Collins family has been making syrup for five generations
As late February and early March rolls around each year, Beth Collins, of Cottonwood, gets the itch to pack up and head north to the Collins’ maple grove and get to tapping trees. Checking trees, tapping trees and collecting the sap that becomes sweet maple syrup have been a lifelong hobby for Collins and her entire family.
“My grandfather, Philip Collins, started collecting sap and making syrup in the 1940s, and after awhile, he dabbled in it until my dad, Phil Collins, got a little older and decided we should really get into it in the early ‘60s. Now my nieces and nephews help and are the fifth generation to learn the ins and outs of making maple syrup. All that time we have collected sap from trees that grow on the same 25 acres that my grandpa started with. We typically start around 200, taps each year with two to three taps per tree, unless the tree is ready to be cut down for firewood, and then I am going to tap that tree for all it is worth. A tree might become stressed by dry weather, infested with bugs or damaged in an ice storm and then it would have to come down but not until it is tapped one last time,” said Collins. The Collins’ maple tree grove is located at Pengilly, Minn. That is about halfway between Grand Rapids and Hibbing, on the Iron Range.
“We used to use a wood hand drill to tap the tree but that felt like it would take forever. We now use a brace and bit attachment on the chainsaw that is powered by two batteries, and I can tap 60 to 70 trees in no time. The holes are tapped at a very slight angle, so the sap is allowed to trickle down. They are then flushed with water to make sure no wood shavings get into the sap. It is a pretty simple routine. We have a pail of water and a turkey baster to flush it out, and it works real well, until the dog decides she is thirsty and takes a drink out of your pail while you flush the hole. Then it is back to camp for another bucket of clean water. We carry all our tapping equipment on a sled because there are still two or three feet of snow in that area when it is time to tap. Once the hole is flushed a tap is inserted and a bag is hung to collect the sap.”
There are many things that can be used to collect sap. Some people use three-pound coffee cans by just drilling a hole at the top and screwing them right to the tree, but you really have to check them often or they will be running over. Most any container that has been used to hold feed can be used, with the exception of a ketchup or pickle container. Even though they have been washed, a ketchup container will turn the sap red, and the pickle container will give the sap and strange taste. The Collins use large plastic bags designed for that use. They are disposable, but they often wash them and use them at least once more. Occasionally a squirrel will chew through a corner of the bag for a sample. The Collins carry a roll of duct tape when checking bags to patch these holes. If a bag has been nibbled on or rubbed thin from moving against the tree it is thrown away.
“One year when we had our syrup stand at the state fair a lady asked my mom why her [the lady’s] syrup tasted funny. My mom walked through the whole process with her and finally asked her what she had used for collection containers. She admitted she had used the buckets that kitty litter came in. She figured she had rinsed them out and that was good enough. It doesn’t matter if the container is metal or plastic but it has to be a foodworthy container. That lady had gone through all that work for nothing. The quality of the syrup is judged by the color; the light color being the best. We met a lady whose husband had gone on a trip and brought back a small bottle of light colored syrup. She had top-of-the line syrup, but she didn’t think it tasted right, so she said she fixed it by going to the store and getting a bottle of maple extract, adding it to her syrup, and then she thought it was better. We didn’t have the heart to tell her she had tampered with perfection,” said Collins.
The Collins’ maple grove is a natural grove, planted by Mother Nature; a planted maple needs to mature for about 40 years before it will be 12 inches in diameter and be ready for tapping. There are maple groves in the New England states that are 200-plus years old. The maple syrup supply comes from northern U.S. states and Canada, which claims 80 percent of the supply. Trees with 100 taps will produce 400 quarts of sap, a four-to-one ratio and produce 10 gallons of syrup. Many collectors use a wood-heated evaporator out of doors because of the large amount of steam that comes off the sap as it boils down.
“Grandpa started with an out-of-doors cooker and then we put a trailer house at the campsite and made syrup in it, but we were not happy with that because of the fine mist that comes off the sap, and it cooks to a sticky film, and we spent a week after the cooking was down, scrubbing walls and the floors. We thought we had it cleaned. However, the next year when my aunt went up to open the trailer house up, she opened the door let her cats run in, but they didn’t go far because they stuck to the floor. It was still that sticky. So now we do it in the sugar shack that has the right equipment and plenty of vents. There is a small window of time for collecting sap. In early March when our temps in the southern part of the state get around 40 to 45 degrees I can figure it will be about two weeks before temps will be right up there. It is perfect when it is 40 to 45 during the day but still freezing at night. That is when it runs the best, many people think it runs best the warmer it gets but that isn’t true. Too warm is no good. Once it warms up that the tree buds begin to get to the stage of popping the sap will get a bitter taste and it is all done for another year,” said Collins.
“Once you taste the sweetness of pure maple syrup you are spoiled. When I go out to eat breakfast and I order pancakes the waitress asks what kind of syrup I want and I just plop my own bottle on the table and say, ‘Never mind, I brought my own.’ I have gotten a few strange looks, but I just couldn’t eat anything else,” said Collins. The Collins sold their syrup for several years, but it was a lot of work, and there was no way to know if the sap supply would meet the demand that retailers faced so now they do it for the simple pleasure of it. To spend time with family, to pass on tradition and for the sweet taste of it. They do sell the equipment needed to tap trees for anyone interested in taking up the hobby. A small producer had used the equipment but used copper tubing for his taps and put a cap on each one. He planned to return in the spring, pull off the caps and let the sap drip. His plan failed because the holes grow shut and so new drilling must be done each spring.
“Drilling is a simple job, but there are things to consider, like how deep is the snow. You might be standing on three feet, which could be gone when you come to collect. One year my brother did the tapping, he is six feet tall and he stood on three feet of snow. I was not too happy when I came along later, much shorter than he is, standing on the ground because the snow had melted and trying to reach high enough to get the sap sack down. I needed a ladder. Sometimes a tap can get missed when collecting them. Once in awhile we will hit one when we are drilling a new hole, the sparks fly and the bit is trashed because the tree has grown over the tap. We actually have a piece of wood that has a tap that grandpa put in. It is the style of tap he used in the early years, and it was covered by seven to eight inches of tree. Some of the larger producers use oil or gas in their evaporation houses, but we still prefer the wood. The evaporation process can be a very relaxing time, you just sit back and watch the sap boil. However, you do have to pay close attention to how hard it is boiling, what temperature the thermometer is at, the color and smell because it can go from sap to syrup to carbon to burned in a very short time, that is the voice of experience talking,” Collins said with a laugh.
“Watching the evaporation does require some patience, but you just imagine how long it took the Native Americans to do it. They used rocks that were taken from boiling water for evaporation. Then they put them into the sap in a birch bark container, now that is patience. I have shared many interesting conversations with all my family, my dad who is no longer with us, a sister, two brothers and nieces and nephews, while sitting around the evaporator. Then there are always the snowball fights, by then whatever snow is left is perfect for snowballs. The migration of the birds and the peace and quiet of the woods are great plus you get to play with fire. What could be better?” asks Collins.
“History shows that the art of collecting was taught to the New England settlers by the Native Americans. It is said that a Yaqui brave threw his hatchet, and it stuck in a tree. After he removed the hatchet his wife saw that something was trickling from the tree, and she set a container to collect the liquid. After tasting it she decided to cook their meal in it, and it gave the meat such a sweet flavor they continued to use it. It is also said that Dakota braves would ride under a tree and pull a branch off and let the sweet liquid drip into their mouths for a short time and go on their way. Then God looked down and decided it shouldn’t rain sweetness and that is when syrup making became work,” said Collins.
Collins has served on the North American Maple Syrup Council for 15 years, which has given her the opportunity to take several interesting trips to places in Minnesota, such as St. Cloud, and to Nova Scotia. The goal of the council is to collaborate educational programs for the maple syrup industry.