Like great dads everywhere, ours are there when we need them, even if it means many hours of hard work designing and producing a brand new product for a brand new company.
Now that Vermont Evaporator Company is all of (almost) three years old, we're looking back with a smile at the fun we've had with our dads along the way.
So, thanks for the help, dads! And, in addition to that Vermont Evaporator Company tee-shirt you've just unwrapped, here's what people say about the invention you helped us bring to life (all exclamation points are legit!):
"Thanks! After 4 years using a concrete block and restaurant pan setup for our 20 taps, we're ready to try something a lot more efficient." - Nancy (Hancock, MI)
"Top quality product . . . Have been boiling for 5 years on a homemade barrel stove and second-hand-pan, producing about 5 gallons a year. Today is our first boil of 2018 with our new Sapling Evaporator. What a HUGE difference! So stoked for our new tool!" - Jenee (Cooperstown, NY)
"We look forward to our new Sapling!!" -Stephen (York, ME)
"After running a large operation for years, the Sapling is a joy to run. It's perfect for the backyard maple syrup producer." -Tony (Ohio)
"Thank you so much, can't wait to get it going!" -Julie (Brookfield, NH)
"Thanks for the great products!!" -George (Clinton Corners, NY)
"I can't wait to use this!" -Rachel (Zionsville, IN)
"My family and I are so excited for your little Sapling and can't wait to use it in all seasons." -Taber (Laconia, NY)
"I really like the concept, looking forward to giving it a try." -Nathan (Amherst, NH)
"Looking forward to sugaring with the Sapling!" -John (Hawley, MA)
"Just doing my first boiling today and all seems to be going well. Thanks for a great product!" - Jack (Strafford, NH)
"Great to see this made-in-Vermont product - looking forward to trying our first sugaring this winter!" - Matthew (New Haven, VT)
"So excited!!!!!!" -Sarah (Portland, ME)
"Can't wait to use our new Sapling." Tamara (Montpelier, VT)
"Looks like a great fit for our sprouting sugar operation." -Erik (Stowe, VT)
"I look forward to picking up this fun new tool . . ." -Justin (Ripton, VT)
"We've never done this before ever. [The Sapling] was just what we needed. This is our first batch. . . . man it tastes great. And not a hint of smoke in it . . . Thanks again . . . . Great family run business idea you have here." - Mike (NH)
And last but not least:
"[T]his is a perfect Father's Day Gift!" -John (Taftsfille, VT)
- Kate & Justin
Vermont Evaporator Company founders Kate & Justin McCabe on the first day of their 2017 sugaring season.
The peskiest weeds in your sugar woods will be Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, and Barberry, all three found and pictured here in our sugar woods . . . for now!
It's June. Exhale. Your syrup is bottled and shelved, your pans are cleaned and stored, and your maples are leafing out nicely. You may be working on next year's sugar wood supply, tagging a few more trees for tapping, or drawing up plans for your first sugar house. You are planting, watering and weeding the kitchen garden. But are you weeding your sugar woods?
Weeding the woods? Yes! As we've discussed before, three steps a landowner can take to care for their sugar woods - especially in this changing climate - include: (1) eradicating invasive species, (2) cultivating an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protecting riparian areas and other habitat to support diversity of non-tree species. So let's start at the very beginning.
According to our sources, the three most pernicious and widespread invasive species in sugar country are Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, and Barberry. All three of these "ornamental" bushes harm the ecosystem by out-competing native plants and otherwise offering substandard living quarters and food to forest birds and animals. All three spread quickly. Not good. But certainly not hopeless.
The first step to controlling these pests is identifying them on your land. It's also the fun part! That's what we will cover in this post. Here's what you will need:
Make a rough sketch of your plot of land for marking the location of invasive infestations. A manila folder can double as storage for reference materials and can easily be squirreled away in your filing cabinet for future use.
Armed with these materials, simply walk your land and note where these species are found. Pay particular attention to the side of roads and driveways, streams, structures, or anywhere else there is a significant break in the forest canopy. Once you find one example of a species, they are easy to spot again. Plan a walk for the Spring and the Fall: while Honeysuckle is easiest to identify by its white, yellow and pink flowers in May and June, Buckthorn and Barberry are easiest to identify by their berries in Fall.
Earlier today, we took our own first survey walk, and found multiple examples of all three of these invasive plants on the one acre of our property that has some field, road and stream frontage! The Honeysuckle was rampant, shoulder high, flowering in white, yellow and pink, and easy to spot. The Barberry - knee high with distinctive leaves, thorns (don't touch!), and tell-tale buds where flowers must have been (berries will be) - was also pretty easy. But while we're fairly confident that we were able to identify the Buckthorn by its u-veined leaves, we will go back in the Fall to double check for those red-to-blue berries.
The pencil tip is pointing to the Barberry buds where, by fall, red berries will appear. You can also see the single "spine" or thorn at the base of each leaf cluster. Don't touch without gloves! They're nasty.
The abundance of all three invasive species on our property was bad news, to be sure. However, we were delighted to discover that there was no invasive infestation on the floor of our nine acres of forest! We think the thick canopy of trees with a healthy proportion of pine keeps the flora species to a minimum of native plants like ferns and trillium.
A healthy forest floor with native ferns, wildflowers and, in the foreground, some very young maple.
All in all, we enjoyed our walk in the woods, and hope you do too! Next time, we'll write up the hard work of removing the weeds from our sugar woods. Until then, enjoy the sun!
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing is an extensively researched, interesting, and surprisingly funny history of maple sugar making.
In true grass-is-always-greener fashion, summer is sometimes a time for dreaming about when it isn’t so hot out. (Guilty.) In addition to putting the garden in, moving the chickens to their summer quarters (away from the garden) and slowly ticking off the rest of the homestead to-dos, we've also started reading up in preparation for our next sugaring season.
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing, with its treatment of the history and practice of maple sugaring, is our pick for this summer’s maple beach read. It’s extensively researched, interesting, surprisingly funny, and, in and of itself, a fascinating slice of history.
Like so many to follow in the intervening decades, the Nearings left the urban life for an old Vermont homestead and, (like so many to follow in the intervening decades!) with the benefit of an inheritance, connections and some off-the-land income, struck out to make a living on the farm. For them, the journey back to the land started in 1932, at the apex of the Great Depression, spanned the tumult of the last-half of the twentieth century, and continues by way of "The Good Life Center," a nonprofit Helen created on the coast of Maine before her death in 1995.
The book is separated into three sections; the longest and of most practical use to the hobby sugar maker being the second, a 135-page chronicle of exactly how the Nearings and their peers made maple products around 1950. With chapters for identifying and cultivating prime sugar bushes, choosing the proper equipment, understanding how, why and when sap runs, tapping, storing and processing sap, and making syrup and sugar, this section - despite some obvious anachronisms (a certain tolerance for monoculture and wooden buckets, for example) - is full of practical information and is excellent company for today's backyard maple syrup maker.
While a reader should feel free to skim or skip chapter 9, regarding marketing maple products in the 1950s (What? No Instagram farms?) and the book's third section, an extended opinion piece about maple's place in making country life superior to city life (tending to be preachy, out-of-date and narrow), one should not miss the authoritative history of maple syrup that is contained in section one. Along with detail about how native North Americans obtained and processed sap and stored and served maple sugar, the Nearings throw in precious historical tidbits about how American mothers pacified restless children by feeding them maple sweets (they did it too!) how European settlers experienced maple (it was almost universally love-at-first-taste), took to its cultivation (quickly) and sometimes claimed to have discovered it first (a claim the Nearings skillfully debunk). Finally, don't forget to take a look at the maple recipes contained at the end of the book, including for maple sugar french toast, maple fudge and a method for making maple icing.
While the book was not popular at the outset, it is now. The 50th Anniversary addition of this gem is widely available and a must-not-miss for any hobby sugar maker with an appetite for learning. So pull up a beach chair or picnic blanket, grab a cold beverage, dig your heels into the sand or grass, and grab a copy from your local library, bookstore, or internet. Happy reading!
Interested in other summer homesteading reading? Check out this post by our friends at The Happy Hive!
For a summer reading list for homesteaders, check out a list by The Happy Hive!
This rugged Red Maple seedling should live to be 100 years old, come what may.
It seems that a lot has been written about the connection between climate change and maple syrup making recently (just Google it!). As we tapped our trees this weekend - a good two weeks and change before the traditional first-Tuesday-in-March timeline of 50 years ago - I recalled a presentation on climate change and maple sugaring given by Nancy Patch, County Forester for Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, last January. I recalled that, from Nancy's talk, I took away some interesting information about how climate change is and will affect maple sugaring and some important tips about caring for my sugar woods as they transition. I interviewed Nancy last fall to refresh my recollection. May this transcript both ground and add levity to your thinking on the topic!
Kate: One of the things that I recall from your talk, and one of the things that I’ve told my readers, is that Red Maple trees are going to fare better than Sugar Maple as the climate changes. Which means that backyard sugar makers of the future will still be able to sugar, but might have to work a little harder. Now that I’ve read Increasing Forest Resiliency for an Uncertain Future, however, I’m not sure. Will you explain?
Nancy: Sure. The Sugar Maple is a “Goldilocks” tree. Sugar Maples require soils rich in calcium and magnesium with the right moisture content, enough snow cover to protect its sensitive roots from freezing in the winter, and particular temperatures in order to regenerate. This is where climate change comes in.
The Red Maple is a genetically diverse tree that can thrive in a wider range of situations and has a much wider geographical range. The Red Maple can thrive in acidic soil or on ledge, in swamps and can handle drought conditions, for example.
Neither the Sugar Maple nor the northern hardwood forest in which it grows are going to disappear in the foreseeable future, but climate change – including warming temperatures, shrinking snow cover, and the increase in the incidence and severity of ice storms – will put stress on the Sugar Maple’s ability to thrive and reproduce outside of areas with optimal soil and moisture content, causing it to be out-competed by other species, including the Red Maple.
Kate: So climate change is not going to damage existing trees as much as it is going to make it hard for them to reproduce?
Nancy: Right. Reproduce and compete.
Kate: OK, so how will climate change affect the business of sugar making?
Nancy: It has already. Sugar making is a responsive industry that has long dealt with the reality of climate change. Already, professional sugar makers tap earlier [rising temperatures mean earlier springs] and use tubing systems that keep the wound in the tree open to accommodate the uncertainty of the season.
Kate: How will climate change affect the business of sugar making in the future?
Nancy: We really don’t know. It is always important when talking about climate change to note that we really don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t completely understand how trees adapt. And adaptation does not necessarily take forever. Another thing we don’t understand about trees is how they communicate with each other. So keeping the forest’s options open is the best we can do, and this means species diversity [number and abundance of species in the woods] and structural diversity [diversity of tree age and size, and existence of openings in the canopy, standing dead and logs on the ground] in the woods.
Kate: How do we keep a forest’s options open for sugaring?
Nancy: One of the things I have been pushing people to do is to keep and cultivate Sugar Maples in places where the conditions are really optimal – places where slope [the pitch of the land] or aspect [the compass direction that a slope faces] keep temperatures down, and places with mineral-rich soil and the right moisture content. Beyond that, it comes down to protecting or creating diversification among trees and other species, and ensuring your sugar woods has trees of many different ages so that when disturbance occurs there is a replacement forest.
Kate: What can backyard sugar makers do to make sure that future generations can continue to enjoy the hobby they love?
Nancy: The first thing I would tell a backyard sugar maker to do is to remove invasive species annually by cutting, pulling or burning them (when snow is on the ground and it is safe to do so). The big three in sugaring country are buckthorn, honeysuckle and barberry. This will go a long way in protecting the forest habitat, which increases forest resiliency, which means healthy sugar woods. Big producers may have too much land to completely eradicate invasive species, but someone with a ten-acre plot, for example, can handle it, and even work with their neighbors to increase the impact of their work.
The second thing I would tell them to do is to look at the diversity of trees in the 250 acre area that includes and surrounds their property, and try to figure out how close it is to containing an ideal suite of tree species for their type of woods. A county forester or extension service may be helpful there. If there’s diversity already, do what you can on your own land to maintain it. If diversity does not exist, you can plant trees or expand on what you have already by, for example, giving a mature oak some space to thrive and reproduce by thinning around it.
Finally, I would tell them to protect or create the potential for diversity for other species, including wildlife, by leaving standing dead trees [called “snags”], leaving dead logs on the ground, and, where bodies of water exist, ensuring that riparian buffers [forested area providing shade] are in place.
Happy tapping everyone!
Like shiny things? This season's Sapling Evaporator, in stock now, is a classic, flat black with stainless evaporator pan and accents. Making maple syrup in your backyard has never been this easy OR attractive!
You are seriously thinking about buying a Sapling Evaporator, but you have a few questions. Chances are, the answers are below! (And, if not, we're just a phone call or email away.)
What's the lead-time on a Sapling Evaporator?
None! Our stock is holding out well, and we're busy manufacturing more at a good clip. We work every day during the season, so orders are shipped or made available for pickup no later than the next business day after an order is placed.
How does the Sapling Evaporator ship?
The Sapling ships in a big box via UPS.
How long does it take to ship a Sapling to zipcode _ _ _ _ _?
UPS estimates place all of sugar country within one to three days of us. except for the farthest reaches of Maine, New England destinations are one day away, as are eastern and central New York. Western New York and the New York City area, as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are two-day destinations. It takes three days to get a Sapling to Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
How much does it cost to ship a Sapling to zipcode _ _ _ _ _?
We ship Saplings anywhere in the U.S. for $150, flat.
May I come pick up my Sapling instead?
Sure thing! You can pick up your Sapling, by appointment, for free!
When may I pick up my Sapling?
Our facility is generally open from 8:30-2:30 during the week and by appointment on the weekends. Shortly after you place your order, we will be in touch with you to schedule a pickup. Rushing others is not the Vermont way. We're happy to hold your Sapling for you while you plan your trip to Montpelier, an excellent day-trip destination (activity and restaurant recommendations available upon request)!
What is the best way to place my order?
Online! And thanks for asking. We're a small operation, so placing your order on our website helps us stay organized and avoid mistakes.
How many taps will the Sapling handle?
We recommend the Sapling for operations ranging from 5-50 taps for customers who anticipate saving sap up for occasional boils (e.g., weekends or days off from work). Customers who are able to boil whenever the sap flows should be able to handle up to 100 taps. The Sapling is not recommended for operations bigger than 100 taps.
How many gallons per hour can I evaporate on the Sapling?
We have measured everything from 4 to 8 gallons of evaporation per hour on our Sapling. The speed of your boil will depend on many things, including: the temperature, the heat of your fire, your level of attention and skill and whether you are using the Sapling Warming Pan or other warming situation of your own invention.
Does the Sapling come assembled?
Almost completely! All new Sapling owners must install the stack and ball valve. That involves six self-tapping screws, pipe tape (provided) and opposable thumbs (BYO). Saplings that are shipped will also need to have their legs attached with the bolts, nuts and lockwashers provided. Directions come with and are also here.
What tools should I have on hand for assembly?
A power-drill with Philips-head attachment installed should do it. A note for the apocalypse: it is possible to assemble a Sapling with nothing but a Philips-head screwdriver, but it's not fun. Self-tapping screws don't require drilling, but do pair well with power tools.
Is the Sapling portable?
Yes! The Sapling is light enough for one or two people to move it around easily (see below) and even comes with threaded holes on each foot for the intrepid customer who wishes to install casters for locomotion around easy terrain. (Hint: get the ones with breaks - you need to be able to level your unit).
How heavy is the Sapling?
All assembled, the Sapling is about 90 lbs. The heaviest part (the barrel with legs and door installed) is about 50 lbs.
What are the dimensions of the Sapling?
People usually ask because they are wondering if it will fit in their car. The answer is yes! We once fit a Sapling Evaporator in a Toyota Corolla (we had to take it apart). The partially-assembled Sapling will fit in any SUV or truck bed.
The Sapling ships in a box that is 38 x 25 x 27 (L x W x H). With legs at pickup, it's about 33 x 23 x 29 (L x W x H).
If you need more detail than this because you are installing your Sapling in an outbuilding, please be in touch!
What kind of outfitting does the Sapling require?
Besides sap, the only thing you absolutely need to bring to your Sapling is an inch or two of sand or ash to be placed on the bottom of your barrel (to protect the metal from the hottest part of your fire).
Should I firebrick my Sapling?
This is a matter of personal choice. The benefits are heat retention and added protection for your barrel. The downside is a smaller firebox. There is such a thing as half-brick, which basically splits the difference. If you are curious about how to lay your brick in your barrel, you can watch us do it here.
Can I install my Sapling in a sugar shack?
Provided you consult your local fire warden and do it safely, yes! While the Sapling was designed for outdoor use, we have many customers who have installed their Saplings inside a shack or other outbuilding.
What kind of wood should I burn in the Sapling?
Opinions vary about what kind of wood is best, but the truth is that most people just burn what is available at little or no cost. We like a mixture of hard and soft, ourselves. Your wood should be split a time or two more than you would split it for use in your wood stove so that it about the width of your arm. Best to keep the lengths to two feet or below.
How much wood do I need?
It's a hard question to answer without knowing what kind of wood you are burning, but, by way of a ballpark, we burned 3/4 of a cord of white pine to make 5 gallons of syrup in our first year operating the Sapling.
I don't have that much; where can I find inexpensive wood?
Check with a local hardware store or lumber mill. Very often, outfits that sell lumber will have or know where you can get inexpensive wood called "slag" wood - the bark edges of trees cut for lumber. You can also use old pallets, clean construction extras, or dry fallen wood.
There's no easier way to start your backyard sugaring hobby than with the Sapling Evaporator from the Vermont Evaporator Company. Ready to make your own maple syrup? You can do it! Here's how.
Thinking about making maple syrup in your own backyard this year but worried that it's too hard? As we discussed last week, it's actually pretty easy!
Having a hard time cobbling together enough time to scour the earth for supplies? No worries, got you covered, shop online!
Wishing there was a backyard boiler out there with no dials, bells or moving parts to get you started? There is, and we've got plenty in stock! In addition to being affordable (retails at $895 during the season and requires no spendy outfitting or sugar shack), multifunctional (it's also a grill and a smoker), portable (90 lbs total with the heaviest bit being 50 lbs) and easy to look at (ain't it cute?), the Sapling Evaporator form the Vermont Evaporator Company is easy to use! Doubt me? Here are the essential bits of the owner's manual to prove it.
First, you've got to prepare your Sapling for use. Here's how to do that:
Then, we sugar! CAUTION: you can never fire the Sapling without liquid in the pan or allow it to cool without liquid in the pan or the pan will burn through. Otherwise, the operation of the unit is relatively non-intimidating! Here are the details:
Don’t add too much new sap at one time, and try to maintain a constant boil. This will result in a more efficient process and lighter syrup.
To obtain high, even heat, use dry, mixed (hardwoods and softwoods) wood that is thinly split, and load often (every 5 to 15 minutes) with small amounts of wood to maintain a consistent level of heat.
Think you need more air flow to sustain optimal temperatures? Open the bung on the bottom of the back of the unit (if your unit has one) before you fire up next time – that might just help.
Yep! It's that easy. Ready to try?
If you've identified your maple trees, everything else you need to know in order to make maple syrup in your backyard is here in its shortest form.
Sugaring season is drawing close. You want to start this year but you aren't sure you have time to figure it out and get your operation in order! It's almost February!
Not to fear. Here is the shortest guide to backyard sugaring ever made. You can DO it!
Step 1: Get Equipped
As long as you've identified your maple trees (and any maple will do as long as it is at least 12 inches in diameter) all you need to do is get a hold of some simple tools and equipment and you're ready for your first boil. The list of stuff you need is short:
For more about this stuff and where to acquire it go here.
Step 2: Tap
It depends on where in maple country you live and what the weather is doing. Sap runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not. So, right now our customers in the Southern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic - Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - report that they are already tapping and collecting. In the Northern Midwest and in New England, however, we typically don't tap until at least mid-February and sometimes not until March. And we've got customers at certain elevations in upstate New York, for example, who have to wait until April! So pay attention to what the weather is doing and what other sugar makers are doing in your area. A great resource for the latter are the forums on mapletrader, which are broken down by state. Or you could ask your local sugar maker and make a friend and ally in the process.
How do you tap?
Easy. Learn here.
Step 3: Collect Sap
Monitor your sap containers daily so that the sap does not overflow or get to warm. When your containers are full, or when the sap is exposed to warm temperatures or direct sunlight, collect from the tree and store in snowbanks in the shade, a cool garage, or other naturally refrigerated place in 5 gallon buckets or other large food-grade container. Sap will keep for a week or so at refrigerated temperatures. It is OK for sap to freeze. In fact, some of us throw out the ice chunks on the theory that it's just water. And it's OK for you to mix the sap from different maple trees together. It all tastes the same.
Step 4: Boil
When you have time to boil, boil! This is going to take a while, so either start as early as possible in the evening and know you aren't sleeping much that night, or, better yet, choose a day when you would be home anyway.
Exactly how this goes will depend on your arch. If you have a continuous-flow pan, like the Sapling Pan or the Seedling Pan, you will flood the pan with sap that you've strained through your cheesecloth, start your fire, and continuously pour sap into the entry point. And wait. You should be able to make 1 or 2 gallons of syrup in a 10-hour day with our products.
If you have a series of flat pans, you will flood all pans with strained sap, start your fire, and consolidate the boil into one pan as the levels in all pans reduce, leaving pan(s) open for new sap to be processed. And wait even longer.
If you have one flat pan, you will flood the pan with strained sap, start your fire, and occasionally fill the pan back up again with sap. And wait the longest of them all.
Regardless of your getup, you will measure the temperature (with thermometer) or sugar content (with hydrometer) of your boil at the exit point or final boiling pan, and pour-off/dump-out syrup when it measures 219 degrees F or 66 brix. OR you can also just dip a spoon or spatula into the boil, and observe how it behaves coming off the utensil and/or on to a cold plate. Syrup is said to "apron" off a spoon, and acts like syrup as it cools on your plate. Sap doesn't. It acts more like water in both scenarios.
Step 5: Filter and Store
Filter your syrup right away, pour immediately into food-safe containers, and invert the container briefly to sterilize the inside of the lid. If done quickly enough, this is all the canning process you need to keep syrup safely in a cool, dark place for two years! For more detail on safe canning, see here.
Need more help? Or prefer a guide you can hang onto in the woods? We recommend Maple Sugaring at Home, by Tap My Trees, available here. It's affordable, easy to use, and covers the basics in more detail.
Have fun and keep in touch!
At Vermont Evaporator Company, all our hobby maple-sugar-makers feature "baffled" or "continuous flow" pans, because it makes sugaring more efficient, even in the backyard. But why?
You know what a continuous-flow pan is, but do you know why it's better for sugaring than a flat pan?
To address this question, I asked Expert-of-Sorts, Andy Boutin, General Manager of Pellergy, and, conveniently, co-lessor of 157 Pioneer Center, Suite 1. As Andy was moving stuff around our shared warehouse, I shouted questions at him, and he shouted back, pausing every once in a while to draw me a diagram. Here’s how our high-volume conversation went:
Kate: People want to know why continuous-flow evaporators are more efficient than evaporating on a flat pan. I gather the answer lies in understanding a principle of physics called a “gradient.” I’m trying to figure out what a gradient is, what it has to do with sugaring, and how a continuous-flow evaporator exploits that principle to make more syrup in less time. Can you help?
Kate: Wait. What did you study again?
Andy: Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture.
Kate: Hmm. But that involved a lot of Physics classes, right?
Andy: Yes. There’s a lot of fluid dynamics in that education, with ships and man submersibles traveling through water at different densities. It’s relatable.
Kate: Sold! Why is a continuous-flow pan better for sugaring than a flat pan and what does it have to do with the “gradient.” According to Lord Google, gradient is defined as “an increase or decrease in the magnitude of a property (e.g., temperature, pressure, or concentration) observed in passing from one point or moment to another.” What does that have to do with the price of syrup?
Andy: Lord Google is correct, of course, but that's not how I would explain it. Let’s back up.
Gradient is “physics” for as you move through space or time, something that can be measured changes gradually over the course of that distance. So, on a hot summer day, in a house with no internal doors (or doors that are open), if you climb the stairs from the basement to the first floor, the first floor to the second floor, and the second floor to the attic, you travel through a temperature gradient. A gradient is a gentle slope, not a cliff, and is not the result of a physical barrier. So, when, on that same hot summer day, you cross the street and open a door to a nice, cool, air-conditioned house, you are not travelling through a temperature gradient – the change is not gradual and is the result of a physical barrier.
There are a number of gradients at play when sugaring, but probably the most important one for purposes of this discussion is the density gradient that results from changes in sugar concentration as water evaporates and sap turns to syrup.
Kate: OK, I’m with you. Are there density gradients no matter how you sugar?
Andy: Yes. But they don’t operate the same way in every pan. Envision a flat pan the same dimensions as the Sapling Evaporator Pan---20” x 30”---but with no baffles. Think about the pathway from sap to syrup in that pan. Put the sap in. Start the fire. Water boils off. You add more sap. Now you have a density gradient: the denser liquid is at the bottom of the pan and the less-dense liquid is at the top of the pan. Every time you add sap, that density gradient forms (and, by the way, you kill your boil). So you have to keep boiling and boiling until the entire pan is the same density, and then you draw it all off. That’s the batch process. The gradient works against you, not for you, when you batch.
The concentration gradient works FOR you in a continuous-flow pan, both in terms of efficiency and quality. Now take the actual Sapling Evaporator Pan---20” x 30” with two baffles---and what you have is a pan that operates as if it is a 10” x 60” pan, squashed over the firebox. Now: put the sap in, start the fire, water boils off, you add more sap to one end of the pan only, and you’ve rearranged the gradient into a flowing river, where the less dense liquid pushes the denser liquid toward the pour-off, instead of a stagnant pond with muck settling at the bottom.
Kate: That’s quite a visual. Thanks. And there are efficiency gains as well as quality gains, you say?
Andy: Yes. In the flat pan, the gradient is only as long as the pan is deep, with a baffled pan, the gradient is as long as the different channels all stretched out. The efficiency is in the continuous flow that the latter gradient arrangement allows for – there’s no time-killing start and stop to your boil. The quality gains are that when you do draw off, you are able to take off only one density of syrup, even while other densities exist in the pan simultaneously.
Kate: One last question. Is it just me, or when you Google “sugar gradient maple” does the internet try to sell you wigs and quilting fabric?
Andy: Um . . . It’s you.
At the Vermont Evaporator Company, we specialize in manufacturing and selling backyard, no-sugar-shack-required maple-syrup evaporators and evaporator accessories, like the Sapling, pictured above, direct to consumers, online. For the rest of what you'll need this season, we've curated some other online resources for you. Happy shopping!
One of the questions I get the most is "where do I get sugaring supplies?"
The truth is that we have cobbled together a collection of old galvanized buckets and antique spiles from local hardware stores, flea markets and by word-of-mouth for our hobby. Hardly a satisfying response for the budding sugar maker, I'm afraid. Besides which these sources, especially hardware stores, tend to have supplies only seasonally.
Depending on where you live, Craigslist may be a good choice. We have certainly gone there for bigger items like sap storage tanks with success. But again, supplies are likely to be seasonal.
Some of us are lucky enough to live within driving distance of brick-and-mortar maple sugaring supply businesses and have the time and inclination to go there. But, then again, many of us live in the boonies and just don't.
So what's a backyard sugar maker to do? Let's start with the basics. You already have a drill and a 5/16 or 7/16 bit. Right? You have trees. Yes! You need buckets and spiles, sap storage containers, maybe a thermometer and/or hydrometer, filters and maybe some bottles. OK.
I've culled through a number of online resources and here's what I've come up with, in no particular order:
www.sugarbushsupplies.com - This site gets the awards for having abundant useful information and for its range of choices. It has a wide variety of taps at decent prices, and a few different bucket choices as well as sap storage solutions. It has a lot of thermometers, hydrometers and filters to choose from and there's good information and pictures so you can make a good choice on all three. (For example, the catalog explains that a double layer of filtering, including a filter and pre-filter is recommended for gravity filtering.) They even carry reasonably-priced hobby filter packs and kits! How nice! Finally, if you are in the market for bottles, whatever bottle you're hoping for is probably in this selection. You must place your order by phone, but I would not skip looking through the catalog, if only for education. The PDF Catalog can be found here.
www.bascommaple.com – The used buckets and lids (at very good prices) are the best thing about this site, which is otherwise a bit overwhelming in its vastness, at least for this beginner. The spile selection and pricing are decent. The storage tanks are abundant but expensive, save for one reasonably-priced plastic 55 gallon drum. The hydrometer/thermometer section (labeled, confusingly, only "thermometer") and the filter section, which are also ample, come with no guidance; the syrup container selection, which speaks for itself, of course, is vast. The site suggests that shipping and handling fees are added after you pay and notes that there is a 10% restocking fee. All in all, though, worth a look if you know just what you are looking for, are looking for used buckets or are looking for things in bulk or case quantities.
www.leaderevaporator.com - This website is hard to navigate; best to hunt for what you are looking for by using the search function and paying attention to the navigation headings. I bet the catalog is a great read, but, unfortunately, it was in a format that I wasn't able to download. The best thing about the site are the downloadable instruction manuals (which I was able to download). Very educational if you're looking to take your research to the next level. Leader carries a good variety of buckets and alternative collection containers and a couple of hydrometers and hydrometer cups, but no thermometers that I could find. Its line of spiles is more limited, but does include the aesthetically-pleasing, old-fashioned cast ones that carry the company name. Very romantic. Storage tanks are available in several sizes and not outrageously expensive; the site notes that you must call to arrange shipping, though. The filter selection is modest; the bottling selection, adequate. You have to register as a customer to purchase.
wwww.cdlusa.net - This is a giant, professional site geared toward giant, professional sugar makers. But there are some gems, including overall lowest prices on the basics. CDL boasts the best prices on new buckets (listed beside snowshoes in "miscellaneous!") and on spiles (listed under "fittings and tubing"). It does not appear that CDL has a consistent supply of metal buckets, but has a variety of plastic ones, including, excitingly, a gray plastic bucket, the likes of which I've never seen, and which may many-a-marital-argument solve. CDL's prices on its vast array of hydrometers and thermometers (both filed under "measuring tools," "brix" and "temperature," respectively) are also the lowest. Hydrometer cups are listed separately with other draw-off items. Storage tanks are there, but their prices aren't. Yikes. Syrup containers abound and at the lowest prices around. If you prefer it to surfing, leaf through the giant catalog. You have to register as a customer to place an order online.
tapmytrees.com - This site looks like it affords the best online purchasing experience out there for a beginning back-yarder. It is an easy website to navigate where the buckets and spiles are nicely packaged and displayed with other items - like hydrometers and filters - that you might be in the market for. Shipping is free, but you do pay for all this convenience, as the prices are higher, the selection is very limited, and some things that you will need (sap storage containers, pre-filters) are simply not available. Still, if you want to get started with the least possible amount of thought, or are giving a gift to an aspiring beginner, this is a good enough place to pull the trigger; you can see the whole inventory here.
mapletrader.com – Ah, the eBay of maple sugaring supplies! If you are down with used goods, here is where you will get your best prices. There are lots of old galvanized buckets and lids and old cast-style spiles- fewer hydrometers, thermometers and sap storage containers, but it's the kind of site you have to troll for best results. Obviously not a great place to get filters and bottling supplies. But if you are willing to piece it together, totally worth a look! Go to the classifieds here, search for what you are in the market for and you'll see what I mean!
The Sapling Evaporator is engineered for maximum backyard efficiency!
A few months ago, a prospective customer named Tom emailed me with the following question: “I love your maple syrup evaporators. But, without being a jerk, why should I spend $895 on a Sapling when some guy is selling a homemade barrel evaporator for $300 on Craig’s List? What’s the difference?”
I’ve now been corresponding with Tom for a few days. And I can assure you that he is most definitely not a jerk. Not only that, but his question is a very, very good one! So, without being a jerk, here’s what I told him:
First, the Sapling is engineered for maximum backyard efficiency. Although the Sapling is simply designed, it is engineered especially for sugaring, and has some of the advanced features of more expensive evaporators. Most importantly, the Sapling’s stainless pan is baffled, which allows it to operate as a continuous-flow evaporator. Continuous-flow evaporation merits a blogpost in itself, but suffice it to say that this configuration allows syrup to be drawn off and sap to be added without emptying the pan. The continuous flow is more efficient than boiling off sap in batches, or pouring the boil from pan-to-pan.
I've talked to a LOT of people who have used the kids of homemade barrel evaporators Tom is talking about. Typically, those evaporators use a cast-iron, barrel-stove kit and hotel pans, both widely available items, to convert the barrel to an evaporator. The barrel-stove door does not have as much space for air intake as the Sapling’s specially engineered door does (making it harder to keep temperatures optimal for sugaring), the legs are shorter (requiring more bending on your part), the exit pipe comes out of the top of the unit rather than the back of the unit (leaving less surface area for boiling, which means slower evaporation) and, MOST importantly, the pan(s) are not baffled, meaning that you have to batch your boil, or pour from pan-to-pan, instead of doing a continuous-flow boil. From the (literally hundreds of) conversations I've had, I'd say that the Sapling, which boils at anywhere from 4 to 8 gallons of sap off per hour, depending on conditions, is easily twice as efficient as a comparably-sized batch operation.
Second, we stand by our Saplings, which are built to last. Our Saplings are coated with a high-temperature powder coating that is both durable and clean for the environment. And, all fasteners and hardware on the exterior of the Sapling are either powder coated or made of stainless steel. Homemade barrel evaporators probably don't have stainless fasteners, typically have cast iron pieces that rust, and are not at all likely to be powder coated.
We are a going concern, and are in this business for the long haul. Our reputation is important to us, and we support our customers whether they are happy with our products or not. (So far, so good!) That homemade barrel evaporator guy may not be as responsive to your requests for customer service as we will be. Take Tom, for example. He asked a question, and got an essay!
Third, the Sapling is multifunctional and can be accessorized. The Sapling is not just an evaporator! Each unit comes standard with grates that convert the Sapling into a wood-fired grill. And now, with the purchase of the Sapling Smoking Package, the Sapling can be a smoker too! Soon, a Sapling-shaped heavy-duty cloth cover (like a grill cover) will be available for purchase, and we hope to launch a warming pan that will fit neatly on the back of the Sapling in time for next sugaring season. The Sapling is unique among all evaporators for its multifunctionality; the current and future availability of Sapling accessories sets it apart from homemade units of all kinds.
Fourth, the Sapling was built with safety and the environment in mind. This is my last-but-not-least point. Saplings start as new, unlined, unpainted steel. They are assembled, media-blasted, powder-coated and outfitted with a stainless evaporation pan bearing lead-free welds and a lead-free pour-off valve. Our operations are so environmentally responsible they require no permitting.
As far as we are aware, homemade barrel evaporators are made with barrels that have been used, lined, and/or painted. Such barrels are widely available at little or no cost. When we were in our R&D phase, we started with used, painted barrels too. We learned quickly that this would be a mistake in production.
To start, in order to put high-quality, high-temperature paint on used barrels, you have to clean off the old paint, which is not suitable for high-temperatures. Otherwise, the old paint will peel off right under the new paint on the first burn. This is extremely difficult, dirty, and time-intensive work that we suspect lower-cost barrel evaporator makers do not engage in. Unfortunately, many people who have made their own evaporators have reported to us that they burned the old paint off before applying the new paint. We do not know whether homemade barrel makers engage in this environmentally suspect practice, but we most-certainly do not.
Even as we were bemoaning the work involved in rehabbing an old barrel, someone was mistaken (or less than honest) about what had been in one of the used barrels we purchased and we had a health and environmental issue on our hands the moment we opened it up. We handled it responsibly, and everything turned out fine, but it put us off used barrels for good. Now, we doubt whether anyone would work on and sell to you a barrel that smelled as bad as this one did, but nevertheless, we feel REALLY good about being able to tell people that we use new, unused, unlined, unpainted barrels to make our Saplings. You do not know where that used barrel has been! And we are not messing around with safety!
Tom is still thinking about whether to become a customer, but I appreciated his inspirational question so much that I offered him a free Sapling Cover if he came our way. So take this as a not-so-subtle hint, readers. Send me your thoughts!
And thanks, Tom!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.