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Danny Bunzendahl stands with three 35-gallon barrels of maple sap insidethe sugar shack he built to cook the sap into syrup. Behind him is the evaporator he built, where water turns to steam, concentrating the sugar.
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Danny Bunzendahl checks a tap on a large maple tree, making sure the sap is still flowing. He puts the tap into the tree in a different place each year.
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When the sap has boiled down and thickened, Danny Bunzendahl tests it for sugar content, using a hydrometer. The sap starts as a think, clear liquid; by this point, the thickened syrup has turned brown
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After a final boiling in a large pot just outside of his house, Danny Bunzendahl teststhe sap for sugar content. He pours a sample into a glass tube with a hydrometer in it.
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The fire under the evaporator has to be kept going for weeks at a time as maple sap cooks down into syrup. Danny Bunzendahl keeps dry wood next to his sugar shack and comes out about everythree hours to keep the fire going -- even getting up at 3 in the morning to do it.

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

Getting up at 3 in the morning for a few weeks has a sweet reward for Danny Bunzendahl and family and friends. 

At least, that’s Danny’s view. He is nearing the end of making this year’s batch of sweet maple syrup. He and his wife, Carolyn, will use it to sweeten their food until next year, when he starts by tapping the trees again. Adding to the reward for him is sharing the process with his grandchildren.

Eight years ago, Danny started tapping trees and then boiling down the sap to get syrup after some time of preparation.

“I always wanted to try it but you’ve got to rig up to do it,” he said.

After selling their farm near Columbia, he and Carolyn had moved east of Connersville in about 1990, where they have about 65 acres. It has plenty of sugar maple trees.

But a visit to their daughter in northernmost Michigan convinced him to finally get into making syrup. She and her family tap their trees.

“One time when I was up there, I bought some taps,” Danny said. 

He researched the syrup-making process by reading books and articles and decided to build his own sugar shack. In it is an evaporator that he built, where water in the sap is boiled away to concentrate the sugar. It takes about 100 gallons of sap to make 4 gallons of syrup.

Getting that sap involves pounding metal taps into trees on his property and on land where Jake and Carrie Pfeiffer live. Carrie is his daughter. Photos on Facebook attest to the fun that the grandkids have when Danny comes to tap the trees and collect the sap.

The taps are hollow metal tubes that he hammers in just deep enough to get under the tree’s outer bark. There, a layer of cells carries sap from the roots up to the leaves. Trees don’t start sending up sap until after a freeze and thaw, so timing is important. Late February and March is best around here.

“Ideal weather is when it’s in the mid- to upper 20s at night and mid-30s to 40s in the day,” Danny said. “That tells the maple tree it needs to run sap. If it’s too warm, it slows down, and too cold, it actually stops.”

Sap comes out of the tap into a plastic hose which, in turn, drips into a plastic bucket or a gallon jug. Each tree will yield about 4 gallons, plus or minus depending on the tree’s size, age and conditions where it’s growing. Bunzendahl and the grandchildren empty the buckets, collecting the sap into 35-gallon plastic barrels that he takes to the sugar shack. As of Tuesday, they’d collected 195 gallons of sap in three weeks.

“One year we collected about 600 gallons. I’ll never do that again,” he said, recalling long hours spent pouring sap into the evaporator.

Fresh sap has only a little bit of sugar; it’s thin and bland.

So to make syrup, there’s a lot of boiling, and it has to be done just so. The water won’t evaporate if the fire under it isn’t hot. And, says Danny, “Build too much of a fire the damn stuff will boil over.” So he adds wood to the fire about every three hours, meaning midnight, 3, 6, 9, noon, and so on, around the clock.

He adds the wood to a stove he made from a cut off fuel oil tank. On the stove’s flat top sits a large rectangular sheet-metal tray he made. About 8 inches deep, it’s the evaporator. It’s set on an angle and has baffles in it. Danny pours sap in one end and the fire heats it to boiling. As water turns to steam, the sugar is concentrated and the sap gets heavier. Gravity pushes the heavier sap around the baffles and down to a drain pipe with a spigot. When it’s thick enough, Danny opens the spigot and drains some of the sap into a large pot.

Then he adds more raw sap to the evaporator. He takes the concentrated sap to another pot for further evaporation. That pot sits on a propane-fired burner near the house, where it’s easy for him to check regularly. 

After more boiling, Danny dips a cup of hot concentrate out of the pot. It’s turned brownish by now. He pours this sample into a glass tube with a hydrometer in it. His is a tubular glass device that looks similar to a candy thermometer. It measures the sap’s thickness, giving a reading about how much sugar is in it. 

When it’s ready, Danny takes it into the kitchen and pours it into jars for storage.

For the following year, Danny and Carolyn use it for sweetener. Compared to store-bought, Danny’s syrup has a bit of smoke taste to it, the result of heating over the wood fire. It’s a good flavor and Danny likes it that way. He said some commercial syrup is made through osmosis, involving filtering the sugar out instead of heating it. That’s almost too sweet and clear for his taste. 

Danny says the syrup is good for more than just pancakes.

“You’d be surprised what adding a little bit of syrup will do to a gravy,” he said. “It gives it a new taste, you don’t really know it’s sweet. It just tastes better.”

And that’s his ultimate reward for weeks of getting up at 3 a.m.