This year, the sap run is behind schedule due to a longer winter
By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
It’s maple syrup time. At least, it should be. This year, winter is hanging on longer than usual so the maple trees are not giving up their sap at their usual time. But, as the weather during the day warms, and the nights stay cold, the sap will soon be running.
The Krolls are ready. Four generations of the maple syrup makers have placed about 1,500 taps in many of the maples on the Kroll property and are waiting for the process to begin.
The farm, just outside Long Prairie, has been in the maple syrup business for about 53 years. The farm was originally settled by Hans Kroll’s great-great grandparents, the Heinck family.
“My dad, John Kroll, started making maple syrup when I was about 6 years old and he still is a big part of the process,” said Kroll. “I grew up making syrup.”
Kroll said the first syrup house was just a shack, slab wood and tin. Today, it’s not quite state-of-the-art, but close.
“We started making syrup just for ourselves. We would place several hundred taps in the trees and use large tin bakery boxes to collect the sap,” said Hans.
In about the 1960s, the tins were replaced by thick plastic bags which hung from the taps.
“They were hard to use and harder to clean. They didn’t last long,” said Kroll
From those, the Krolls graduated to disposable plastic bags, which they use today.
Sometimes, though, galvanized tin buckets with roofs are brought out to deter squirrels.
“The curious squirrels won’t completely destroy the plastic bags, but will poke a hole in them. The sap will drip out as fast as it is going in,” said Kroll.
More contemporary operations today use vacuum pumps to get more sap from the trees, maximizing the harvest. The Krolls still let the sap run at its own pace.
Beginning in about February or March, depending on how many trees are going to be tapped, Hans locates the maples which are at least 12 inches in diameter. Those get one tap. When a tree reaches 18 inches in diameter, it can have two taps.
A 7/16-inch bit is used to drill a two-inch deep hole in the maple. The tap, a metal tool that guides the sap to the waiting container, is then snuggly tapped into the hole.
“We need to finish tapping before the sap runs, so the more trees we have to tap, the earlier we need to start,” said Kroll.
The science behind sap running is complicated, but Kroll said the weather needs to be cold at night and warmer during the day to optimize the flow.
“When the air temperature is below freezing, the tree’s capillaries contract, which draws the sap upward. When the weather warms, the capillaries expand and the sap descends. When the pressure inside the tree is greater than outside, the sap will flow out the tap,” he said. “When the weather remains warm, the tree breaks its dormancy and the sap goes directly to feed the leaves and we are done collecting.”
The sap will flow at different rates, depending on the temperature. One tree can give three gallons of sap a day if the weather is right.
The taps on each tree are never in the same spot. Each spring, the holes are drilled approximately six inches to the side of the previous year’s tap and about three inches up.
“The scarred spot is stronger than other parts of the tree and the sap doesn’t run as well,” he said.
A bucket or bag is hung from the tap immediately, and the Krolls then sit back and wait for the run.
“If the weather suddenly turns cold, the sap will stop running, but will start up again when it warms,” said Kroll who goes out almost daily to check the progress.
“A run can last from a week to a month,” he said.
All the Krolls become involved in collecting the syrup.
Hans’ son Thomas aid he loves collecting, he loves being in the woods.
John, Hans, Thomas, Hans’ daughter Leah Murtha and her children all help out.
The family dumps the sap into five-gallon buckets, then transfers it to collecting tanks being pulled on a trailer through the woods. The sap is then brought to the cook house where it’s pumped into a holding tank above the cooker.
“The chambered cooker is gravity fed. The sap will enter the cooker through pipes that preheat it. The sap runs through the cooker’s chambers, boiling at about 219 degrees as it moves,” said Kroll. “In the last chamber, the syrup is then drawn off into containers, being filtered as it enters.”
The entire cooking process takes about six hours.
When the sap leaves the maple tree, it has about a 2 percent sugar content. It is clear and not sticky. Kroll needs to evaporate enough water from the sap to reach a density of 66 – 67 percent sugar.
As the sap cooks down, the color changes, in part from the caramelization process, from clear to the amber color people associate with syrup. The cooking process gives the syrup it’s color, body and taste.
The sap is about 98 percent water when it leaves the tree. The syrup contains about 33 percent water.
“To ensure we have the correct amount of sugar in the syrup, we use a refractometer which measures the sugar content with light and prisms,” said Kroll. A refractometer will measure how the light is refracted in the syrup. The higher the sugar concentration, the more the refraction.
If the sap contains 2 percent sugar, the ratio of sap to syrup is approximately 43 – 1. That means if the Krolls collect 430 gallons of sap at a 2 percent sugar density, the family will produce 10 gallons of syrup.
They have collected enough sap in past years to make more than 600 gallons of syrup.
Two of Kroll’s grandchildren, Brennan and Delaine Murtha, said the best part of the entire process is tasting the syrup as it comes out of the cooker. With mugs and spoons in hand, they blow on the hot syrup until it’s cool enough to sample.
Kroll said that this is not his main source of income, but a hobby, something to do in the spring. Besides creating maple syrup, he also is an organic dairy farmer.