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By ZAK GRIMM
“Despite the weather changes, we basically had as good a year as we did last year,” said Fredericktown native and longtime farmer and maple-syrup producer, Dan Brown. On Saturday, March 11 and Sunday, March 12, 2017, alongside his wife, Kathie and extended family, Brown once again opened his family farm, Bonhomie Acres, and sugarhouse to the public for two days of demonstrations and tours.
Visitors learned the process of “sugarmaking” from nearly every member of the five generations of the Browns. On Saturday, everyone enjoyed pancakes prepared by a member of the Chef & Catering lab at the Knox County Career Center, coffee, or vanilla ice cream–complete with delicious, freshly-made Bonhomie Acres maple syrup, a favorite among visitors and the Brown Family. Families were also welcome to partake in “The Sugarhouse” coloring books for kids, and could enter a raffle to win a specially-made gift basket full of maple products.
During both days, Kelly Brown and fifth-generation sugarmaker and son, Ross, guided visitors through a short hike around the immediate property of Bonhomie Acres, where they learned some of the history of the land and got a front-row seat in seeing the two methods that the Browns use to gather sap from their enormous collection of maple trees.
All the sap in a maple tree starts in its roots. Early in the year, that sap remains in the tree’s roots. When the weather warms up, the trees begin to change and produce buds. As this happens, the sap begins to flow from the roots, up through the tree to its branches.
“All we’re trying to do is collect a little bit as it’s going up and down the tree. That little bit that we’re collecting doesn’t hurt the tree at all,” said Ross. A few of the oldest trees at Bonhomie Acres look incredibly weathered and beat up. But, as long as it has branches growing that produce buds each year, the Browns will continue to tap it.
“It’s amazing what a maple tree will do to survive,” Ross added. Even if a tree has a noticeable disease, it’s nothing that will affect the sap’s quality.
In the beginning of the season, there aren’t as many minerals or bacteria in the tree, and there isn’t as much sugar in the tree’s branches. This creates a very light-colored amber syrup. As the season goes on, and the tree starts to lose more minerals and sugar, the color of the harvested syrup will darken, eventually creating syrup that is not worth gathering.
“Sugar content in sap is about 1.5%, and sugar content in syrup is about 67%,” said Kelly. “We have to evaporate the difference.” It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
In the syrup-making process, there are two collection methods. Though they’ve since stopped for the vast majority of their sap collection, for decades the Browns used 5-gallon metal buckets with taps attached to the trees. “When people think about making maple syrup, they think about these buckets. So we keep some around for nostalgia,” said Ross. Among the reasons for the switch, the Browns know that buckets are extremely labor-intensive during the season. They have to be emptied at least twice every day.
Not all the maple trees at Bonhomie Acres have been tapped, however–at least, not yet. Though the biggest trees on their acreage are over 200 years old and are well past their very first tap, and many younger ones are somewhere in the middle of their lives, still others are too young. According to Ross and Kelly, to tap a maple tree, it must be at least 10 inches in diameter. For the Browns’ purposes, a 10-inch tree gets one tap.
For the bigger trees, how do the Browns decide how many taps to use? “It’s a ‘very scientific’ process,” laughed Ross. “We hug them. If I can hug a tree, and my fingers don’t quite touch, we’ll put a second tap in it.”
A few of the oldest trees in the home woods have three taps and three buckets, and one in particular, said Ross, consistently fills all three buckets every day. “Usually, they’re overflowing by the time we can get to them. There’s no rhyme or reason for it, but that one tree will out-produce anything else we have.” Most of the smaller trees have been planted, he added. The Browns spend a lot of time in the summer in the wooded areas thinning out dead, dying or problematic trees.
Some producers use hanging bags to collect sap, but with the volume that the Browns process year after year, a tubing system is the preferred method. For miles throughout Bonhomie Acres, the tubing is connected directly to the sugarhouse by a gravity-assisted vacuum system. The system uses both sap-collection and vacuum lines, and there is about eight miles of tubing in the immediate area around the sugarhouse.
“We’ve used the tubing for about 30 years. We place it in November and December, and it stays up all year-round,” said Kelly. Sometimes, because of the wishes of the individual from whom the Browns lease the wooded area, they’re asked to take down the lines after the sugarmaking season ends.
“That’s actually fine with us, because it’s so hard to find people that will let you lease their woods in the first place, for what you want to do with it,” said Ross.
When the Browns do tap their maple trees for sap, they keep the tree healthy as long as possible by drilling the same size hole, whether the tree is young or old. The Browns put a new tap and new hole in tree every year. In just 2017 alone, they added 1,600 new taps, totaling around 7,000 in all. They carefully place each tap in a drilled hole four inches above or below a previous hole, and at least one-quarter of the way around from the previous hole.
“The holes heal up very quickly, because they’re so small. We also cut the tap off and replace it, mainly for disease prevention. Many people don’t consider diseases for trees, but we have to take care of what takes care of us. Maple trees are our business, so any way we can prevent diseases in these trees, we’ll do it,” said Ross.
With an extensive tubing system such as the one the Browns have built comes an inordinate amount of work. But, unlike using buckets or bags to collect sap–where a great deal of time is spent in the woods during the sugarmaking season, when the temperatures and weather are often at their worst–using tubing is extremely labor intensive before the season begins.
But that doesn’t mean that the Browns aren’t working hard. Truthfully, they spend a great deal of time during sugarmaking simply inspecting lines.
“Making maple syrup, you are in the worst weather possible. You’re up to your knees in mud, or it’s freezing cold, and you don’t want to be out there. So this is where the tubing comes in very handy,” said Ross.
The number one offender for affecting the work of the vacuum tubing system is squirrels, which often chew on the tubing. Regular inspection is a must, and even the smallest holes must be repaired. Surprisingly, the smallest hole can cause a noticeable drop in vacuum pressure–sometimes dropping the system’s workload from 20 inches of vacuum down to 16 inches.
The tubing method is designed to work both with gravity and with the aid of a vacuum system.
“In this part of the country, that works great. There are rolling hills, and a nice grade on everything. What gravity doesn’t take care of, our vacuum system carries the rest of the way to the sugarhouse,” said Ross. “Our goal is to pull 20 to 25 inches of vacuum on all our woods. That means for every inch of vacuum that we can pull through these lines, we’ll gain 5% more sap. If we can pull 20 inches of vacuum, we’ll gain 100% sap. It doubles our production. 2017 really paid for itself in that sense. I put up the 200 buckets right around this area close to the sugarhouse, and in 21 days of making syrup, we emptied the buckets three times. If we hadn’t had the vacuum system, we’d have only made three days worth of syrup,” said Ross.
According to the Browns, the system will bring sap to the sugarhouse on days when Mother Nature won’t let any sap run. Without a slope in each line, however, the sap would bunch up in the lines. If the sap bunches up enough, it can back up into the taps, and then disease can run rampant, destroying the sap, and thus, the syrup.
“Every day after Thanksgiving, we’re out in the woods checking the lines. We check for holes, downed trees, but we also hold onto each line, and walk its entire length, feeling for any issue to solve. The hardest part of that task is being able to hear the hiss of any puncture in the line. Repairs in the line can be done by splicing with special parts, but often it just takes a couple wraps of electrical tape when you’re out in the field. Later, you can come back and fix it permanently,” said Ross.
From the vacuum tubing, the sap is brought into a very large holding tank, then pumped into the main sugarhouse. Inside the sugarhouse, the sap flows from two 2,000 gallon holding tanks into a reverse-osmosis machine, removing the right amount of water, leaving sap. From there, the sap is further filtered down to separate it from its gritty impurities, creating a more concentrated product. Roughly every 40-60 gallons, the large pan in the evaporator that the sap flows into gets switched out for a new one, because the natural grit will accumulate and need cleaned out. Accumulated grit can also cause the sap to affect the taste of the eventual syrup.
Maple sap has a shelf life very similar to raw milk, so it is vital that the system the Browns utilize keep running smoothly and efficiently, so the number of people it takes to keep things moving inside the sugarhouse has changed from one to at least three at one time.
When the sap reaches about 66% sugar, it is considered syrup. It is then put into very large holding barrels, and when its ready to put into final jugs, it will get reheated and then packaged.
“Two out of every 15 years, you’re gonna have a season like we’ve had this year, in 2017,” said Dan Brown. The 2017 sugarmaking season, like similar years, fluctuated between cold & warm temperatures, which accounts for nearly everything that matters in collecting good sap for maple syrup.
“But, the chances of having another one aren’t very good,” Dan added. “It’s not really a pattern–some may want to think that way, but they don’t have the records beyond 5-10 years of doing it. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we had some really easy years. Now, we’re seeing some not-so-good ones. But this year was a good year.”
With the boiling frenzy having ended for this season, the Browns decided to show visitors to Bonhomie Acres on Saturday and Sunday how they make maple sugar–a relatively new venture for the family business. Making maple sugar usually takes about an hour from start to finish, and you get about seven pounds of sugar per gallon of syrup.
“Anybody can make sugar. Sugar is easy to make,” said Dan. The biggest challenge, however, is because the syrup is so hot, and sticky, that if you get any of it on you, it’s just going to keep burning you.
“It can definitely be a 2nd or 3rd-degree burn. Gloves, long sleeves are a good idea,” Dan said.
“Beyond that, you can’t really mess it up, and if you do, just start over,” he said. Once you’ve collected sap and turned it into syrup, first heat it to 250-60 degrees–with a good thermometer. Then, you stir or mix it until the moisture is out of it. After that, sift it, and you’re done!
“The quality of the sap is what determines the quality of the sugar. Darker grade syrups typically create more caramelization, and darker sugar. If I make maple sugar for competition, it’s actually almost white, because the syrup I’d use would be medium-light amber, or very close to it,” Dan added.
According to the Browns, the amount of sugar is exactly the same in any grade of syrup, regardless of color. Also, continually reheating syrup will darken it. Cooking with syrup is best with the darker grade, because it has the most robust flavor. “The older you get, the more you enjoy the darker syrup, because your tastes change.”
In 2017, the Browns expanded their extensive offering of Bonhomie Acres maple syrup and maple products around Ohio to include two additional grocery stores in Columbus, as well as the popular eatery 1803 Bacon.
To learn more about the Brown Family’s journey with sugarmaking at Bonhomie Acres, their history, product line for purchase, recipes, and contact information, please visit: http://www.bonhomieacresmaplesyrup.com/.