Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Making maple syrup, a rite of spring for one Minnesota family March 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:56 AM

Ryan and his dog, Woody, walk toward the tent that encloses the evaporator for heating maple sap.

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.

Ryan drew open the end flaps so I could photograph the evaporator.

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.

Wood is stacked inside a shed for the arch and the wood burning unit that heats the house.

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.

Ryan, Sara, Vince and Alexis hike along a field road toward the woods.

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.

Typically, Vince rides with his dad on this all-terrain vehicle to collect the sap from buckets.

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.

To the right, and barely visible, two white buckets mark tapped maples.

The Vollbrechts will come here later in the spring to search for morel mushrooms. In the fall, Ryan returns to hunt deer.

On the walk back from the woods, I stop to photograph a weathered birdhouse along the fence line.

Returning from the woods to the building site.

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.”

Sap drips from a tapped tree.

The Vollbrechts' amber maple syrup.

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:

On the back of a pick-up truck are two jugs of maple syrup and a jar of maple butter that Ryan sends hone with me. He puts maple syrup on his breakfast cereal instead of sugar. Ryan also makes a glaze for chicken and ribs with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.

Ryan's duck hunting companion, Woody, named after the wood duck.

This old windmill, next to the kids' toys and playground equipment, seems reminiscent of bygone eras.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


4 Responses to “Making maple syrup, a rite of spring for one Minnesota family”

  1. Sara Says:

    This brought back so many memories. We have so much maple syruping equipment and the plan was to do it this spring, but with dad’s passing it just didn’t get done. Such a neat experience and wonderful family tradition.

    Brent Fuchs does this as well.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Maybe next year your family can make maple syrup, in honor of your dad.

      I went to the Vollbrechts’ place thinking I was going to learn about maple syrup making. I did. But I also learned that this activity bonds generations and is truly all about family.

      That, to me, is the sweetness in this story.

  2. sharon Says:

    Thanks Audrey for doing this article…it was “sweet” and heartwarming in the same sentence. Sometimes I wonder what drives Ryan (and his family crew) to do all the work for this maple syrup thing; however, I now really DO understand the process a little differently…it’s like passing on the tradition.

    Enjoyed it!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this story about maple syrup making. While I expected to write about the process, my article turned out much differently. This is truly a story about love and family and tradition and the connection between generations.

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