This is the time to think "maple syrup." Pancakes. Waffles. On the veggies. The barbecue. Or how about on your coffee cake or cereal. Now we're cookin'. So meet the Adamski's Sugar Bush of Antigo, Wisconsin. We bumped into the family at work in the field and at the sugarhouse. They made our visit a lot of fun. We arrived unexpectedly, they did know us at all, but their hospitality, grace, and eagerness to teach made for a great afternoon.
March 29, 2006
We're driving along Hwy 52 in far northeastern Marathon County and southwestern Langlade county on a wonderful spring Sunday and see a bunch of people on the side of the road along with a bunch of pickups. So, we stopped to see what was going on, and, to our surprise, received a terrific education on the maple syrup business from the Adamski family of Antigo, Wisconsin, in Langlade county.
The family has run Adamski's Sugar Bush maple syrup producing business since 1984. A maple syrup production farm is known as a "sugarbush."
Mrs. Adamski explained that the sap of sugar Maple trees is not much more than sugar water. She said mid-to-late March is the perfect time to harvest that sugar water in this area. We have since learned that as the seasons change from winter to spring, the freezing at night causes the sap to move upward in the tree, and the thawing allows it to flow downward. It's the downward flow during the thaw that enables tapping the sap.
This is not a good photo, but you can see what is called a "spile," in this case, a metal spile. A hole was drilled through the bark and the spile inserted. A new hole must be drilled each year. The old hole closes through a natural healing process and will produce sap for only one season.
You can see that the spile on the outside of the tree is shaped like a trough. You can also see a drop of sap that has flowed out of the tree, down the spile's trough, in this case, ready to drop to the ground.
In the old days, buckets were hung from the spile. The Adamskis use blue plastic bags instead, which are lighter and less expensive to use. These bags have a partial vacuum, which means the sap can fill it up without having to displace much air. If you look closely, you can see the spile coming out of the tree. The trough is inside the bag. The sap drips in there, one drop at a time.
As you can imagine, you need a lot of trees and bags to collect enough sap to make this a profitable business. This is especially true since later in the production process, they will get rid of 75 - 80 percent of the water in the sap to get at the syrup and sugar. This is a look at one section of land the Adamskis were working. They had already emptied the bags on these trees and replaced those with new bags.
The Adamskis, during our visit, were using two vats, one truck, one tractor, a bunch of buckets, and "troops" from the family to get their work done. The truck on the right has the mega-vat. That truck is parked on a short but stable dirt driveway off the main road. The syrup collection and retrieval business is a muddy one. With the thaw, the ground by the trees is pretty soggy. You can see the tractor has chains on one rear wheel, and the front wheels have a track digging design to get in and out of the mud. The tractor has a smaller vat. You can also see a stack of blue buckets on the back of the tractor.
Let's highlight the process here in the field.
First, you've got to go to the filled bags. In this case, the family moved down Hwy 52 just a bit.
The family hopped aboard the tractor with the smaller vat and buckets and they head down the road to the filled bags.
Once there, they each grab some buckets and walk to the bags filled with sap. We like this shot because it shows the youngest of the group heading off to empty the bags.
He had earlier posed, while all the adults ran away from the camera. Ha! This is one of the wonderful aspects to the family business here in Wisconsin --- the younger set pitching in and carrying their load.
Here's mom heading out to collect the sap as well.
These are what those bags look like filled to the brim. As you can see, the sap looks like water; it's really sugar water.
Each family member empties their bags into a blue bucket and walks the buckets back to the "boss." He empties the sap into a trough which moves the liquid into the vat on the tractor. Once this vat is filled, they drive back to the truck and transfer the contents from the smaller vat to the larger one.
It was a beautiful day and we could have stayed here watching this Adamski team get the job done.
Mrs. Adamski, the real boss, in the foreground.
Instead, we asked Mrs. Adamski if she had her own production facility or used another company or a co-op. She quite proudly responded she had her own production operation, and told us how to get there. It was about five miles away.
Her directions were good, but we got lost anyway and overshot our target. We stopped at "Not Bob's" Tavern on the corner of G and Hwy 45 in Antigo to get directions.
It was a good time to stop because George Mason was playing UConn in their "Elite 8" college basketball game of the March Madness Final Four tournament. My wife bet on Mason while I bet on UConn, so we were anxious to find out what the status was. Upon walking into the filled tavern, there were three televisions on and each one had a NASCAR car race! No interest in March Madness here.
In any event, the guys in the "Not Bob's" knew where the Adamskis lived. We got directions and off we went down County G West to Winter Road. Mrs. Adamski told us the place would be easy to spot; all we had to do was look for lots of steam flowing into the air. Sure enough, the production facility was easy to spot.
Being a rookie to all this, we expected a big stone block building with cars out front and workers inside. What we found was a small high tech facility with only GaryAdamski inside, alone, a one man production operation. This facility is called many things, from sugar shanty to sugar shack to sugarhouse.
Gary was a gracious host and informative teacher. This was quite an operation. Let's see what we learned.
The fundamental process is fairly simple. You have to boil down the sap, eliminating about 75 percent of the volume, all of which is water. Then you're left with the syrup, and if you get rid of more liquid, you get maple sugar.
In the foreground, off to the left, but unfortunately not in the photo, is a cylindrical "cleansing" machine. The sap brought from the field is put through this filtering mechanism to get rid of the junk in the liquid. The liquid then flows into the large troughs which are visible in the left.
If you look to the rear right of this shot, you see a door and perhaps you can make out that there is equipment in there. We'll zoom in as well as we can.
Back in the room through the door is a "reverse osmosis" "pressure cooker." In the old days, producers had to evaporate off the water, 75 percent of the sap, by heating it, often with wood fires, a time consuming and expensive method. In broad terms, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so the Adamskis have to collect a lot of sap and reduce quite a bit of it to get what they're after. We note that the scientists over at Ohio State University add some precision; 42 gallons of water must be evaporated to produce one gallon of syrup; said differently, you need 43 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup.
Gary's "pressure cooker" speeds up this process exponentially. It applies enormous pressure to the solution, forcing it through membranes that separate out what Gary wants, the syrup, from the water. The membranes contain pores large enough to pass water molecules, but too small to permit the passage of sugar and other large molecules. The mechanism removes 75 to 80 percent of the water from the sap. This process reduces energy consumption, the time required to get the syrup, and exposure of the syrup to high temperatures, when compared to using a woodmapl fire. That said, more water has to be removed from the concentrate.
Once done, the concentrate is transferred over to this holding tank ready to go through a final evaporation process.
This is a wood-fired maple sugar evaporator. The concentrate is transferred to the mid-section. Below it is the wood burner oven. You can see the heavy doors to the left or front of the machine are closed. Gary opened those for us and we'll show you that in a moment. The heat below warms up the concentrate in the mid-section to the boiling point. Care must be given not to overheat and scorch the concentrate. The steam rises into the vent above and out through the roof. That's the steam we saw to find the operation!
Here's a great shot of the fire Gary has built under this "bad boy."
Of course, someone has to feed her. This is very reminiscent of the fireman aboard a steam locomotive stoking his fire to stay on schedule. Gary has to do the same thing, keeping that liquid at just the right boil.
Once boiled down to the right consistency, the syrup flows out and into these containers. How do they know when the syrup is ready? The old pros, respectfully known as "sugarmakers," used manual eyeballing methods such as the "blow" and "apron" tests. Today precision instruments are used to determine the correct syrup density. Measuring boiling point elevation with a thermometer is a primary method for monitoring the density of actively boiling concentrated sap in an evaporator or finishing pan and determining when it has reached the correct density. We believe that's the way the Adamskis do it. You can see an adjustable dial-type thermometer in use here, located next to the faucet.
This is a fascinating yet simple process. If you wish to study the details, including the science involved, we recommend the Ohio State "North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual."
The period March 15 through April 15 is Wisconsin Maple Syrup Month. Wisconsin has the 8th largest maple syrup industry in the country, having produced 50,000 gallons in 2005 from 400,000 set taps. Nationwide, in 2004 about seven million taps produced 1,507,000 gallons of syrup. Vermont was the leader at about 501,000 gallons, about a third of US production, followed by Maine and New York.
Our thanks to the Adamski family --- what wonderful Americans!