What started as Amy Perkins’ curiosity to tap the five maple trees in her Roseville backyard has transformed into a larger, community-based enterprise to refine her—and her neighbors’—sap into maple syrup.
In 2020, after a year of experimenting with sap in her backyard, Perkins started a private Facebook group called Come On Over Sugar Bush, which now has over 130 members in the Minneapolis area. (A mother of two, Perkins isn’t working at the moment, so she can spend more time caring for and being with her family.) Members of the Facebook group bring sap they’ve collected to Perkins’ backyard, where she has a makeshift sap-refining set-up. She then guides them in the fun and tasty process of making maple syrup.
Syrup season in Minnesota often starts sometime in late February or mid-March and goes through mid- to late April, depending on the temperatures. The syrup-making process involves lodging spouts into maple trees, collecting their sap, and then boiling and filtering loads of that sap into a 30- to 40-times smaller amount of maple syrup. When Perkins first started in 2019, she used a turkey fryer to boil the sap because her five trees didn’t produce a large quantity. Her first boil yielded about three pints of syrup.
The next year, she leveled up with a makeshift evaporator that she built out of cinder blocks and steaming pans—resembling what you might see at a buffet. This method was somewhat hazardous because she quickly learned cinder blocks crack when heat is applied to them.
This year, she invested in a more permanent structure: a stainless-steel basin with a spigot for easy draining. There are challenges to all boiling methods, and the larger basin requires more sap to work properly. So, Perkins has been scoping out other maples ripe for tapping in her neighborhood.
By now, Perkins is like a trained sommelier: She says she can identify the tree that a sap came from by doing a blind tasting. She names all the trees she taps, which totaled 11 this year, to keep track of how much sap each produces.
One of her neighborhood’s prized jewels is the tree she named Whopper, based on its size and the amount of sap it produces. Whopper is large enough for two taps to be put in on opposite sides of the tree. In early April, Whopper still produced two full pales of sap, unlike the rest of the trees that she removed taps from on Friday.
Perkins has discovered that a maple’s size doesn’t always dictate how much sap it will produce. It’s a weird phenomenon, but she is on the hunt for another big one for next season.
Late in the syrup season, it was important for Perkins to taste each of the buckets—because one spoiled jug of sap can ruin the entire batch of syrup, since all the sap collected from various trees is boiled together.
The sap boils for hours, and the fire requires constant care and attention to maintain the boil, plus a lot of wood. The sap boils until all of the water in it has evaporated, and then Perkins and her helpers empty the basin just before the sap turns to syrup. Post-evaporation, the sap goes through a filtration process. This year, Perkins sped up that process by creating a vacuum system to pull sap through the filter more quickly.
The final step before bottling the golden goodness is to again boil the sap, until it reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, 7 degrees above water’s boiling point—the sap-to-syrup threshold.
It is no one-woman job. Perkins says her ideal evaporation process would include a label-organized “sap shed” right next to the area where she boils, in her large chicken coop in the backyard, to cut down on set-up time.
I happily enlisted in helping to bring materials needed for the evaporation process into the yard, and I’ll admit that I was a little sore the day after, from moving gallons of sap from the garage to the yard.
As a reward, Perkins brought out her first batch of maple syrup from the season to taste. I never thought syrup could be refreshing, but it was—as well as extremely sweet.
Closing the Valve
Facebook has been a helpful outlet for connecting with tree-tapping people in the Twin Cities area. With her Come On Over Sugar Bush group, Perkins has created a neighborly space for syrup making. She keeps track of how much sap people contribute, and returns the equivalent amount of syrup.
On Friday, Perkins boiled roughly 32 gallons of sap and yielded exactly one gallon of syrup. That ratio may seem shocking, but that is about the usual sap-to-syrup ratio.
Perkins and a friend completed the final steps and bottled that last batch to end a successful season. “We are both fully vaccinated and shared a glass of wine and bottled two gallons of syrup,” Perkins says. “What a full-circle moment after shutting down and finishing the season last year all alone.”
Want to learn more about local syrup makers? Click here to learn about the sweet-toothed monks in Stearns County and their annual Maple Syrup Festival, expected to return in 2022.