A couple weeks ago when the weather here briefly warmed up we chatted a bit with our neighbors about tapping a couple of their sugar maple trees.
I had dreams. Not dreams of maple syrup, but of sap beer.
They kindly agreed and so using taps (spiles as they are called—maybe you’ve read Catching Fire?) that a friend had lent us the boys and I trotted next door on the first (and so far only) perfect day of Spring.
We tapped one tree in two places and a second tree in one place. The first two days were when we got the most sap, close to half a gallon from the three taps.
It soon became apparent that we were losing large amounts of sap from around the spiles as I must have done a poor job drilling the holes and pounding them in. It seems however that once you’ve made your hole there’s not much you can do to fix it and drilling a new hole means leaving a large leaking hole in the tree.
Everything I read on the internet about how to remedy the situation basically boiled down to this advice: do it right next time. Okay, fine, but you do know that next time is a year from now, right internet advisors? Yes, they do probably know that. In the end we never got much more than our original half gallon of sap.
Soon after beginning the process the local ants living at the base of the tree woke up and decided to start helping themselves to our minimal drippings. Ah well, I thought, this was still a cool, fun, and educational activity for my young assistants and me. But my dream of having 6-7 gallons of sap with which to make an all sap beer was likely coming to an end. I’ll come back to just what a “sap beer” is in a little while, but first a bit of a diversion.
An Easter Turkey and a Short Reflection on Ethical Eating
The sap beer dream was put on hold until my friend Jacob told me he wanted us to cook a turkey together for Easter.
Okay, this story is getting to be a bit convoluted. First sap, now turkey? And wait, isn’t the Local Kitchener a vegetarian blog? Well, not exactly. Let’s back up a bit more.
Yes, this blog is primarily vegetarian, because my family eats mostly a primarily vegetarian diet. But we do eat meat. Just not every day, more like once or twice a week. No, we do not call ourselves “flexitarians” because that term sounds kind of silly to us, and is uninformative. We just say that we eat mostly vegetarian and occasionally eat meat. I’ve just learned that some people who eat this way call themselves Ethical Omnivores. I guess we fit the definition, although we are unlikely to label ourselves.
Ethical Omnivores could also simply be called Responsible Eaters. They care about where their food comes from and the impact that their eating has on the lives of other creatures, the environment, their community, and the planet. Here is a definition from Go-EO, a website devoted to promoting this way of eating:
ethical omnivore (e-thi-kəl äm-ni-vor) : an individual committed to reducing consumption of meat and dairy products and who only consumes these products when they originate from animals fed an antibiotic- and hormone- free diet raised on non-factory farms committed to the most sustainable and humane farming practices.
Notice that the first point in that definition isn’t even about the meat, but the reduction of the amount of meat eaten! This has always been our family’s main goal in eating a mainly vegetarian diet. If you do a bit of easy internet research you will find that the production of meat requires vast amounts more water and resources than the production of plant-based foods. I for one am happy to know that my eating habits are not promoting the conversion of forest to corn and soybean factory farms, but anyways, no need to be preachy…. If you eat meat every day then maybe just ask yourself what you’re meat dollars are supporting.
The farms we buy our meat from raise their animals on pasture or in the case of the turkey, grow their own GMO-free crops to feed their animals. It is in their interest to preserve the quality of their land, keeping portions of it forested while other parts are for growing crops, to ensure that their land and animals stay healthy and their farms and lifestyles are sustainable. We buy our turkey from Snyder Heritage Farm, a fifth generation farm, just a few minutes outside of Waterloo that raises turkeys and also has a large maple syrup operation.
Sap for Beer?
Since our own maple tapping adventure had resulted in so little sap I was trying to figure out how I could get some more. When Jacob asked me about cooking, well, actually, deep-frying a turkey for Easter (which it turns out is an excellent way to cook a Turkey, and no, this doesn’t happen if you are intelligent) I sent an email to the Snyders asking if they had any birds and then adding as an afterthought a request for sap. I got an email back saying to give a call soon because the sap was nearing the end of its flow. Kevin Snyder invited me out that Saturday to come pick up my bird and get a bit of sap. In exchange for the sap I told him I’d bring him some of the beer once it was done. “Well, let’s just see how it goes,” he told me, seeming both skeptical and intrigued.
Clearly I was intrigued by the idea as well, and that idea is to make a beer with an alternative water source, in this case, sap. Normally beer is made by steeping malted barley in hot water at specified temperatures (usually around 152◦F) for an hour, then straining the sweetened liquid (wort) and rinsing it with more hot water to extract as much sugars possible, like steeping a bag of tea in two cups. This hot, sweet wort is then brought to a boil, hops are added for bitterness, flavor, and aroma, the wort is cooled, and yeast is added. The wort ferments for 1-2 weeks, after which it is bottled or kegged.
Growing up in Olympia, Washington, I was vaguely aware of water’s important role in beer production thanks to the Olympia Brewery’s slogan of “It’s the Water.” It turns out that the water that was available in Olympia was perfect for making the crisp lagers that appealed to most Americans at that time (oh yeah, and still).
That water is a very soft water, low in mineral content, which is perfect for making the beer that Olympia was famous for… until they went out of business. Anyways, compared to our water here in Southern Ontario it’s the opposite; our water is bursting with minerals (I definitely miss the delicious water from home!).
Now, when I found some information on the internet about making sap beer, I not only learned that it was once common in Vermont, but also that its mineral content is somewhat similar to that of soft water. While containing a number of minerals, they are all in very low quantities. I entered the mineral content on a brewing website that helps brewers figure out what style of beer their water is best for. The online software on that site told me it would be best for an amber, malty beer.
“Amber and malty,” I thought to myself as visions of Scotch Ale floated into my mind, the rich caramel and toffee aromas filling my nose, hints of smokiness lurking in there, making my mouth water. Yes, this would be a delicious, malty, amber Scotch Ale, with extra hints of maple syrup. This would be a strong ale, around 7-8% thanks to the extra sugars imparted from the sap, which is about 2% sugar, and hey, I’d probably throw in some extra maple syrup at some point in the fermentation too!
The Sugar House
Last weekend I drove out to the Snyder’s farm and found their sugar house (definitely not a sugar shack!). It was a very nice and new wooden building with a small amount of steam coming out of a smokestack at the top.
Kevin saw me coming and met me at the large door which was open. Inside one person was measuring the sugar content of the finishing syrup with a refractometer, while the massive machine was clearly doing the bulk of the work of boiling off the water with the goal of taking the sap to a concentration of about 67% sugar.
Kevin and I talked about their sugar bush, where the sugar maple trees grow. He said that they usually only tap each tree once, whereas some farms tap 2-3 times on each tree. They also work hard to keep their whole stand of trees healthy by removing unhealthy trees and keeping the trees appropriately spaced to ensure maximum production. Sap is collected with a vacuum tubing system attached to the trees, collecting at a central point. It is then brought back to the sugar house in a large stainless steel vessel pulled by a tractor. At the sugar house it goes through reverse osmosis, which reduces the water content by 50%, meaning less energy is needed to boil off the remaining water. The boiler is heated using firewood which is all grown on the farm.
See that local firewood burning?
The finishing syrup collects in the area on the lower right where it is boiled one last time to achieve the proper saturation.
The machine they use is so efficient that the wood is burned 100%, thanks to an ingenious method of re-igniting the smoke that leaves the initial fire, creating more heat, and ensuring that the emissions leaving are simply CO2 and H2O. That’s why when I drove up I didn’t see tons of smoke! After we had talked for a good while, since I had tons of questions, Kevin filled my two buckets with sap, got me my turkey from a freezer in another farm building, and I headed home. The next day I brewed, but more on that later.
Jacob has the turkey brining right now and we will cook it this afternoon as part of an Easter feast at our house. I think there are more than 20 people coming so it may be a bit crowded, but mostly just fun! We’ll enjoy the locally and ethically raised meat, as well as many other local foods, including potatoes, beets, cabbage, parsnips, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, and plenty of homebrew (but not the sap beer, it won’t be ready for over a month). The feast will remind us of what Easter is about—life—and will hopefully be quite awesome and memorable!
I’ll share the recipe for the sap beer soon as well as a recipe for my favorite maple syrup snack, and a maple syrup coffee cake. In the meantime, Cheers and Happy Easter!