Pull out your pancakes, maple season has started on the Goering's farm.
Blue and white vacuum tubes crisscross around trees and down hills on Michael Goering's 160-acre farm. They stand out against dirt-covered leaves and naked trees as Michael tromps over his property. He leans over and lifts a lateral line from the leaves. These teal tubes, attached to the vacuum tubes, draw maple syrup from around 1,900 trees on Michael's property. He has to check them all at least three times before the syrup season begins.
Starting in early February, Michael and a crew of volunteers and employees take on a month-long process of tapping trees, turning sap into syrup and bottling it for sale. It sounds easier than it looks, but the crew has had practice.
Michael and his wife, Leane, began making maple syrup on a small scale 30 years ago. "I personally have always had a love of making food out of a tree," he says. "The concept of that is fascinating to me."
In 1983, the couple took their business to the commercial market as Leane and Michael's Sugarbush. But it took four more years for them to figure out production. In 1987, they produced more than 1,000 gallons of syrup for the first time in a single season.
Indiana is one of 13 syrup-producing states and is home to around 160 maple syrup producers, says Indiana Maple Syrup Association Director Ron Burnett. Most of the association's 80 members sell their syrup as a business, like Leane and Michael, but others, like Burnett, produce it more as a hobby. "My father did it before me," Burnett says. "My family kind of enjoyed doing it for a few weeks in the year. It's something to use as Christmas presents."
The Goerings started their business cold, with Leane and Michael as the first generation. Now, Michael spends all his spare time with the business, making it a family lifestyle.
"I like to say I was born into the maple syrup business," says Emily Blackman, Michael and Leane's second oldest daughter. Emily was born on March 3, at the end of syrup season. Every two or three years, the family's Annual Maple Syrup Festival lands on her birthday. "When people ask what your parents do, I say, 'They make maple syrup,'" she says. "I get weird looks. Most people think of Vermont and Canada when they think maple syrup."
Michael knows the syrup production is less of a way to make money than it is a way of keeping his life balanced. Working primarily as a civil engineer and Washington County's Solid Waste District Manager, Michael says he really just enjoys making maple syrup. "It's not enough for me to make a living on just doing that, but it is profitable," he says. "I'm an engineer. Engineering is very profitable. But I do like doing this."
As the syrup season approaches, Michael surveys his property in a torn T-shirt and glasses with transition lenses that change in the sun. From the end of his driveway he can see most of the buildings he's built by hand since moving onto the farm. His two-story house. A three-room store. The syrup production workshop. There are more, but he doesn't know how many. He's never counted.
"You can tell how the business has grown by the tin on the roof of the store," Emily says. "The first part that was built has the darkest tin, and you can see where we added on."
The syrup season begins when the weather is cold enough that temperatures fall below freezing at night and rise again during the day. Without fluctuating temperatures, sap in the trees will not run. According to the Cornell Sugar Maple Extension Program, warm temperatures cause pressure to develop in the trees, pushing the sap out through wounds or tap holes. At night when the temperature returns below freezing, a suction process draws water in through the tree's roots and replenishes the sap. The sap collecting season ends when temperatures no longer fluctuate between freezing at night and thawing during the day, stopping the sap from flowing.
Michael's process starts with a tap hole - 7/16 diameter about two inches into the bark. On a good day, theses tap holes will fill up to three or four gallons of sap. Michael stands next to a maple tree between his driveway and the house. He points to old tap holes on the tree's surface. There are at least six, but they wouldn't all be drilled at the same time. "We spread the tap holes out year after year," he says. "I usually would put one or two in this one."
According to the Cornell Sugar Maple Research and Extension Program, a healthy tree that's 10 to 17 inches in diameter should have no more than one tap at a time. A tree 18 to 24 inches in diameter could have two taps, and anything wider could have three.
After tapping each tree, sap runs through the lateral lines and vacuum tubes into tanks in the middle of the woods. Michael and his crew then take tanks of 550 gallons at a time to a feed tank near the house.
When the sap gets into the feed tank, it looks just like water. And it's odorless, Michael says, unless it's fermenting. "If it smells bad, there's no chance to make it syrup," he says. From the feed tank, the sap is pumped through an ultraviolet light that kills almost 100 percent of the yeast growing in the sugar.
Then, the sap moves into an evaporator. The design of the evaporator was perfected in the 1890s, Michael says, and, except for the materials, it hasn't changed much. At the top of the evaporator is a flue pan that takes six men to lift. Heat pours over the flue pans, boiling the sap. After boiling, the sap zig zags back and forth through metal rows, pushing solids out of the sap through small holes in the metal. When it gets to the end, that's the syrup that Michael bottles.
Sap ready for bottling should be seven degrees above boiling water. The temperature of the stack attached to the evaporator runs at about 800 degrees. "When you move it to the flue, you have to wear something really thick," Robert Blackman, Emily's husband, says. Thick layers prevent people from singeing their skin in such hot temperatures.
Before the syrup is bottled, it runs through a pressure filter that takes out anything that shouldn't be in the syrup. "Even though you're boiling water, every gallon of syrup will still have eight pounds of solids in it," Michael says. Sugar, other multi-sugars and other trace elements make up the solids. "Eventually, all that stuff has to come out, so that's why you always filter your syrup," he adds. "It's not bad for you, but the problem is, it's hard explaining to the customer what that is in the bottom of the jug."
After the syrup is filtered, Michael runs it through a valve and moves it to a tank where he can reheat it with propane before bottling. "This is not a gung ho process right here," Michael says of bottling, "and trying to do this quickly is fraught with problems. The bottling process has to be done under calm conditions." Michael bottles almost 100 percent of the syrup himself, but he does have helpers from time to time.
Josh Hall works on the Goering farm for rent. He lives with his wife in a log cabin on the Goering's property and helps Michael with nearly every step of the syrup-making process. Josh was born in Arizona but moved to Indiana when he was five. He met the Goering's at a home-school program and has worked on their farm since he was 13 - the last eight years.
Before the syrup season, he helps Michael split wood to use in the evaporator. Riding into the woods, Josh sits in the back of the Ford while Michael drives with his spaniel, Clancy, in the passenger seat. "Something happened between him and a car once," Michael says. "I don't want him to get flattened."
Between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., the two men bring in load after load of wood and break two Collins axes. Michael pauses as Josh lifts part of a chopped-up green hickory tree.
"You're not going to try and lift that, are you," he asks.
"Yeah," Josh says.
"Gosh, I'm impressed."
Michael likes having Josh and other volunteers around to do the lifting. "I can't lift things like I used to," he says. But despite aging, he loves continuing the maple syrup process. There's an art to it.
Across the nation, maple syrup takes on various colors and flavors, ranging from light and delicate in Vermont to dark and stout in Indiana. While weather affects a syrup's color and flavor, producers have their hands in how it can turn out.
The United States Department of Agriculture splits maple syrup types into four grades: Grade A light amber - the lightest color and most delicate flavor, medium amber, dark amber and Grade B - the darkest syrup with the fullest flavor.
The color difference can be chalked up to lack of snow and warmer temperatures in Indiana, Michael says, but processing techniques can also account for the difference. "The way you make the lightest syrup is when sap starts to run, as soon as you have enough sap to start the evaporator, you start boiling," Michael says.
"You want to start boiling the sap as soon as possible after it comes out of the tree. We boil all the sap that runs that day, but you might, for instance, have enough sap to boil at about three o'clock, but we probably aren't boiling that sap till eight or nine o'clock. So it does tend to make darker syrup."
The advantage of darker syrup is a stronger maple flavor, the easiest syrup for Michael to sell. "The perfect example, we sell about 600 gallons of syrup at the festival," he says. "Last year, I made about 50 gallons of light amber syrup, so I had gallons of light, medium, dark and Grade B. At the festival, I started with 25 gallons of light amber syrup and had twice as much of everything else. At the end of the festival, I still had five gallons of light amber syrup left. I couldn't believe it. People just don't want light syrup around here."
According to the Cornell Program, around 300 natural flavor compounds have been found in pure maple syrup, including prominent flavors of sugar, caramel and vanilla along with less dominant flavors of nutty, buttery, floral (honey), chocolate, coffee and cereal - (so it's no wonder why Michael uses syrup instead of sugar every morning to mix in his Special K.)
The Cornell program states syrup flavor can be affected by soil type, tree genetics, weather conditions during the maple season and the time that the sap is collected. "And for some reason with the soil type, you have different local flavors," Michael says. "I can actually taste a difference between Orange County, Jackson County. The sap is affected by your soil, so that eventually carries through to the syrup. It's a very subtle difference, and you can only really taste it if the syrup's not real sweet."
Near the end of Michael and Josh's wood chopping day, Josh drives a load back to the house as Michael calls for Clancy. It's the start of a long syrup season.