Teachers: Ray and Mark Peters
While most people were tucked under blankets watching in disbelief as another round of snowflakes drifted down to the white ground below, Ray and Mark Peters were stepping into boots and snow pants, preparing for a long afternoon outside. Whether it looks like spring or not, the rise in temperature means just one thing to the Peters brothers: Maple syrup. Ever since stumbling across the practice 15 years ago for Ray Peters and 25 years ago for Mark, the two brothers were hooked. “A buddy of mine was going out to Kenny’s to cook down some maple syrup and I told him, ‘I want to learn how to do that,’” said Ray Peters, a longtime Le Sueur resident. Though Kenny Braun now leaves the heavy lifting to younger bucks like the Ray and Mark, he still offers the forest of sugar maples surrounding his home, just outside of Le Sueur, for sap tapping. Now entering prime time for sapping and tapping, Ray and Mark are beginning a time-intensive, two-week process which they hope leaves them with lots of bottles of silky-brown sweetness.
Step One: Tapping the trees In order to extract the sap from the maple trees, the Peters brothers drill a hole into the trunk of the tree and stick a hollow metal rod in its place. They then hook large plastic buckets on the rods, which run parallel to the ground, and wait for the sap to drip out and into the bucket. To protect the sap that collects in the buckets, and avoid more work down the road, the brothers cover each bucket with plastic after hanging them on the trees. “We had to come up with something to keep all of the rain and snow from getting in there and mixing with the sap,” said Ray Peters. “So this is the best way we could come up with.” While the brothers can sit back and wait for the trees to do their thing, collecting the sap is much less leisurely.
Step Two: Collecting the sap With more than 70 buckets on sugar maples spread throughout Braun’s property, collecting the sap is no small task. “We come out here every day to empty the buckets,” said Ray Peters. The Peterses pull 10-gallon metal containers in a mini trailer hooked up to an all-terrain vehicle and weave slowly through the forest, dumping each bucket, re-covering it with the plastic bag and hooking it back on the tree. Once all the buckets have been emptied for the day, they bring their containers of clear, sugary sap back into town for cooking.
Step Three: Boiling the sap Around the back side of Ray Peters’ house in Le Sueur is a long steel pan, propped up about three feet above the ground, with a wood fire blazing underneath. In the pan sits a bubbling liquid, steam rising off the surface, bringing images of witches’ cauldrons to mind. When the brothers return with the newly collected sap, they slowly add it to the already brewing liquid. The sap boils at a temperature of 210 degrees Fahrenheit, and when it reaches 220 degrees, it is ready to be drained. The Peterses have come up with a creative way to keep tabs on the status of their brew. “I hooked a meat thermometer up to a temperature gauge and ran it up a wooden stick,” said Ray Peters. “Then when you stick it in the sap, you get a clear temperature reading.” After the sap boils down to a nice syrupy consistency, it’s ready to be filtered.
Step Four: Filtering To get all of the impurities and debris out of the syrup, Ray and Mark Peters pour the sugary mix through their own homemade filtering system. After placing a cloth inside a large kitchen strainer and propping it up between to small boards, the liquid is poured through the filter and collected in a large plastic bowl underneath. Then all that is left to do is bottle it up.
Step Five: Bottling and tasting After the syrup has been filtered, the Peterses pour the liquid into glass bottles to save for their own enjoyment, give to friends and family and sell to the occasional interested customer. Delicious over pancakes, French toast, or in spoonfuls right out of the bottle; Ray enjoys using the maple syrup to create his own sweet barbeque sauce for the summer months.
Though this five-step process may seem simple enough, the enormity of the task becomes clearer when considering how much sap is needed for a little syrup. “It takes about 65 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” Ray Peters said, laughing. “It’s a lot of work for a little sweetness.” Now that the sap is finally flowing, Ray and Mark will be busy, but at least not for long. “We’ll have a cook-off on Sunday and then this week we’ll probably collect another 100 to 200 gallons, have one more cook-off and then that will probably be it,” said Mark Peters. Then they will no doubt kick up their feet, grab a jar of golden-brown syrup and enjoy a little sweetness. Well, at least until it’s time to go hunt for wild mushrooms, that is.