Back by popular demand! For the month of December, Sapling Evaporators come "gift wrapped" with a big red bow!
The hubbub of Thanksgiving has passed and you are looking forward to the gift-giving part of the holiday season! (Or, maybe not, but you're still participating in it. It happens. Might as well do it up.) You have an actual or aspiring backyard sugar maker in the family, and you would like to get them something they can use for their hobby maple syrup operation.
You are in luck! Here's why. First, sugaring season comes swiftly on the heels of the holiday gift-giving season. So, unlike that trowel set/pressure canner/hunting rifle you've been eyeing for the same person, backyard sugar making tools can be used shortly after they are opened!
Second, buying for the backyard sugar maker does not have to be expensive. Rather, the tools you need are simple, easy to find, and cover a variety of price points. There are bulky, big ticket items, to be sure, but also plenty of smallish, down-ticket items appropriate for . . . say . . . eight gift-giving nights in a row. . . a stocking, or . . . a package with postage that doesn't break the bank!
Oh, but you don't know anything about sugaring? Or you don't know much? No biggie. Got you covered. Breathe. First of all, remember gift certificates. Second, include a gift receipt. Third, just get educated. Let's dive in.
First off, decide what category your gift recipient falls into. Are they (1) an aspiring sugar maker, or (2) an amateur who has made maple syrup on their stove / grill / other self-fabricated outside contraption. Knowing the answer to this question is important, as you will see.
The list of things any amateur sugar maker needs is short and as follows:
If any of those items reached out and grabbed you already, awesome! We've reviewed six online stores where you can purchase the supplies here, and you can find our product line here.
Otherwise, here are some recommendations:
For the Aspiring Sugar Maker
The aspiring sugar maker has always wanted to make maple syrup but hasn't pulled the trigger yet.
Awesome! For the modestly adventurous, consider a starter kit like this one, which comes with some how-to guidance. You could also spend less (or get enough to tap something more than three trees) by sourcing the same or similar stuff elsewhere and reading the shortest guide to maple sugaring ever (written by yours truly). Consider throwing in a couple of food-safe 5-gallon buckets, a syrup filter and pre-filter, and a case of half-pint mason jars for the complete package.
A Seedling Urban Evaporator over a cinder block fire (either wood or propane via a turkey fryer base or the like) would be an appropriate pan for as little as a three-tree operation. And, bonus: any purchase from us allows you access to the (unofficial) Vermont Evaporator Company Sugaring Hotline (my cell phone), which, my customers can tell you, is open at all times of the day and night for sugaring urgencies and emergencies!
If your aspiring sugar maker is moderately to highly adventurous, consider outfitting them for a ten-tap start instead (a drill and/or bit, ten buckets, ten spiles, cheesecloth, pre-filter, filter). There are several stand-alone, how-to guides out there, but also plenty of similar information becoming available on the internet.
A Sapling Evaporator Pan over a home-made wood-box, or a Sapling Evaporator will come in handy for a ten-tap operation.
For the Amateur Sugar Maker
More even than an aspirant, though, the actual-already-amateur sugar maker will appreciate a "real" pan or rig. As your budget allows, consider upgrading your loved one from that bucket-over-an-open-fire, broiling-pan-on-the-grill, inside-the-house operation by maybe adding to their bucket-and-spile collection (be sure to confirm that they have more trees to tap!) and springing for a new pan. The Seedling Urban Evaporator ($295) for up to ten taps, the Sapling Evaporator Pan ($315) or Sapling Evaporator ($895) for five to fifty taps.
Looking for something more modestly priced? How about some fancy syrup containers for their next harvest, or a good maple read (I can not recommend The Maple Sugar Book often enough) for off-season reflection on a favorite hobby? Or - in the category of boring but important - consider a 55 gallon sap storage container, handy for storing sap between weekend boils.
The first chapter in the history of maple syrup is a uniquely Native North American one.
First there were historic midterm elections, and then I turned 40. (Nope! Not unrelated! My mother and father voted on the way to the delivery room.) Then there was the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I---Armistice Day---and yesterday was Veteran's Day. We're just about to celebrate Thanksgiving, and, all the while, November is National Native American Heritage Month. I guess you could say that, with this year's change in the weather (read: annual slowing down), there's been more than the usual amount of reflection going on over here.
And that's as it should be. My election-related birth-story aside, each of these commemorations honor different bits and pieces of our familial lore. A woolen vest that my maternal great grandmother (pictured seated below) knitted for my great grandfather during World War I hangs in my closet; he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army at 16. I sit beside a framed picture of my paternal grandmother preparing to fly a domestic supply plane while my grandfather was half-a-world away in a helicopter bound for the eastern front (and while my husband's grandfather commanded a tank on the western front) of World War II. A cousin on one side manned a Navy submarine during the cold war, and an uncle on the other was there with the Coast Guard when the wall fell, marking the end of it.
I will be the queen of pie again at Thanksgiving this year, bringing the traditional trifecta of pumpkin, apple and pecan to the table. My mother will do the cranberry bread and cranberry preserves, the sweet relish and pickles (all family recipes) and my mother-in-law one bird, the gravy, and the stuffing. (My husband will smoke the other on our Sapling!) I will rely on my father, as usual, for his signature green bean (amandine) and broccoli (polonaise) dishes. And somehow, in the chaos of so many cooks, I'll manage a skin-on mashed red potato with parsley and a "squished squash"---the unadulterated butternut dish of my childhood. We'll rely upon a local bakery for the rolls. Sigh. I can't wait!
Until last year, though, I didn't even know November held another occasion for slowing down and reflecting: National Native American Heritage Month. And now that we're several years into running a business manufacturing equipment for backyard maple sugar makers, it seems a good time to pause, remember, and give thanks for how open-air sugar making got its start many hundreds (thousands) of years ago here among the native peoples of North America.
Corn, beans, cotton, tobacco and maple are all crops first developed by the Americans. Unlike with the first four products, there were a handful of prominent European immigrants who purported to take credit for the discovery of maple syrup or maple sugar (we'll call out a certain Jesuit Priest, P.F.X. Charlevoix, on the latter). However, history and common sense weigh heavily against these lonely historical voices. Rather, European writings overwhelmingly describe the processing of maple as a traditional activity engaged in by tribes covering a vast geography of present day United States and Canada, with the language, customs and legends you might expect to attend to any practice of cultural importance.
Contemporaneous European writings indicate that maple sugar making was an activity widely engaged in across the continent among tribes that lived---at least at the time Europeans made landfall---across and even slightly beyond present-day sugar country. To appreciate this geographical scope, note the traditional territories of the Abenaki, Algonquin, Chippewa, Cree, Housatunnuk, Iowa, Iroquois, Kansa, Kickapoo, Menomini, Ojibwe, Omaha, Osage, Ponka, Tuscarora and Winnebago peoples---all of which are among those mentioned in European writings about maple---on this awesome map.
Native American words for maple are interesting too. Algonquins call maple sugar sinzibuckwud (drawn from wood), while the Tuscarora, Omaha/Ponka words for sugar - urenakri and janija - mean, simply "tree sap" (likewise, the Winnebago tanijura niju means "wood water" or "wood rain"). Like present day sugar makers, the Americans appreciated the difference between a maple tree generally---ninautik (Ojibwe for "our own tree")---and the sugar maple, sheesheegummawis (Ojibwe for "sap flows fast") too.
Far from being decried as "the cruelest month(s)," however, many Americans celebrated March or March and April as the "sugar moon," and European accounts of the ceremony, dance, feasting and revelry that attended what we now call "sap season," "boil-off season," or "maple syrup time" abound. (This, perhaps, should come as no surprise, as at least one European immigrant noted that maple sugar sometimes functioned as a stopgap against famine here in the early spring months.) According to European writings, an Ojibwe custom involved a tribal leader mixing together maple sugar from the prior year's harvest with the first grains produced in the present year to kickoff an annual feast, for example. And several tribes recounted to Europeans legends explaining the origins of maple---one as the unintended consequence of cooking with sap instead of water in order to save an arduous trip to the river, and another involving a divine being watering down what used to flow out of the tree as syrup as an instruction in proper work ethic (or rebuke for the lack of same).
The way the Americans made maple sugar, however, will sound quite familiar to the backyard sugar makers of today. As was common among the descendants of European (and other) immigrants up until just half-a-century ago, Americans typically set-out to live in a camp nearer to the family's sugar stand when the sap began to flow. In a number of traditions, the camps belonged to the women and were passed down matrilineally. Unlike today, where practices vary, it was predominately the women of the family who ran the sugaring show, with the aid of children and youth (and, less often, or for specific tasks, grown men). They made bark sap buckets, bark buckets for transportation and storage of sap, "tapped" the tree with a gash and a wooden chip, and oversaw the boiling itself, which, until Europeans brought and traded metal cookware, took place in hollowed out logs into which were placed hot rocks. Like we do today, the Americans were known to throw the ice off of the top of a sap or sap-storage bucket to concentrate the sugars (it is officially not cheating!), and even store sap in large shallow pans to produce more ice (nature's reverse osmosis!) to drink the sap, eat fresh syrup and maple toffee (present day "sugar on snow") during the boil, and make gifts of their maple bounty (typically by pouring almost-sugar into carved wooden molds of animals, birds, people, celestial bodies and more)!
Because of the non-existence (or, after European arrival, scarcity) of glass and metal, however, the bulk of the American maple crop was made all the way into sugar and packed into bark baskets for transportation and year-round storage. This was done, as it is today, by continuing to boil past the sugar and toffee stages, and by stirring constantly until crystallization occurred. (Apparently, the Americans' maple sugar lumps, like mine, sometimes needed a good whacking in order to resemble sugar. Which is also nice to hear.)
Americans ate maple products on their own (see above) but also relied upon it, in the same way Europeans relied on salt, to season their food. By way of example, European immigrants recorded eating corn porridge sweetened with maple sugar, rice, nut and fruit dishes seasoned with maple sugar, and dipping sauces made from maple sugar and bear fat on dry or cooked venison. American mothers were said to give their children small baskets containing sugar from the year's first sap run, and lumps of sugar throughout the year when quiet behavior was unattainable using other methods. (Thus vindicating many a modern-day parenting style!)
There's much more, of course, than what I've related here. If you are interested, pick up this book as a start. I'm looking forward to relating more to you during next year's observation of National Native American Heritage Month. Until then, enjoy the annual slowing down, travel safe and enjoy your loved ones this holiday season.
Together in Maple!
This blogger's heritage is also North American! I am pictured here with my matriline, which traces back to the Mi'kmaq, a native people of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland and Maine. The Mi'kmaq word for the month of March translates to "Maple Sugar Moon." We've long since lost our ties to this branch of the family, but I guess you could still say we've got maple syrup in the blood!
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.