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Last year at this time, loyal readers may recall, when writing about my annual sap-boiling tradition, I computed the cost of the maple syrup I eventually produced through an extraordinarily labor-intensive process at $837.50 a gallon.
Today (Saturday), when I expect to spend about 12 hours collecting sap and tending a wood fire, I am estimating the per-gallon price will shoot up to $238.12 a quart – or $952.48 a gallon.
This anticipated inflationary adjustment will have nothing to do with the quality of the syrup – I won't be sure of how it will taste until about 10 minutes before I stop boiling – but is based purely on supply-side economics.
Basically, because of this ridiculously warm season I have way less sap and may only yield a quart or so after the ashes settle. Last year, thanks to a perfect combination of frigid nights and balmy days I gathered more than 60 gallons of sap and wound up with nearly two gallons of syrup.
Of course my 2012 estimate of $952.48 is based not just on supply but also on demand, and if the finished product winds up tasting like Palmolive dish detergent I may have to adjust the price downward, say to about a nickel a gallon.
A quick Maple Syrup 101 tutorial: Before winter maples store starch in their trunks and roots, and as spring approaches the trees convert this starch into sugar that rises with the sap. You drill, or tap trees, install metal spiles to collect sap, and then boil it to produce syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.
But is you wait too long, or if the weather is relentlessly warm, you can wind up with "buddy sap," or sap from trees that have already begun to bud, which produces a soapy, yucky-tasting syrup. Also, in warm weather the sap can start to ferment before you boil it, which also ruins the taste.
Last year nearly a foot of snow covered the ground when I hammered two-dozen spiles into about 20 trees (I doubled up on a few of the larger ones), and devised a makeshift refrigerator around the storage barrels to keep the sap from spoiling.
Lacking any snow for refrigerant this year I'm using frozen water jugs to keep the sap cool and am hoping for the best.
Last year I traipsed from tree to tree on snowshoes, which Day videographer Peter Huoppi chronicled during a short documentary on my very modest, back-to-basics syrup operation.
This mild year I strolled around in Tevas while drilling taps and rigging plastic collection jugs with baling wire.
I've got the fire pit all ready – parallel rows of stones upon which rests a wrought iron grate I salvaged from the dump – along with a heap of wood.
More sophisticated, commercial producers employ elaborate evaporators or reverse-osmosis contraptions inside sugar houses, but I boil my sap the old-fashioned way, over an open fire in the great outdoors.
Early native Americans didn't even bother boiling the sap; they let it freeze and skimmed frozen syrup off the top. This year, of course, with temperatures often in the 50s, they'd be out of luck.
I hammered my taps in only a week ago, and was rewarded instantly by a steady flow of sap as if from a dripping faucet.
This reaffirmation of life always fills me with joy. Some harsh winters it seems as if nothing could possibly have survived those bitter dark months.
I'll start the fire about dawn, and a few friends may drop in later on to help toss sticks on the fire; the smart ones will arrive precisely when I pull the pots off the grate after dark and pour hot syrup over pancakes cooked on a griddle over an open fire.
A dollop of vanilla bean ice cream, and you have the closest thing to ambrosia this side of Mount Olympus.
Here's hoping for sweet success.
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