Early spring is sweet in Southwest Michigan when the sap rises ready to be harvested and turned into sticky sugary and wonderful maple syrup.
Surprisingly, there are many maple syrup producers in Southwest Michigan, some who market their syrup throughout the state and beyond and others who are known locally and sell just as long as their supplies last.
Denise Klopfenstein of Galien, Michigan comes from a long line of family members who make maple syrup and she’s long listened to stories about how her grandparents’ sugar shack was destroyed in a tornado back in the 1940s. But she never had plans on producing syrup herself. That is, until, worried that her son Tyler, who was 12 at the time, didn’t take enough interest in outdoor activities, she decided to turn to her family traditions into a way of motivating him.
“I knew he liked business and he liked money,” says Klopfenstein who invested in some rudimentary syrup processing equipment and designed a sugar shack–the term for the building where the sap is cooked down into syrup, naming the business Ty-Kat Sugar Shack.
Relying upon mentors like Don Dodd of Niles who has been making syrup for years, the Klopfensteins have increased their yield and upgraded their equipment several times over the last few years.
“Tyler’s always working at it–he spent his own money this year, money he’d made from making maple syrup to buy an even larger evaporator,” says his mom.
“I’m hoping for a nine-week season this year,” says Rachel Ridley, who with her husband Brian, owns Ridley Family Sugar Farm in South Haven. “The sap is in the trees all the time but it’s only accessible to us at certain times. You need freezing nights and warm days for the sap to rise. Last year we only had six weeks of production because of the weather but this year seems more like 2014 we hope.”
Not only do the Ridleys produce pure maple syrup, they also work with other local farmers to create about 14 or so specialty syrups using fruits such as dewberry, apple, pear, peach, blackberry, plum, cherry, black walnut and blackberry.
“Everyone likes maple syrup on their pancakes,” says Ridley, “but products like our apple and pear syrup is good as a meat marinade.
Also going beyond just maple syrup, Christy and Bryan Olson, owners of Maple Row Sugarhouse in Jones, Michigan, create a variety of maple syrups infused with blueberry, raspberry, cinnamon and coffer among their other specialty syrups.
“We also make other products such as our Maple Cajun Seasoning which has our maple sugar in it as well as such spices as cayenne, paprika, garlic and onion which you can use as a rub or in soup,” says Olson. “I make maple candies, maple hot sauce, maple garlic seasoning, maple barbecue sauce and maple cream which has the consistency of peanut butter and is good as an apple dip. And this year I’m partnering with a chocolate maker and making both dark and milk maple cream chocolates.”
Olson says they have over 10,000 taps (the spikes that are used to drain sap from the trees) and produce 3000 to 4000 gallons of syrup each year from about 100,000 gallons of sap.
“40 gallons of sap make about one gallon of syrup,” says Olson, noting that Michigan State University is doing research on the trees they tap. “Towards the end of the season it can take about 100 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup. The content of sugar in sap is about 1% to 3% and if it’s below the 1% mark, that about when you’re done for the year.”
The Olsons also host an annual maple syrup festival at their farm.
John Newell, owner of Primal Woods in Hartford, says he and his wife Geri, started tapping trees as a hobby in the spring of 2014 for their own use.
“We got our first evaporator two years later and ran that one for two years and then scaled up to 750 taps,” he says. “Now we’re making about 150 gallons, 16 half-pint bottles of every gallon and about 2400 bottles.”
Describing what they’re doing as small to mid-size, Newell says that in Vermont, guys go out and tap 70,000 trees.
“To do that, they’re using industrial equipment, which gets the people out of the whole process,” he says. “We’re not about that. We’re still using buckets, we’re never going to tubes, it makes the woods look like an extensive care unit.”
Newell isn’t a fan of reverse osmosis either. That’s the process many maple syrup gatherers use to filter out the water in the sap to limit the time it takes to cook the sap down into syrup.
“Maple sap is usually 2% sugar,” he says. “With reverse osmosis, it’s eight ounces. But using it changes the color of the syrup and the flavor typically goes with the color. There are four colors—golden, amber, dark and very dark and the darkest has the most flavor. I guess overall, we’re still doing it the old fashioned way. My analogy is we live in a deep maple sugar forest and the taste of the syrup reflects the biodiversity of the forest.”
About five years ago, John Muellen, who lives on 40 acres in Baroda, ten of which are tillable and the other 30 woodland, was feeling kind of bored so he started off tapping maple trees and cooking the sap down in roasting pans suspended over cement blocks on a log burning fire. Getting into the process even more, he made a boiler out of a fuel oil tank, lit a fire inside and set buffet pans the flames.
“I was constantly improving,” says Muellen, owner of Mulln-Heim Vineyards. “Last year, I came across a reverse osmosis machine from a brewery and modified it to use for making syrup. It’s all part of wanting to make money from the forest in a way that’s not harmful to the environment. Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
12646 Born St.
(269) 816-4838; maplerowsugarhouse.com
522 E. Shawnee Road
(269) 932-8180; mulln-heim-vineyards.business.site
743 70th St.
South Haven, MI
(269) 206-2135; ridleyfamilysugarfarm.com
19465 Cleveland Ave.
Maple-Roasted Root Vegetables
Maple sugaring time comes just about when the root cellar is nearly empty. Oven roasting concentrates vegetable flavors and the syrup pulls it all together. Roast a chicken and there’s dinner. The house-apartment-condo will smell wonderful.
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1 1/4-inch chunks
3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1 1/4-inch chunks
1 small (1/2-pound) yellow turnip, peeled and cut into 1 1/4-inch chunks
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup bourbon or rum
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the carrots, parsnips and turnips in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan.
Heat the butter and maple syrup in a small saucepan just until the butter is melted, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum.
Pour the maple mixture over the vegetables and toss to coat. Sprinkle the vegetables with salt and pepper to taste.
Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, stir the vegetables and bake, uncovered, until tender, 20 to 25 minutes longer.
Maple Sour Cream Bran Muffins
This ab-fab recipe took first prize in the 1999 recipe contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association.
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup bran flakes
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
For the topping
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.
Sift the flour, baking soda and salt into a medium-size bowl. Add the bran flakes, raisins and walnuts.
Combine the maple syrup, sour cream and eggs in a small bowl. Add them all at once to the dry ingredients and stir until just blended. Using a 1/3- or 1/2-cup measure, fill the muffin cups three-quarters full with the mixture.
For the topping
Combine the flour and sugar in a small bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle the topping on the batter in the cups.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the muffins are golden brown. Makes 12.
Maple Bourbon Chicken Wings
Here, you brown the wings first over direct heat without any sauce. That’s when the skin gets
crispy. Then you move the wings over indirect heat, where it is safe to layer on the sweet sauce
without the threat of it scorching.
12 large chicken wings, about 3 pounds total
Extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup bourbon
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
The chicken wing is made up of three sections: the drumette (attached to the chicken body), the wingette (or flat; the middle section), and the tip. Each section has a bone ball socket, or joint. Flex each section to find the joint. Using the tip of a boning knife, and keeping the joint extended to expose the socket, cut through the ball socket connecting the drumette and wingette and then through the socket connecting the wingette and tip. Discard the wing tips or save for stock (they tend to burn on the grill).
Brush the chicken wings very lightly with oil. In a small bowl mix together all the rub ingredients, then season the wings evenly with the rub. Set aside at room temperature while you prepare the grill. Prepare the grill for direct cooking and indirect cooking over medium heat (350° to 450°F).
In a small saucepan, combine all the sauce ingredients. Bring to a boil over high heat on the stove, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Brush the cooking grates clean. Grill the chicken wings and drumettes over direct medium heat, with the lid closed as much as possible, for 10 minutes, turning once or twice and watching closely for flare-ups that could scorch the skin.
Brush the chicken pieces with sauce on all sides and move them over indirect medium heat. Continue to cook, with the lid closed as much as possible, until the meat is no longer pink at the bone, 10 to 15 minutes. During this time, stay vigilant, as the sugars in the sauce could burn. Remove from the grill and serve warm.
The above recipe is excerpted from Weber’s Ultimate Grilling by Jamie Purviance. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Saffron, Maple, and Vanilla Kefir Milk Fizz
Fizzy milk is an acquired taste, but once acquired you will likely want more. And this flavor combination transforms milk into something quite special. I tend to drink kefir plain and at room temperature throughout winter, but when summer comes, I serve it chilled and fizzing.
Small pinch saffron threads
1 3⁄4 ounces boiling water
21 ounces ripe kefir
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Combine the saffron and boiling water in a 4-cup jug and let it steep until cooled.
Once cooled, pour in the ripe kefir. Add the maple syrup and stir well. Put the vanilla bean in a clean 3 cup swing-top bottle, then pour in the kefir mixture (use a funnel to do this if you have one).
Close the lid and leave the bottle out at room temperature for 1 day, then open the bottle to release excess pressure and place it in the fridge. Ready in approximately 1–3 days
It will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days, but make sure to open (burp) the bottle once a day to prevent over‑carbonation.
Reprinted from Ferment by Holly Davis with permission by Chronicle Books