Around Valentine’s Day each winter the Koehler family begin a tradition started several years ago when they moved to their new home on Hominy Ridge Road in Clark County. The family gathers up their buckets, their hammers and their special “taps” and head out onto their property to begin the process of making maple syrup.
Kyle and Kathrin Koehler along with their five children tap a little over one hundred Sugar Maple trees out of the close to three hundred that are available on their property and an adjoining neighbors lot. Valentine’s Day normally marks the beginning of the end of winter as temperatures increase during the day and then fall as night approaches. This process is necessary for the sap to begin to rise and fall in the tree. This year the family will be delayed as the daytime temperatures have not cooperated to get the process started.
Once the tree has been tapped, five gallon buckets are hung to catch the dripping sap. The trees produce sap for five to six weeks in a good year Koehler explained. During that time the hole begins to heal over and that is when the sap will stop running into the buckets. It has been a couple of tricky years for the family as this is the first long cold winter we have had. Once the buds are on the tree and it begins to leaf out, the sap cannot be collected. Last year we had a very mild winter which decreased production.
Unlike commercial producers, the family still taps the trees, hang the buckets and emptying them every day. The “sugar maple is king” said Koehler as he explained the process. The five gallon buckets must be emptied into 55 gallon drums for storing the sap each day. Once the family has filled a few of the large drums, they transport them to a local commercial processor in Champaign County. In the first year of their new hobby, the family gathered 1,600 gallons of sap.
The “city folks” as Kyle describes them did not grow up knowing how to gather and make syrup. Their first year saw the family gathered around an open fire pit with a very large pot purchased at a local store learning just how you take 40 gallons of sap and boil it down to get just one gallon of syrup. The tricky part is making sure that your syrup has a sixty six percent sugar content said Koehler. The process takes about 48 hours of boiling non-stop to achieve the goal of maple syrup. This cannot be done in your house as the moisture would overwhelm your drywall.
The family keeps about ten gallons of syrup for personal use that they make at home. They work with the professionals who share the remaining supply which is bottled and labeled. The Koehler family donates these bottles to events such as the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast or provides them as gifts to friends and other groups.
The ten gallons that the family keeps is produced at home on their property. They now use a more sophisticated stove purchased in New England and the blue tarp has been replaced by a cozy permanent structure where Kyle and the rest of his family can enjoy a cozy afternoon or evening waiting for the syrup to process. As the sap boils down, a tap similar to a faucet allows more sap to flow into the boil chamber rather than being poured carefully by one of the family members. The final phase of production is completed in the house. The syrup is boiled to 218.5 degrees and bottled once cooled to 180 degrees. This keeps the syrup from crystallizing.
After eight years, the family still enjoys the process of gathering the sap for days, tending the fire and enjoying the rich taste of fresh golden maple syrup made the old fashion way.