“Sap’s Running!” are mighty sweet words in March
LOMIRA – “Sap’s Running!” are mighty sweet words to anyone who enjoys the art of making maple syrup. When the nights are freezing and the days are warm, the sap begins to flow and the work begins.
The process continues until the buds start to come out on the trees. That’s when the syrup takes on a bitter flavor, the sap stops flowing and the season is over.
The native Indians taught the white man how to extract sap from the sugar maple and how to make syrup and sugar from it. These natives used it as a food preservative, much like the new settlers used honey or salt.
In the early history of this country, maple syrup was the principal sweetening used. Then cane and beet sugar became cheaper and maple syrup became a luxury product.
Many old-timers remember when nearly every farm family whose woods included any maple trees took part in the annual spring ritual of maple syruping.
One of those farm woods is owned by Jerome Schwartz, who at age 80 is no longer collecting sap and cooking it down. But his friend, Kevin Schuett, has taken over the task.
Schuett says when he was in high school he milked cows for Schwartz and helped with other chores, including hay-making. While he did not grow up on a farm he says his heart has always been in farming.
“I helped Jerome with the syrup process back, too, but I didn’t like it then," Schuett recalled. "It was a lot of work.”
As soon as Schuett's shift at Grande Cheese is over, he's busy this time of year out collecting sap and cooking it down in the center of the woods, just as Schwartz and his parents did for generations.
While he terms it a hobby, for the entire month of March it consumes all of Schuett's free time. His wife Micky, son Mike, and daughters Staci Mansuets and Holly as well as his grandchildren also get in on helping with the task.
On a nice springlike day last week Holly was out in the woods helping her dad. A fourth grade teacher in Beaver Dam, Holly took advantage of the school's spring break to collect sap.
While she hasn’t actually brought her students out to the woods, Holly does take some of the equipment for collecting sap back to her classroom to help students learn more about the process.
Recently during a family work day to collect syrup, Holly says her boyfriend proposed in the woods, adding to another sweet memory made out in the woods.
“(Holly's boyfriend) asked me the day before so our whole family knew this would be happening," Schuett said. "Holly was the only one who was surprised.”
The family has always enjoyed time spent in these woods. In fact, each Easter for the last 9 years. the Schuett's spend the day out in the woods with other friends and relatives.
“We hide 700 (plastic) eggs for the kids to find. Most of them have candy in them but a few have coupons for special gifts,” he said.
Reviving a tradition
Schuett started collecting sap on the Schwartz farm in 2009. The trees on the Schwartz farm had not been tapped for a few years but all the equipment was still there.
As the family became involved and Schuett learned more about the process, he continued to expand the operation.
In the early years, Schuett used 70 taps and buckets but now use nearly 1000 taps.
Only 200 of their taps empty into bags with the rest of the tap sending the sap via tubes which send the clear liquid via gravity to a collection tank in the center of the woods. A vacuum pump helps maximize yield.
“Some of the land right around the tank is flat so the bags work better,” he says. “The land that is sloped works good for gravity flow.”
Squirrels and deer, of course, are hard on both systems.
Schuett says the hard maple trees produce better sap than the sugar maple. While some people feel a tree needs to be old and huge to produce good sap, he has had good luck with the smaller younger trees. Many of the trees in the woods were logged out 20 years ago but the ones that remain are healthy and producing just fine. The Schuetts also removed around 70 ash trees a few years ago due to disease caused by the Emerald Ash Borer.
The Mayville man says 2021 appears to be an average, or slightly above average season for maple syrup. Last year they produced approximately 200 gallons of syrup and he expects it to be about the same this year.
“The season generally lasts four to six weeks,” he says. “Once the temperatures hit 60 degrees for a couple days it’s done. All the old-timers say it ends at Easter and that’s usually the way it is.”
Since he lives in the city of Mayville where he does the final bottling and processing, he Schuett really enjoys the opportunity to get out onto the farm and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.
Of course, not every day in the woods is pleasant weather but he knows farmers are used to working in all kinds of weather conditions.
To protect the equipment from the elements, Schuett built a roof over the cooking vats and has added an additional vat to the original one that Schwartz had on the farm. The recent addition is modern-style flu tank with has accordion-like panels to increase the heating area and speed the process of cooking the syrup down. With the upgrade in technology, Schuett is able to cook down about 1500 gallons of sap in 10 hours. It’s an on-going process.
“If I owned this woods I would have built a sugar shack but I didn’t want to invest a lot in borrowed land," he said. "The roof helps protect the vats from rain, though.”
Once the water is evaporated off, he puts it in milk cans to transport it home for the final processing and filtering. There he heats the sap to 186ºF and pours it into bottles that are sealed tight.
Schuett says it take 40-42 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup. The amount of Maple syrup produced each year varies but one thing is constant: he always sells out. Schuett markets the syrup at the Watertown Farmers Market and out of his Mayville home. With many repeat customers, marketing has not been an issue.
Of course, his family uses quite a bit of the syrup. They all enjoy it, particularly as a topping on ice cream. It's also a family favorite served on pancakes or as a glaze on carrots and ham.
One of the unique things he has done, just for fun, is putting some of the syrup in a bourbon barrel that he obtained from a friend.
“I put the syrup in and age it for eight months,” he describes. “I just do that with one barrel that I got from a friend who has a distillery at Minoqua. The bourbon in the wood gives the syrup a unique flavor and when I’m finished with it I return it to him and he uses it for whiskey to pick up the flavor of the syrup.”