Growing up, Reuben Miller watched his grandfather make maple syrup, and he knew it was something he wanted to do some day.
Miller and his family are members of the amish community, and they moved to Willisburg in 2010 from Zanesville, Ohio. The family farms the land around its home in northern Washington County, and Reuben builds portable storage buildings that he sells. But this year, with the weather just right, he decided to take on a project he had wanted to do since he was a young boy — making homemade maple syrup.
“My grandpa did it, and I would see him, and it just always fascinated me,” he said. “I always had in my dreams that someday I’m going to do this.”
About 15 years ago, Reuben and his family purchased property in Ohio, and he said there were a few trees they tapped to experiment with syrup making. When the family moved to Kentucky, he said being surrounded by so many hard maple trees, he decided it was time to really take on his dream.
“It just kind of come back to me, and I decided it would be a good thing to do as a family, to have something for the family to do,” he said.
The timing is also right for making syrup for two reasons. First, Reuben said this time of year his regular business of making storage buildings is slower, so he has some more time on his hands. Also, the winter weather is perfect for the process.
“Typically a good sap run is 20 degrees at night and 40 (degrees) in the day. If it stays warm the next couple of days, we’ll probably dwindle down to not much sap,” he explained. He added that the window for making syrup is only about four to five weeks because of the temperatures.
“When your trees start pushing buds, it (sap) will get a bitter taste to it,” he said. “As long as the ground is frozen it won’t run. Typically the first of February is the best time, and you’re looking at four to five weeks of good time to make syrup.”
The warm weather may affect the flow of sap from the maple trees, but it hasn’t yet. Reuben said he and his family have been collecting about 200 gallons each day. The trees have a tap inserted, and the sap, which is clear and much like water, drips into a food-grade bag attached to the tap. The Millers go out each morning and pour the sap from a hole in the top of the bag into a bucket. The buckets are then emptied into a food-grade tank pulled on a wagon by a team of horses, then taken back to the Miller farm.
With more than 200 trees tapped, Reuben is still thinking of bigger things some day if all goes well. He said his family’s farm has a lot more trees, and he will consider other, more advanced options to collecting even more sap.
“We have 200 tapped, and we didn’t even tap them all,” he said. “We wanted to get the feel of it and see where we’re at. We’ve got a few neighbors who offered to let us tap their trees. We do have more trees, but they’re harder to get to. They have tubing where you can vacuum the sap or use gravity flow. We may run tubing, but you have to have 2,000 to 3,000 taps before a vacuum will do you any good.”
Having more trees is not necessarily a good thing, as Reuben learned from an expert from the University of Kentucky. He said a lady from UK spoke locally, and he learned that if trees are not going to produce sap, or if they are bad or rotting away, they will be a problem. He learned that cutting those trees away will allow the trees that do produce sap to produce even more.
“The more branches and the wider branches, the more sap you get. So now I can look at them and pretty much tell if they will be good trees to use,” Reuben explained. “She was telling us that you won’t get more sap just by tapping more trees. They are all competing for the same thing, and I’ve noticed that. I’ve tapped a few trees that are real close (to each other), and those, you are better to cut those down and use the wood for fire wood.”
Once the sap is collected for the day, Reuben said it is emptied into an 80-gallon cooker. It cooks at temperatures between 210 and 212, which he said is the boiling point for the sap. The weather also plays a role, and he added that barometric pressure affects the process, and the sap must be watched closely.
“You’ve got to be there when it starts boiling,” he said.
After the sap boils down to the desired level, the tub is removed from the fire and the sap is put through a filter. It then cooks more, this time in a stainless steel container where it finishes the cooking process.
What started as 200 gallons of sap cooks down to about five gallons of syrup, producing a yield of 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup at the end of the day, according to Reuben.
“It’s pretty much a days work. You can expect to evaporate a maximum of 25 gallons of sap per hour, so if you’ve got 200 gallons, you’re looking at about 10 hours,” Reuben said.
Although he’s making maple syrup, Reuben added that in different stages of the cooking process, the sap can be poured over ice cream and used as a topping that will harden for a sweet desert. It can also be cooked to the point of resembling taffy, and if cooked long enough, he said it will eventually crystallize and turn to brown sugar.
With the process in place, Reuben needed a market for his syrup, and he found one at Willisburg General Store, a business operated by his brother, Andrew, just a few miles from his farm.
“From what I’ve seen, it will sell,” Andrew said Wednesday. “We brought some pints in this morning, and we’ve sold one already.”
Even if the syrup doesn’t sell quickly, that’s not a problem, according to Reuben, who said the syrup has a shelf life of about one year.
Reuben said he would not rule out other marketing areas, but his brother’s store will be the prime seller for now.
Despite some strange reactions when he first announced he would make the syrup, Reuben plans to keep at it.
“I told people I’m going to start doing this, and they didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I thought maybe we can’t do this in Kentucky. I was kind of leery about that, but it seems to be working. I think it’s a thing where people have to have it brought to their attention, and to know it’s all natural, it’s good for you, and it’s good tasting.”