, a 2100-acre land parcel used for teaching, hiking, preservation and observation.  

The sugar bush is located north of the sugar shack, about a 10 minute drive that leads to a narrow dirt road. You can tell when you’ve arrived when you see a blue spider web of tubes connecting trees to a central tub, from which a drip-drip-drip can be heard within. 

Far from the tap-and-bucket system many children learn about in school, this setup uses gravity to feed the sap into the tank at the bottom. This particular patch, one of two locations, contains about 50 to 60 trees. The crew will rotate based on the yield since the trees can fatigue, Worthley said. 

The lines stay on year-round, junior NRE major Nicholas Cranmer said, with occasional cleanings of watered-down vinegar. This is his first year running for sap. 

“It’s been a really cool experience to see,” Cranmer said. “I want to continue protecting these forests so we can have them for the future.” 

As the crew sets up the pump to get the sap from the central tank to the transport tank on the truck, Cranmer heads into the woods to tap a few new trees. 

The process is fairly simple: Cranmer drills into the bark of the tree, stopping about two inches in, sending sap spilling down the side of the tree. Then, using the blunt side of a hatchet, he hammers in a plastic valve, which he then hooks up to the rubber tube line. The sap flows down the line and joins the rest, down to the waiting tank below.  

The sap itself is far from the amber syrup found on grocery shelves. It tastes of water with a hint of maple. 

Cranmer finished his rounds and heads off with the others, who have finished pumping about 60 gallons of sap into the transport tank.  

Back at the shack, the rest of the students are preparing to test the evaporator. The sap is stored in a tank at the tap, which is gravity-fed to the stovetop operator. Inside the uninsulated wooden hut, a hot wooden fire is going. 

The next several weeks will be spent gathering and boiling. The finished syrup is bottled and sold, which is used to bolster the club’s funding, Forestry and Wildlife club treasurer Nikki Pirtel said. 

“This is our main source of fundraising,” Pirtel said. “We sell it to the public, to students, we sell it to anyone.” 

March 1, 2019. 5:30 p.m. 

Smoke is pouring from the chimney of the sugar shack, which has acquired a new layer of late-winter snow. The rich smell of maple fills the air.  

Inside, steam rises to the roof as NRE student Travis Kornegay stirs the vat. He adds a few drops of fat compound, which breaks the surface tension of the mixture. Another student shoves logs onto the fire, which grows hotter by the minute, making the base of the stove glow. 

“This is what boiling’s all about,” Pirtel said. “We just stand around a fire.”  

The sap has to get to 219 degrees before it reaches its boiling point.  

“It’s not really how hot the fire is,” Noah Seltzer, a member of the UConn Woodsmen, said. “It’s all about the finished product.” 

The Woodsmen, UConn’s lumberjack sport crew, regularly lends a hand for the maple boiling process. As the fire roars inside, two members of the crew chop logs outside, their hatchets sending woodchips and snow flying.  

The sap on the evaporator takes hours to boil down, which the crew divides into shifts to watch. As more water evaporates, and it thickens, it flows into different chambers that separate the batches by thickness, which is tested by a gravity hydrometer — a device that tests the syrup’s density by weight. 

“When you put it in finished syrup, the weight should float,” Pirtel said. “It’s thick enough.” 

The first batches of syrup will be Grade A: Light, watery and delicate. As the season wanes, minerals from the trees will make the syrup thicker, darker and more flavorful — Grade B and C. Waiting at the end of the line are pint and half-pint bottles, the syrup’s final containers before being sold.  

Production has been good so far — the group is aiming to boil down 50 gallons at the end of the day. 

“We have to boil a lot of water to get to the sap,” Pirtel said. “We’re gonna keep going until the end of March.” 

April 6, 2019. 3:12 p.m. 

Pirtel stands outside the shack, once crowded with students and hot with smoke and steam, now cold and empty. The last of the snow is now melting away as warmth embraces the hills. The croak of spring peppers can be heard from the marshes nearby, and students and families walk in the sunshine, unencumbered by long-worn jackets. 

The season is over for the sugar bush. Overall, the crew has gleaned 10 gallons of syrup– 400 gallons of sap, or about 13 bathtubs’ worth. 

“We lost quite a bit because it was warm over Spring Break,” Pirtel says. “About 100 gallons– it spoiled.” 

Still, 10 gallons is nothing to sneeze at — nor are Pirtel’s sales. She’s pulled in about $400 over the course of the day selling to passersby, selling over 30 half-pints at $8 each, and a few whole pints at $15 each. The NRE office also sells during the day, until the stock is gone. 

“It was a really great year,” Pirtel said. “It’s been a real help having the Forest crew around, we wouldn’t have gotten this much sap without them.”

Some onlookers will come to buy and look. Pirtel gives them a mini-tour of the shack, explaining the process behind the tiny bottles she sells. They don’t see the fire or the crowd, the steam or the trees, but they listen attentively nonetheless. 

Pirtel watches them go, and looks proudly over the product of her and her colleagues’ work. 

“It’s cool showing it off,” Pirtel said, glancing at the shack. “People don’t even know this exists.” 


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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