It’s hard to beat a trickle of sticky maple syrup rolling down a stack of hot pancakes, and it’s even better when that sweetness comes from trees in your own backyard.
Minnesota-grown maple syrup makes up just 1% of North American maple syrup, according to the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association Inc. But as one of 19 states where it’s produced, Minnesota is a maple syrup player.
There are large commercial operations in northern Minnesota that produce thousands of gallons of syrup every year and hobbyists in west central Minnesota who are happy to get a gallon or two of syrup each spring.
And there are those who straddle those two worlds.
When Roger Imdieke of New London makes pancakes for his grandkids there’s always a bottle of his homemade maple syrup on the kitchen table.
In 2020 he tapped 135 trees in a picturesque 10-acre patch of sugar maples on farm land north of Belgrade.
His collection system includes nearly a mile of 3/16-inch blue plastic tubing woven through the woods that carries sap from the trees to large holding tanks.
Last year he produced about 70 gallons of syrup – so he had some to spare for the kiddos.
Kathy Croymans taps 15 trees on city streets, mostly near her home in Willmar, with a couple feet of blue tubing attached to green five-gallon Menards buckets. Last year she produced 10 gallons of syrup.
Both love what they do and love the bottled amber gold that signals the start of spring in Minnesota.
An added touch of sweetness is that Gov. Tim Walz has proclaimed March as “Maple Syrup Month” in Minnesota.
Sugar in the woods
Imdieke, a Kandiyohi County commissioner and co-owner of Three Sisters, his family-owned furniture and gift store in rural New London, is still collecting sap for the 2021 season.
He’s hoping to catch the “frog run” yet this year.
That’s when sap flows for the last time during the spring – about the time when frogs come out of hibernation. He thinks that could happen this coming week.
So far Imdieke has collected 1,600 gallons of sap and is hoping to match last year’s haul of 2,300 gallons. But he said the sugar content this year is running lower than last year’s average of 3%. If all goes well he could end up with about 55 gallons of finished syrup – about 15 gallons less than 2020.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, depending on the sugar content.
Imdieke started tapping 30 trees six years ago with a simple system of taps (also called spiles) and five-gallon buckets. As the number of trees he tapped increased he realized that carrying buckets of sap through the snowy – and sometimes muddy– woods was a lot of work.
Last year he installed a pipeline system of spiles, tubing, manifolds, saddles, spigots, high tensile wire and a couple of 250-gallon food-grade holding tanks in the woods.
“It’s just a matter of plumbing,” said Imdieke, downplaying the work involved with engineering and installing the web-like sap collection system. “Just basic plumbing.”
Relying on gravity, Imdieke used a carpenter’s level to place the spiles and tubing at a higher level in the back of the woods to ensure that the sap ran downhill. Because the land is fairly level, that meant tapping the far back trees higher up on the trunk to get enough fall for the flow.
“As short as I am, I usually needed a step stool to get that last tap in because it’s above my head,” he said.
During a recent tour of the woods — when there happened to be ideal conditions of nighttime temperatures below freezing and daytime temps in the low 40s — the sap was flowing into the holding tanks in a steady stream.
When the tanks are full, the sap is pumped into a 350-gallon tank that’s anchored to a wagon at the edge of the woods. Imdieke hauls the sap 50 miles to Long Prairie where an Amish farmer cooks it in a wood-fired evaporator.
He gives half of his syrup to the man as payment for the cooking process.
Imdieke said he doesn’t have enough trees for a commercial maple syrup operation, but he has too many trees – and not enough time – to cook the sap himself.
“I’m in that awkward state where it’s more than a hobby,” he said. “But I don’t have enough to justify the investment in an evaporator that could handle that much sap.
He gives much of his syrup away.
“Most backyard syrupers do it as much for the fun and satisfaction as anything else,” he said.
Sugar in the city
This is the fourth year that Croymans has been making maple syrup.
But Croymans doesn’t live in the woods surrounded by acres of maple trees. She lives on Augusta Avenue in Willmar with one sugar maple tree in her front yard.
Fortunately, Croymans has a couple neighbors down the street and a friend on the other side of town with several maple trees that give her all the sap she needs.
“I like to take something that’s available in nature and turn it into a finished product. I just love to do that,” Croymans said.
The prolific gardener, who sells her jams, pickles and syrups at area farmers markets, was looking for something to do in the off-season.
“To be honest, I was putting on extra weight in the wintertime eating ice cream,” she said with a laugh. “I decided it would be a good idea to get up out of this chair after a winter of leisure.”
Tapping trees is “one step up from gardening,” she said. “It’s just a nice springtime activity.”
The “do-it-yourself kind of person” read some articles on tapping trees and cooking sap and jumped in. “Tapping takes very little time,” she said.
Using an electric drill, she puts a couple small holes in each tree, gently taps in the spiles and attaches the tube that takes the sap from the tree to the buckets sitting on the ground. Looking up and down Augusta Avenue, the green buckets stick out like giant colorful Easter eggs in the gray yards.
Croymans cooks her sap in a 35-gallon kettle that sits on top of a reinforced single-burner propane stove in her garage. She keeps the garage door wide open to let the steam roll out as the water in the sap evaporates.
After a batch of 120 gallons of sap is cooked down to five gallons, she finishes the syrup in small kettles on her kitchen stovetop, where it’s reduced to three gallons.
A steady eye is needed to make sure the pot doesn’t boil over during the final stage.
“It’s really a very simple operation,” she said.
This year she expects to make about 17 gallons of syrup. Croymans said she gives about half of it away to the tree owners and friends, and sells the rest.
“Nature has given to me so I feel like I should share,” she said.
Respecting the trees
Depending on the size of the trunk, a maple tree can typically have up to three taps each season for sap to flow from.
Croymans tapped 15 trees with a total of 23 spiles this year.
Imdieke tapped 135 trees with a total of 275 spiles.
Holes are drilled about two inches deep into the trunk, with spiles tapped in gently for a snug fit.
When the temperature is right, the sap will flow.
“The tree will just give you what it has to give,” said Croymans. “It’s amazing, really, when you think about it.”
The tapping season can last several weeks, from the end of February to sometime in March, depending on the temperature.
“You need to respect the tree,” said Croymans.
At the end of the season the spiles are removed and the holes naturally heal.
Imdieke guesses that some of the sugar maples in his woods are 100 years old.
The area was settled in 1858 and the trees were protected from early wildfires by a small prairie lake, he said.
With good stewardship, Imdieke said trees are not harmed by being tapped.
“Maple trees are incredibly resilient,” he said. “They’re very tough trees.”
And when his mature trees do eventually die and tumble to the ground, Imdieke said there are hundreds of small maple trees as thick as his thumb already growing “waiting for an opportunity to get through the canopy” so they can grow for the next 100 years.
Minnesota maple syrup FAQs:
Pure Maple syrup is only made in certain parts of North America and nowhere else in the world. Minnesota is one of 19 states in the U.S. and three provinces in Canada where maple syrup is made.
Minnesota is the state with the most northerly latitude, and the most westerly state, that produces maple syrup.
Maple syrup is made in the spring, when the temperatures are below freezing at night and above freezing during the day.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Nothing is added to the sap, only the water is evaporated away to make maple syrup.
Once a tree is large enough to tap, it can be used year after year. Each tap can yield 10 to 12 gallons of sap during a season, or about one quart of finished syrup.