Where the syrup flows

The tale of 'Maple Hill'

BIG RAPIDS — In early spring, when temperatures dip below freezing at night and rise above freezing by day, sugar-bush owners know it's time to tap the maple trees.

Who knows how many Michigan residents tap the trees on their properties for the fun of making their own maple syrup? One Big Rapids family taps a slope of maple trees on their property they call “Maple Hill.”

Jim Carey, owner of Carey’s Sugar Bush, and his son, Jamie, tap more than 1,200 trees to produce their Michigan maple syrup.

Carey has been making maple syrup since he was nine-years old. His family has been making maple syrup in Michigan since 1870, Carey said. He grew up in Beaverton where he would help produce approximately nine to 12 gallons of syrup with his father. In 1973 Carey started making maple syrup on their property northeast of Big Rapids.

Usually Carey begins tapping trees in late February, but this year he and Jamie had to walk through 4 feet of snow, in late March, to tap the first trees. While this year's maple sugar season was off to a slow start due to the long, cold winter, Carey said the sap has been flowing steadily for the past several weeks.

“The sap generally flows for four to six weeks,” Carey said. “I was worried at first, but it seems like the season is the same as last year, it just started later.”

Jamie uses a motorized tap drill to make a hole that is 2.5 inches deep. Going deeper than that could injure the tree, by going into the hardwood. When he removes the tap, syrup begins dripping almost immediately. Carey then steps in and uses a hammer, to tap a spout, called a spile, into each maple.

The tradition of collecting sap and producing syrup in America has hardly changed since the Native Americans discovered it hundreds of years ago and shared their sugar making skills with early settlers. A hole is drilled into healthy, mature trees, a spile is inserted and a galvanized pail is hung to collect the sap.

However, Carey has changed his method by using plastic coils of tubing that he attaches to the each hard plastic, spile.

Once the lines are attached to each spile, the sap then drips down in the tubing and gravity does the rest. Lines of flowing sap crisscross the property downhill, to a large holding tank. The tank holds between 250 to 400 gallons of colorless sap, which is 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar that has a cool, light and sweet flavor.

"I always joke with my dad about him using these tubes after I left for college," Jamie said. "It sure is easier than emptying buckets every three hours."

The reason they collect a lot of sap to make their syrup is because of the long cooking process to remove the water content.

“It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of natural syrup,” Carey said. “We boiled down 9,000 gallons of sap last year to make 250 gallons of syrup and we are well on our way to finish that.”

The Sugar Shack is the name the family gave to the building where the sap is transformed into sugar, Jamie said.

“We still fire our evaporator with wood, while using modern equipment to ensure the highest quality product. Our syrup is 100 percent pure with no preservatives or additives,” Carey said.

Wood is added to the fire every six minutes to keep the evaporator at 700 degrees while the family is making maple syrup.

“As long as there is sap boiling we need to keep the fire going,” Carey said.

The raw sap enters the evaporator from the holding tank. As sap travels through a series of channels and becomes thicker, it eventually deposits in the syrup pan.

"This is a continuous flow machine where the sap enters from one end and flows through the channels as it is heated to evaporate the water," Carey said.

The syrup is heated and thickened even more. Using a hydrometer, the family tests a cup filled with syrup for the proper consistency and density.

“Finished syrup legally has to weigh 11 pounds a gallon,” Carey said.

Once the syrup reaches its density point the syrup panned off into a tank with several filters, Jaime said.

“All pure maple syrup has natural sediment, called sugar sand, when it is made,” Jamie said. “It is perfectly safe, but people want to see a clear product. That's why we filter it.”

Once all of the sediment has been removed, a valve is opened and the syrup drains into five gallon buckets to be stored for bottling later.

Carey offers several types of syrup containers, both decorative and practical, he said. Plastic containers with the Michigan Pure Maple Syrup logo come in gallon, quart and pint sizes. Decorative glass bottles in the shape of a maple leaf are also popular.

"The bottles make great gifts and people seem to like them," Carey said.