Spring brings warmer weather, birds singing, flowers blooming and sap. The sap of the maple trees in southeastern Minnesota make sensational maple syrup and few know this better than Dave Carlin of Lanesboro, Minn.
Carlin’s Sugar Shack produces some of the richest tasting maple syrup in the area thanks to a lot of knowledge, experience and investment.
Dave started making maple syrup back in the 1980s with his dad, John Carlin and friend, Eric Gunderson. They made maple syrup over the years and all had enjoyed the process.
“Then I kind of got out of it for awhile after high school, college, job and everything, but in 2003 I got back into it,” states Dave. His dad, John Carlin, Eric Gunderson, and his brother Steve help produce the syrup.
When he first started again Dave used buckets for collecting and transporting the sap, about 85 buckets at the time, one bucket per tree.
Three years ago he used half buckets and half tubing. “The tubing out-performed the buckets like 10 to one,” notes Dave. “It was crazy,” he said.
This year Dave has 177 trees tapped, all on a tubing system, which runs down to two large collection containers. “I don’t know of anybody around here that does the tubing — like this anyway — but it works really, really good,” he says.
“Last year we made 64.5 gallons of syrup,” explains Dave, adding, “we’ll get more than that this year,” as he has invested in new equipment which has sped up the process a great deal.
Carlin purchased a reverse osmosis (RO) system that has made an incredible difference in the timetable of syrup-making.
“It has a reverse osmosis membrane like you would have in your house,” he explains, but it is used the opposite way to make syrup.
“The membrane is made so that it is so fine that only the water molecules will go through it and everything else stays on the other side, but in the maple syrup industry what you do is run the sap into the membrane and take the water out and throw it away and keep everything else, where in your house you do the opposite,” he says.
“The sap goes through the membrane and then re-circulates, and as it takes the water out the sap just gets more and more concentrated,” Dave notes.
“This will usually go from about 3% sugar down to 10% sugar — so I take out about three-quarters of the water (by RO before it goes to the cooker), which saves on wood and saves on time,” he comments. In one day, 550 gallons of water were removed by reverse osmosis, which is 550 gallons less that they have to remove in the cooker. That water is not wasted, as Dave uses it to rinse the bulk tanks.
The RO system was well worth the investment, as Dave says, “The amount of time we saved is just phenomenal,” and says after only testing it last year, it’s running flawless this year.
Because of the time saved Dave says, “You can actually taste it the same day you’re here — before you would boil from six in the morning to six at night, dump it off, and what you had you had to finish off on a big stove the next day,” so it has saved a lot of time and effort for them.
After going through the RO process the sap then goes to the cooker where Gunderson was staying busy tending to the wood fire, watching the sugar content and keeping an eye on the flues.
“We are taking the rest of the water out and making it syrup,” stated Gunderson, saying the cooker takes it from sap to syrup, and when it was done and this reporter got a taste of the warm maple syrup straight out of the cooker, there was no doubt a jug would be coming home with me.
The sap is then transported in milk tanks to the garage to be bottled in cute one pint jugs that say “Carlin’s Sugar Shack” or “Pure Minnesota Maple Syrup” on the front.
This particular weekend the three men worked with 1,200 gallons of sap. The weekend before they had boiled 600 gallons off and got 25 gallons of syrup.
The approximate ratio is 40:1 (40 gallons sap = 1 gallon syrup) at 2% sugar content. “We are running 3% so 28 or 30 to 1” would be the closer ratio, according to Dave. When the sap is concentrated the ratio is about 9:1.
There is quite a bit of science involved in making maple syrup. A hydrometer is very important as it uses a common scale of degrees Brix (shown as °Bx) which shows the sugar percentage of the syrup. “It’s supposed to be between 66 and 68 Brix,” explains Dave. Anything less than that it’s too wet so it can go bad and get moldy, anything over that and it will crystallize like honey.
Dave comments that his numbers are “dead on,” saying, “I do it to the standard it’s supposed to be.” He hopes to soon have a commercial kitchen to take the business even further.
Right now he sells his maple syrup and also honey (he has 24 hives this year) at the Lanesboro Farmers Market, but once he is able to have a commercial kitchen the possibilities are endless.
When asked what they use their maple syrup for aside from the normal pancakes and French toast, Dave says, “I use it for a lot of different things,” and mentions that his wife Marlene has come up with many great recipes using maple syrup.
One of Dave’s favorite ways to use maple syrup is to cook pork chops on the grill until almost done, then put a tablespoon of maple syrup on them, when the pork chops are done the syrup will have caramelized and become like a glaze.
“I like it on vanilla ice cream myself,” says John, and he also puts a little in his coffee for flavor and a little sweetness. “I usually have to have it in my car because wherever I go people are asking for it,” he adds.
Dave recommends visiting allrecipes.com for maple syrup recipes, as you will be surprised by all of the different things you can make using pure Minnesota maple syrup.