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2015-02-11 / Crossroads Weekend

Maple syrup: from trees to waffles

Jazz Clark
Sitting in his woods one February morning, Jack Veara rubbed his hands together and waited. His neighbors had recently come back from Vermont with a gift: five spigots for harvesting maple syrup. The year was 2010, and all Veara had was a crab pot and a blue tarp. “But once I smelled that sweet sticky smell, I was hooked,” he said. He only made less than a quart of pure maple syrup that year. The ratio of sap to syrup is surprisingly steep, with 40 gallons of tree sap distilling into just one gallon of syrup. He learned early skills from the book Backyard Sugarin’ by Rick Mann. Veara’s equipment at the time was rudimentary. The key to turning sugar water (sap) into syrup is bringing the mixture to a boil and evaporating most of the water. “I’m the kind of guy that when I want a bookcase, I go chop down a tree and start carving it down to planks,” said Veara. As a result, much of his early technology was reused and homemade. To evaporate water, he used an oil tank converted to a boiler. Pots from the house became a delivery method for sap. Like many hobbies and professions, growth starts slow. Veara began with one pot and in just a few years was using chemistry-grade equipment. In the five years since he became hooked, Veara’s syrup operation has increased exponentially. Instead of metal buckets, Veara graduated first to plastic bags and metal hangers for collecting sap, and now uses a series of plastic tubing and blue barrels for storage. The barrels are loaded onto his cart and whizzed to the main sugar shack, with the process becoming much more seamless and less physically exhausting than before. Once at the sugar shack, Veara uses an official wood-burning syrup rig. Though other types of evaporators exist, such as propane, wood is an integral part of Veara’s life. The machine has an added bonus of keeping his feet warm during early-morning collection. This is helpful, as tapping in West Virginia typically takes place during February, arguably the coldest month. While he hasn’t drawn a single pint of sap so far this year, he brought in over 400 gallons of sap in 2014. He has over 250 taps this year on over 250 trees. “I always try to harvest more than I did the year before,” said Veara. He named his syrup operation Samara after his daughters, Sam and Sara. Sara still helps him carry around buckets. When not gathering sap, Veara carves pine wood into shapes and signs as the operator of Sawjac Carvings. He can be seen making the rounds at fairs all over the tri-state area. Wood is something he has ample supply of and knowledge about on his estate. Veara has spent as many as 96 straight hours throwing wood into the evaporator to create the freshest syrup, since the quicker the water is removed, the sweeter the syrup. The Science The science of extracting sap from trees is interesting as well. Trees in cold weather expand and contract. If a small hole is made in a tree and attached to a spout, the tree will push out the sap on its own while expanding. Modern tree spouts are specifically made to keep the tree from automatically repairing the hole. Maple trees in West Virginia secrete that sweet sap even more than the iconic cold sugar bushes of Canada. The reason why is an issue of some debate, though likely the difference is due to shifting temperatures through the winter months, said Veara. Hickory and walnut are both alternate sources for sweet complements to a morning’s pancakes. Veara is not a fan of hickory syrup, since the concoction is made from bark and usually contains artificial sugars. Foreign bugs have been a problem for syrup jockies all around, and Veara said he strangely has found the Emerald Ash Bohrer in his maple trees. Sugar maples are usually used for sugaring, though Veara uses both Red and Silver varieties in his syrup. “If it’s a maple, it’ll have sap,” he said. Veara said he’ll show people around his operation for educational purposes. He can be contacted through his website, samarafarm.weebly.com, for more information. He also sells his syrup on that website, in both quart and pint bottles.

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