FRANKLIN GROVE – Inside a cramped, steamy wooden shack, Don Asp transforms a watery, clear, slightly sweet liquid into a viscous, amber-colored, distinctly flavored syrup.
Asp, clad in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, shovels a pile of wood into the stove.
He carefully monitors the boiling sugar water as it moves through the maze-like track of the cooking apparatus.
Asp, 71, with steam condensing on his wire-rimmed glasses, then draws off a pot full of thick, golden syrup.
He pours it into a felt cone filter that is suspended over a large stockpot and watches it slowly trickle through into the waiting receptacle.
Asp dips a plastic spoon into the sugar waterfall to taste the syrup.
“I like the taste of it more at the end [of the season], like where it is now, because it’s darker and more flavorful,” he said.
The Franklin Grove Maple Syrup Co. is wrapping up its seventh year of making maple syrup in the shack downtown, across the street from the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association.
The company produced no syrup last year, but its buckets runneth over this year.
Farming Heritage started the syrup operation in 2007 to provide maple syrup for the annual American Legion pancake breakfast. But the nonprofit historic preservation group – best known for its restoration of the H.I. Lincoln Building, which became home to the highway association – now makes and sells syrup to maintain the organization and the historic building.
The company is run entirely by volunteers. People in town often stop by and offer to help.
A delicate process
Syrup making, or sugar making as it sometimes is called, is relatively easy. The process requires some basic equipment and knowledge but demands a lot of patience and care.
The Farming Heritage folks use metal spiles, or taps, and stainless steel sap-collection buckets. They collect sap and boil it down to syrup on an evaporator – a shallow, stainless steel pan suspended over a wood-burning stove – in the sugar house.
Sugar makers look for the perfect weather – above freezing during the day and below freezing at night – which creates a pressure in the trees and jump-starts the sap flow from the roots to the leaves. They might tap trees as early as February or as late as March, depending on the weather.
The Farming Heritage folks tapped almost 80 trees, mostly on village easements and in public parks, on March 8, but did not start continuous collection and boiling until mid-March.
Sugar makers tap a tree (as long as it is at least 10 inches in diameter and about 30 years old) simply by drilling a hole in the sapwood, the outermost 2 to 3 inches, and inserting a metal spile. They then collect the sap by hanging a metal bucket on the tap and waiting for the nutrient-rich liquid to flow into it.
Syrup makers collect gallons and gallons of sap over the course of about 4 to 6 weeks and turn it into maple syrup. The trees naturally “heal” the holes and close off the taps by that time; the sap turns a cloudy, yellowish color and develops an “off” smell.
Asp collects on average 60 to 65 gallons of sap a day; he collected as few as 9 gallons and as many as 110 gallons this season.
He empties the collection buckets usually once a day, but sometimes twice, if the sap is really running. He pours the sap into 50-gallon tanks on a trailer, then transfers the haul to storage tanks, which feed into the evaporator, 20 to 25 gallons at a time. He boils every day for 2 to 4 hours, depending on how much sap he has to convert to syrup.
Asp constantly feeds the fire underneath the evaporator to maintain a rolling boil and transform the sap, which is about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar, into syrup. He never takes his eye off the process.
“It’s a delicate process,” he said. “Sometimes the syrup, when it’s in the evaporator, will foam up over the top. ... We put a drop of oil in ... to settle it down. To keep it boiling, you have to be there to feed the fire. ... And to make sure it doesn’t burn, you have to watch it.
“I’ve learned quite a bit from trial and error.”
Asp then filters the syrup to eliminate niter, sometimes called “maple sand,” or the minerals naturally present in sap, and takes the pure syrup home for bottling; he pitches the dark sand and washes the filter for the next batch.
His wife, Lynn Asp, 64, brings the syrup back up to about 180 degrees on the stovetop, then uses a funnel to pour it into pint- and quart-sized plastic jugs.
The work is simple but tedious, perhaps a little time-consuming but never boring. Curious passersby often stop in to chat, and local folks often offer to volunteer. Asp rarely is alone for too long in the shack.
It typically requires about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Asp last month boiled down almost 760 gallons of sap into 60 gallons of syrup – just 12 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Asp speculates his use of a thermometer to gauge temperature, rather than a hydrometer to measure density, could be the reason for the impressive ratio.
The Franklin Grove Maple Syrup Co. sells its syrup only at the Lincoln Highway headquarters, 136 N. Elm St., in downtown Franklin Grove.
A pint of the Grade B maple syrup – the darkest, thickest and richest syrup – costs $10, and a quart is $20. Proceeds go back to Farming Heritage, mostly to maintain the H.I. Lincoln Building.
“People look forward to it every year,” Lynn Asp said. “We always sell out.
“For some people, it’s just that it’s pure maple syrup and the price is really good. For others, it’s made in the town they visited. And for local people, it’s that we tapped our trees and it’s made in our town – and it just tastes so good.”