We're talking about the lines that exist between hobby and business, employment and passion or perhaps maybe even insanity and enterprise. They also make some darn fine maple syrup.
Right now is prime time in the short window for Indiana maple syrup producers to manufacture that most sublime forest treat. From the waning days of January through February and sometimes lingering into the first days of March, Hoosier syrup producers have only a few weeks to gather, boil and package their distinct liquid gold.
Last weekend we visited Mark, Young and families at their Maple Creations sugar camp in western Hendricks County. Having once spent a day with the late Don Bickel at his sugar camp near Waynetown, I was familiar with the process of making syrup but I was interested in getting a look at how the men and their families ran the operation.
Homing in on a feather of wood smoke that stood out against the blue sky and the plumes of white vapor rising from a nondescript but well-kept barn, I recognized the signs of a working sugar camp from two miles away.
There, upon entering the "Sugar Shack," I was stunned because it was a far cry from the traditional sugaring operation I had helped Don with ten years ago. From the gleaming stainless steel evaporator to the intricate systems of timers, temperature probes, automatic valves and other such mechanical delights, my notions of syrup making were jolted from 1917 to 2017 in the blink of an eye. It was like jumping off your horse and walking into the NASA mission control center.
Both Doug and Michael are engineers and, stereotypical for those in their career field, meticulous, inveterate tinkerers. Framing the venture with those personality traits helps convey the somewhat Willy Wonka-esqe nature of their syrup factory.
Maple Creations started over a decade ago when Doug learned that his grandfather was giving up the maple syrup business in Tennessee. He drove there to retrieve everything he could, including hard-won information, and brought it back to the property that Michael and his wife had just purchased. Things just evolved from there.
The centerpiece of the operation is the aforementioned wood-fired evaporator that is fed by a series of pumps and valves to move the sap through several shallow pans that boil off water to concentrate the all-important sugar. Gallons of raw sap at about 1.5% sugar enters the evaporator from large storage tanks while a trickle of half-finished syrup automatically exits at the other end into a stainless steel pot.
This final output is then finished in small batches on a single gas burner to prevent the notoriously finicky syrup from boiling over or scorching. That brown nectar we love on pancakes ends up around 66% sugar and is then filtered to remove "sugar sand," small bits of calcium that settles out of the finished syrup, before bottling.
Maple Creations has two stands of sugar maple trees in two locations. In one of the woods they use vacuum tubing to gather the sap into a central collection tank while the other stand uses blue plastic bags attached to "spiles" (hollow metal tubes driven into the tree) to collect the sap. The pair built an electrically-powered system on their utility vehicle that pumps sap dumped into a collection tub into a larger holding tank for transport to the main tanks at the sugar shack.
While the engineering is not at all "Rube Goldberg" as Michael self-effacingly quips, the craziest part of this whole operation is the fact that it's "just" a hobby. Because of dubious health regulations, they can only sell a small part of their product even though it undoubtedly is more pure and sanitary than 99.9 percent of food sold in grocery stores. The bit they can sell "more or less" pays for the expenses of operating this unusual business/hobby. However they also admit that simply selling all the wood they split to feed the evaporator would probably turn a much tidier profit.
But it doesn't matter because the whole affair is a labor of love, a good thing when you imagine that adding in the actual cost of labor would probably raise their syrup prices beyond reach. Fortunately, no one at Maple Creations puts a fee on the endless tough but satisfying hours spent working together as an extended family toward a common goal. Whether is their sons helping with sap collection, their fathers watching the evaporator or the wives keeping everything else in working order, the whole operation runs on a quiet kinship that is refreshingly old-fashioned in spite of all the stainless steel and electronics.
And ultimately, it is that sense of bond and purpose and connection that is even sweeter than their finished product.
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.