The deep Wisconsin woods surrounding Squirrel Lake are silent on this morning. Winter snows have just receded to reveal the matted carpet of last autumn's remaining leaves. Herb Brooks instinctively knows that it's time to head outdoors. He laces up his boots, pulls on a vest jacket over his flannel shirt and plops a white tam on his head.
It's maple syrup time again in the upper Midwest.
During a time span of several days, Herb, his wife Romilda and a band of neighbors will "tap" hundreds of maple trees on Herb's 14-acre sugar bush, the syrupers' term for a stand of sugar maple trees.
Herb, an iron worker from Indiana who opted for retirement in the Snow Belt rather than the Sun Belt, boils down almost 300 gallons of maple syrup a year in his rustic northern Wisconsin "sugar shack," near Minocqua. School children, tourists and anyone else who happens by can anticipate a colorful discourse about the "hobby that got out of hand."
"It's become a community thing," Herb explains. "The neighbors help out and take home their pay in maple syrup."
Herb and Romilda are two of thousands of small-scale maple syrup producers and a few large manufacturers in the Midwest. The Heartland's "maple belt" extends from Ohio and Michigan to Wisconsin and northern Minnesota. None of these states rivals Vermont, the national leader in production, and even the entire United States can't match the Canadian province of Quebec. But this first harvest of spring still is an important one.
"You know," Herb winks, "when the weather warms up and the sap starts flowing, it's not just flowing in the trees."
Tapping the Trees
Herb drives his thumb-sized metal spouts (also known variously as taps or spiles) into hard maple trees at a point just about three feet above the ground. He knows his trees, as a farmer knows his stock: The sugar maples have been branded by slowly healing tap scars of springs gone by. Herb, Romilda and their crew will put out about 1,200 spouts.
Herb will tell you that a healthy hard maple measuring more than two feet in girth can handle up to four spouts in a season. He drills just two to three inches deep into the sapwood at a slight upward angle to allow the sap to drain easily (the heart wood at the core of the tree yields no sap).
Then, Herb attaches a four-gallon plastic bag, which he drains periodically during a period of three weeks. Collection devices vary from the quaint to the high-tech. Many old-time syrupers still use clanging metal buckets. A few commercial operators opt for the efficiency of an almost-surgical-looking web of plastic drainage tubes leading to large collection tanks.
The early spring cooling/thawing cycle releases the upward flow of sap stored in the tree's root system. In a good harvest, the sap flows fastest during four or five "runs"--10 gallons per tap at the peak. Otherwise, the maples slowly "weep" their clear, sticky and barely sweet treasure. "The yield depends on the weather," Herb explains. "The more changeable it is, the better."
Smoke and steam shroud the sugar shack, where Romilda, the "head cooker," directs the transformation of sap into syrup. To make one gallon of syrup might take as much as 50 gallons of sap, more if the sap is watery.
"When it comes to the actual work. Romilda does most of the yankin', pullin' and jerkin' around here," Herb confesses. Romilda smiles. A cloud of steam billows from the oil-fired evaporator, a pair of shallow, covered metal pans measuring a total of 36 inches by 120 inches.
Herb and Romilda know the secrets of their calling. Too much time between collecting and cooking can sour the sap. And each batch must boil for three hours. At the height of the season, syrupers spend late nights in the sugar shack. They become sticky, red-eyed apparitions, constantly checking the sap level and watching the mesmerizing bubbles.
"The lighter the color of the syrup, the more delicate the flavor," Herb says. Some will tell you that syrup from oil-fired evaporators lacks the tang (and the cinders) of wood-cooked syrup; that syrup from city maples taste inferior to that from country maples; that ground-water is the key to flavor. It's all part of the legend.
Well into the summer months, Herb and Romilda will be bottling their Brooks Maple Syrup into quart containers for sale at their roadside shop, regaling their roadside guests and recalling the syrup makers' age-old chant: "Cold, starry nights; warm, sunny days . . . cold, starry nights; warm, sunny days . . . one good run before the season ends."
The sap usually starts flowing at Brooks Maple Syrup by the middle of March. You'll find Herb and Romilda at Bo Di Lac Drive, Minocqua, WI 54548; (715) 588-3724. Write or call for directions and tour information. Minocqua is 60 miles north of Wausau on US-51.
If you can't buy pure U.S. maple syrup at a supermarket, order from Herb. It's about $9 per quart, including UPS delivery charge, the entire amount payable upon delivery.
In maple-syrup country, folks sweeten just about everything with maple syrup. Here are some tips and recipes to try:
--Beat equal parts maple syrup and softened butter for a delicious spread for bread, toast or muffins.
--Stir a little maple syrup into barbecue sauce.
--Flavor baked beans with maple syrup, mustard and bacon.
--Give apple pie a new twist. Toss the uncooked apples with maple syrup instead of sugar.
--Make a maple sundae sauce by cooking maple syrup over medium heat until slightly thickened. Stir in chopped nuts and serve warm over ice cream.
--Substitute maple syrup for molasses in gingerbread, cookies, cakes and breads.