Three friends in Northern Michigan have turned an agricultural process into a hobby. More importantly, the Sugar Shack is a place to enjoy each other's company and sell some syrup.
Located in Bellaire, Michigan. Sweet Jugs Sugar Shack sits atop a ridge surrounding my Uncle George’s property overlooking Lake Bellaire. Although not a farm by Central Ohio standards, Steve, Shari and George have literally tapped into the natural process of 100 Sugar Maple trees.
Maple syrup season runs from roughly mid-February through the end of April. The trees produce the most sap when temperatures are fluctuating from freezing at night to thawing during the day. Once the trees start to bud leaves, the sap turns bitter thus ending the flow of sweetness. We happen to arrive to the Sugar Shack on a warm late-March day after a cold night. This meant that the taps were pumping out the watery nectar. The taps are roughly four feet up the trunk on trees larger than 12″ in diameter. Steve and company had emptied all of the bags the evening before and as we surveyed the five gallon bags, some were already overflowing at 11am.
Sugar Maple tap. Gator hauling sap with Katie.
Our work started with collecting and emptying bags hanging from the 100 trees. Some farms use a tube system connecting all of the trees to a central tank. The Sugar Shack is old school and requires the emptying of each bag by hand. This means patrolling the property with five gallon buckets. To make this process a bit more precarious, we were carrying the buckets on six to eight inches of wet snow. I think Brad and I only fell a couple times…
The Sugar Shack does have a few tricks up its sleeve in regards to facilities. There are two storage tanks on the property which are gravity fed with inputs on top of the ridges. This dramatically reduces the distance required to lug around 10 gallons (roughly 80 lbs). For the lower trees on the property not in proximity of the pipes, the gator with a 55 gallon drum comes in handy.
Emptying collection bags. Feeding the shack.
Forty to one, that is the ratio of sap to syrup. Each of the tanks hold a couple hundred gallons which are directed into the Sugar Shack proper to boil down the sap. George and Steve have estimated they can boil down 20 gallons per hour with their current setup. Standing next to the boiler is warm and it is humorous to hear the guys talk about boiling in the frigid Northern Michigan evenings, as the shack turns into a sauna with steam enveloping the top half of the structure. The condensation is evident near the boiler with drops continually falling from the rafters, accentuating the process at hand.
The boiler has three separate bins which contain different saturation points. Steve, a high school math and science teacher, is constantly monitoring the water content with his hydrometer in hand. There are specific marks to be met in search of the highest quality maple syrup. Too much sugar and crystals will form, too much water and the syrup is diluted. George and Shari are yelling, “good enough Conk!” But Steve stands cool and collected aiming for a specific line on his trusty gauge.
Tending the fire. Monitoring water content.
When a sum of syrup worth bottling has been aggregated, its crunch time for the team. Now the team needs to be more fine tuned with movements as the product is boiled again, filtered, and bottled. The last boiling has Steve working the hydrometer hard and Shari eyeing the boiling pot’s propane flame.
Shari adds three healthy scoops of a filtering product made from finely crushed seashells. The syrup and seashell combo are forced through five heavy parchment sheets. The seashell material microscopically gathers imperfections and grit within the syrup but cannot pass through the parchment. This powder is stirred in while George preps the filters and pump. Over the hum of the pump motor, the powder and syrup mixture is drawn through the filters. Only to appear in the other vat as pure amber liquid ready to bottled.
Before and after filtering. Filter bi-product.
Jug! Mason Jar! Leaf! Shari yells out which bottle she needs next to hurriedly capture the syrup. Two of us eagerly help by capping bottles and laying the bottles out to cool. Once again Steve monitors the syrup’s temperature so as not to coagulate while Shari bottles. She curses a few times as the hot liquid overflows the container’s brim onto her fingertips but she takes it all in stride. Shari is simply glad to have the Sugar Shack, the process was once done in her home’s kitchen. Leaving a constantly sticky floor, “no matter how many times you wash the floor.”
The trio are not necessarily in search of widespread commercial success. The friends enjoy the process and time shared in the shack watching basketball games and debating whether UM or MSU is the better collegiate institution. All that aside, they are thrilled when a woman pulls up and purchasing $120 dollars of Sweet Jugs Sugar Shack maple syrup. The beautiful spring day consists of a bit of work, lots of laughs, a few adult beverages, brats, one happy customer, and three friends proud of everything that went into the sale.
If you find yourself in Northern Michigan make sure to stop by and tell them I said hey! You can also find them on facebook.
Bottling table. Filling a maple leaf.