Sap on tap: More of us running for the gold

Time for a tap, and we’re not talking about Spotted Cow or Sprecher Amber.

Even though the Olympics have ended, Wisconsin has begun another run for the gold. The annual transformation of maple sap to syrup has started statewide, and Gretchen Grape of Holcombe (Chippewa County) cautiously predicts a strong tapping season.

She is executive director of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association, whose members set up about 620,000 tree taps statewide last year. That’s up from 400,000 in 2006.

About 1,200 of these taps will be the work of Gretchen’s five-generation family business, Grape’s Sugar Bush, one of four Wisconsin businesses whose syrup was deemed perfect during the association’s last round of judging. More than 60 producers entered the event.

What makes maple syrup perfect? The syrup’s density, clarity, color and flavor make a difference, as do attractive packaging and labeling.

Like a fine wine, flavor is uniquely linked to the terrain of the product’s origin. “Two syrups made from trees a couple miles down the road from each other could taste very different, depending upon the nutrients in the ground,” Gretchen explains.

Ideal production is at the mercy of the rhythms of nature. Warm and sunny days must be balanced by nighttime freezing, which is typical during March.

“It’s not an easy job for us,” she says, “but it’s only three or four weeks out of the year.”

Anybody with maple tree trunks at least one foot in diameter can try tapping, after minimal instruction and equipment (which many commercial syrup producers sell). The average maple tree produces 20 gallons of sap, the association says, which means two quarts of syrup after excess water is boiled out of it.

“We push people to get involved through open houses,” Gretchen says. “More people are seeing this as a good family outing and back-to-nature experience,” especially during hard economic times.

Although the sugar maple – Wisconsin’s state tree since 1893 – is the most popular for tapping, sap also is tapped from other types of maples.

Gretchen says membership in her association “is for everybody. We have people with 25 trees and others who tap more than 4,000.” A bigger membership would mean more taps and production stats are recorded.

Wisconsin’s production of 200,000 gallons of syrup from about 500 producers in 2009 was a record high and 33 percent more than in 2008. “There are probably as many – or more – people who do this as a hobby or as a family,” says Gretchen, and she would love to add their efforts to statewide totals.

Wisconsin is fourth nationwide in maple syrup production, behind Vermont, Maine and New York.

We used to be third, Gretchen says, and it sure would be good to regain the bronze medal position in this annual race for the gold.

Maple syrup producers who have announced spring open houses include:

Kickapoo Gold, 200 High Echo Lane, Westby: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 20. Includes an organic pancake breakfast; proceeds benefit Viroqua Future Farmers of America. www.kickapoogold.com, 866-290-8280.

Maple Sweet Dairy, 5285 County W, DePere: noon to 5 p.m. March 21.

Glenna Farms, 1333 120th St., Amery: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 27-28. Free pancakes and hay rides in exchange for food pantry donations. www.glennafarms.com, 800-310-5050.

Boettcher’s Maple Syrup, W6548 431st Ave., Ellsworth: open house during last weekend in March. 715-273-5356.

Hedmark’s Maple Ridge, 6748 Lunds Rd., Fence: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 3. Expect sundaes with syrup, and syrup on pancakes.

Jacque Sugar Bush, W9753 Popple River Rd., Thorp: open house during first weekend in April; retail sales 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 715-669-3059.

Zubell’s Sugar Shack, 34651 210 th Ave., Gilman: open house during second weekend in April; retail sales 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. 715-447-5446.

Hustad’s Sugar Bush, 2165 11-1/2 St., Cumberland: open house on March 27, 28, April 3, 10 and 11; retail sales 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. 715-822-4608.

Northern Wisconsin Maid Sugarbush, W8052 Maple Ridge Rd., Park Falls: tours and pancake-sausage breakfast, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 17-18. 715-762-4796.

This information comes from the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association at www.wismaple.org, 715-447-5758.

Ocooch Mountain Acres, near Westby in the Kickapoo River Valley, arranges three-hour tours (by appointment) of its maple syrup farm and factory for groups of at least 25. The cost is $125. Learn more at www.ocoochmountainacres.com, 608-606-2866.

Maple syrup demos, breakfasts and festivals are numerous during this time of year, especially at nature preserves. Consult www.travelwisconsin.com (search “maple syrup”).

To learn how and when to tap the syrup out of your own maple trees, consult www.mapleresource.com.

For more about Grape’s Sugar Bush: www.grapessugarbush.com, 715-827-0252. Most product sales are done online.