INSIDE THE TARP tent, maple sap heats in the wood-fueled evaporator pan creating a cloud of steam that fills nearly every inch of this enclosure.
This isn’t going to work for photos, not at all, I think, as I remove my gloves and fogged eyeglasses, grab my notebook and a pencil, and leave my camera bag safely outside the steamy tent.
I am here, on Ryan and Sara Vollbrecht’s Faribault area farm, on this chilly Saturday morning, this first day of spring, to learn about maple syrup.
But, as I will quickly discover, the lesson will be more about strong family connections and tradition than about maple syrup making.
That family bond is immediately clear as I am introduced to Ryan’s grandparents, Carl and Violet Vollbrecht, seated on folding chairs on either side of the rectangular evaporator pan.
Carl, 81, began making maple syrup 65 years ago with his brother. Before that, their dad, Fred, perfected the art. While Carl’s son, also Carl, never got into making syrup, Ryan has and he’s been creating the confection on his own for four years. He grew up helping Grandpa Carl make syrup every year during spring break from school.
“He does everything his grandpa did,” laughs Sara.
Ryan agrees. “I do everything old school,” he says. His grandpa also taught him how to smoke meat in a smokehouse. He makes summer sausage and ring bologna. The couple heats their house with wood.
But on this day, they are sitting together—Ryan and Sara, their children, Alexis, 7, and Vince, 3, and Carl and Violet—watching sap bubble and steam as water evaporates. Sara’s brother, Andrew, is also around.
“Ryan, I think you could bring a little wood in here,” Carl instructs. His grandson obliges, grabs more wood, opens the small door in the heating unit he’s built (called an “arch”) and shoves the pieces into the red hot coals.
The sap is heated to 218 degrees and finished off in a 5-gallon turkey cooker where Ryan can more accurately control the temperature. Like his grandfather, he knows to keep a watchful eye on the cooking process. Last year Ryan left the sap heating overnight and awoke to a gooey caramel mess.
He doesn’t focus on such mishaps, though, choosing instead to reflect on the joys. For this avid outdoorsman, making maple syrup offers the opportunity to get outside after a long winter. “Cabin fever starts setting in,” Ryan says.
So he heads to the 30 acres of woods on his 80-acre property to tap 80 black and sugar maple trees along a half-mile ravine. Most trees produce a half-gallon of sap a day. Forty gallons of sap yield one gallon of syrup.
On this Saturday morning, we are hiking along a field path to the woods on the other side of a hill. As we walk, the soggy ground sucks at my boots. A cold wind blows briskly against my face under a clear blue sky.
Soon we are in the woods, walking down a muddy trail littered with dried leaves and marred by the tracks of the all-terrain vehicle Ryan uses while collecting sap. His son, Vince, typically rides along. But on this day, we are walking, enjoying the quiet beauty of this first day of spring.
We hike until we see the first of the white buckets hung upon the maple trees. The incline is steep and I opt to keep my feet firmly footed on the trail. For awhile I simply stand, taking in the serenity of these woods, imagining the trees leafed out in green and later in autumn splendor.
The Vollbrechts will come here later in the spring to search for morel mushrooms. In the fall, Ryan returns to hunt deer.
When we arrive back at the farm site, I snap some more photos and Ryan leads me to the large blue drums sitting next to the tent. He lifts the cover from one. We dip our fingers into the clear sap and I savor the hint of sweetness upon my tongue.
As we stand there, Ryan confides that every spring his grandpa taps a few trees on his rural Waterville property, then brings the sap to Ryan’s place to make maple syrup.
“Tradition,” he tells me, “that’s what it is.”
IF YOU’RE INTERESTED in purchasing the Vollbrechts’ maple syrup, contact Ryan or me. The family doesn’t actively market their syrup, but have plenty available for sale.
MORE PHOTOS from my visit with the Vollbrechts:
© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling