October 22, 2021

Hard Work, Sweet Reward

Maple syrup making not for faint of heart

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Ben Hanna, of Cortlandville, shows off his sap bucket that collects the clear sap from his maple tree on March 8.

Ben Hanna is not one to squander his resources.

The Cortlandville man took note of a row of maple trees in his back yard when he bought his house.

The 30-year-old, an engineer, decided he’d give maple syrup production a try.

“Growing up, we used to go to Beaver Lake Nature Center. They do yearly maple sugar making. I saw that … I moved here. I saw sugar maples. I decided to give it a go.”

He taps five trees at his home and one at his parent’s home in Liverpool.

Hanna made a wood-fired evaporator out of a 55-gallon drum. He collects sap by bucket. He started boiling it March 8.

“Last year, I made three gallons,” Hanna said. “I give it away to family and friends. I use a little bit. Most of it is for presents for family and friends.”

“It’s interesting,” said Hanna, a quality engineer at a Liverpool sports equipment company. “Normally when it’s a weekend, I will have family come, get together. It’s just fun.”

He’s got a few hoses, but prefers the simpler bucket-and-spigot method. Hanna empties the sap into a storage tank he buried under the snow to keep the sap cool.

“When you get enough, you boil it down until it becomes sugar,” he said. “The goal for this year is to match what I got last year. Three gallons.”

Getting wood is a process

“I have no idea how much wood I need,” he said.

A pile of chopped up pallets were in his yard and his rescue dog was sequestered in the house. He had taken the day off to boil sap and had been at it since 9 a.m. He figured he’d go to about 6 p.m.

“The whole goal behind this is to do it as cheaply as you can, with what you find on the side of the road,” he said, at least for the wood.

He gets wood pallets from the Cortland Standard (free for the taking, next to the building in the back parking lot) and other sites and works with friend, Pam Kavalesky, to clear and chop wood at her house.

“Pam has a lot of downed trees,” he said.

The two were coworkers at Intertek before Hanna left the company for his Liverpool job. Kavalesky has a truck and Hanna needed help getting pallets.

“I know all the pallet hot spots,” Kavalesky said. “They burn hot,” Hanna said.

“This is ridiculous,” said Kavalesky. “I have wood ready to burn,” she said.

She has woods on her small Cortlandville parcel, with felled trees.

“It makes me sick seeing wood laying there unused,” she said.

Hanna would come over on the weekends and the two pulled trees and cut them up for his evaporator.

Kavalesky said Hanna is amazing. He’s an Eagle Scout and when she heard his plan to make his own evaporator, she knew it would happen.

“You have no idea how bright he is,” she said. If she was stymied at work with an engineering problem, she could count on him for input.

Many uses for metal drums

Hanna researched online how to make a backyard evaporator out of a metal drum.

“I try to be hands on,” he said. He didn’t have to do any welding, just cut out parts for the door and holes for a stove pipe and evaporator pans.

“It’s going good. I can light a fire in it and keep it going,” Hanna said. “I keep pouring sap in until it boils down. When it’s close to being done, I take the sap inside and boil in on the stove, for more control on a heat source.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Hanna modified a metal 55-gallon drum into a maple sap evaporator to make syrup. He burns wood in the device, using free wood pallets and downed trees he harvests from a friend’s land.

Simple, but not easy

Airian Eastman of McGraw said Hanna is on the mark.

“I think it’s amazing that he has the initiative to set up something at home,” she said. “A lot of people started in their back yard.”

Her parents, Paul and Dina Heller, were maple syrup makers. Her grandfather, Sam, started tapping four maple trees along his Solon driveway in 1957.

He used a copper pot over an open fire and maple syrup was stored in mason jars. His yield that year was 17 gallons of syrup, Eastman wrote in her book, “Heller Maple Farms, A Family Legacy.”

Her father would create a business out of maple syrup, before dying in 2009. Eastman recently helped her mom tap trees and they stored the sap outdoors in totes and new, unused plastic garbage cans.

The family used an evaporator, not home built, to boil the sap.

“I haven’t done it in a couple of years,” she said. “My brother and I are looking at 50 trees in his property for the next year or two,” to start collecting and boiling sap, in Blodgett Mills. His neighbor has trees he wants tapped, she said.

The sap is running

Hanna said of the best weather for maple sugar making: “You want it warm during the day and cold during the night. Forties in the daytime, 20s at night is ideal. I look at the extended forecast to figure out when to put the taps in.”

He has a 35-gallon storage tank buried in snow in his yard, to keep the sap cool.

“When it’s full, I do the boil,” Hanna said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Ben Hanna, an engineer living in Cortlandville, moves sap on March 8 from one shallow pan to another as the water is boiled out of the clear liquid.

“They say you have to treat it like milk,” he said of the sap. “It needs to be refrigerated.”

It will last seven to 10 days, staying fresh in his cool tank. The temperature needs to be less than 38 degrees, he said.

The rule of thumb is 40 gallons of sap equals one gallon of syrup, Hanna said.

Conditions were better last year. “This year, I don’t know how it will be,” he said.

Hanna plans to move to Liverpool and wants to find a piece of property with more maple trees.

“I just think about what I can do to improve the process moving forward,” he said. The next step: designing a new evaporator. “This is not the most efficient evaporator.”

“I also do honey bees. I get honey, too,” Hanna said. “Maple syrup and honey are my two things.”