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Urban maple tappers have new view of the world

Leslie Bergquist is among a growing number of Minnesotans who have discovered the hobby of producing maple syrup can be enjoyed in an urban setting. He's shown checking a tree tapped at his home in a residential area on the east side of Granite Falls. Tom Cherveny / Foum News Service1 / 4
Jars of new maple syrup produced by Susan and Leslie Bergquist thanks to maple trees in their yard and those of their neighbors in Granite Falls. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service2 / 4
Susan Bergquist checks the specific gravity of sap being boiled to syrup. The hydrometer she is using will let her know when the sugar content is just right. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service3 / 4
Leslie Bergquist was introduced to maple syrup making as a youngster growing up on a Meeker County farm near Dassel. He made it his 4-H project. He is shown here in a photo dated 1972. Submitted4 / 4

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. – If you want to change the way you look at the world around you, take up maple syrup making in an urban setting.

As Susan Bergquist can attest, it certainly has changed how her husband, Leslie, looks at the world. She laughs that he can’t take a walk around the streets of Granite Falls, or drive into any neighboring community, without his eyes scanning for maple trees like a bee in search of flowers.

“A small-town hobbyist” is how Leslie Bergquist describes the maple syrup making that he and Susan undertake every spring. Both admit they’re maple syrup-aholics. “If there is such a thing,” said Leslie, laughing.

They have 17 spiles tapped into 12 trees in their neighborhood on the east side of Granite Falls. They are just finishing up this year’s production. They estimate they have collected somewhere north of 400 gallons of sap from the trees, which they have been boiling down to syrup.

They are expecting around nine gallons of the sweet, amber-colored syrup that they treat like liquid gold.

They will share some of it with the neighbors kind enough to let them tap their trees, and some is set aside for their grown children. The rest is theirs to slather on pancakes and waffles in the year ahead.

They will also stash a portion away in the freezer as their east Granite Falls version of Canada’s closely guarded maple syrup reserve. They vividly remember 2012 when the sap didn’t run, and now make it a practice to have a reserve on hand just in case.

Minnesota is ranked 12th in the U.S. in terms of commercial maple syrup production, way behind states like Vermont, New York, Maine and Wisconsin, according to Leslie Bergquist. No one knows how many hobbyists likes the Bergquists are out there producing syrup for non-commercial use.

While maple syrup making conjures up images of big, boiling vats stoked with wood fires in the deep woods, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s believed that more and more hobbyists are producing maple syrup in urban settings.

Chris Ransom, president of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association, said it is not something that is tracked, but, anecdotally, he believes urban maple syrup production is a growing trend. He’s seeing more and more boulevard and backyard trees being tapped when he drives around.

Maple syrup making as a hobby is certainly growing. Most of the association’s members are hobbyists, said Ransom, and membership has grown by 20 to 25 percent in the last 10 years. Along with more urban tappers, he believes there are also more hobbyists making syrup to sell at farmers markets.

There are very good reasons to make maple syrup in an urban setting. Towns small and large in Minnesota are filled with the sugar, black, red, silver and Norway maple trees, as well as box elders, that produce the sweet sap. And urban trees are often the best producers, since they are well spaced and have large, open canopies, Leslie Bergquist explained.

And, urban trees are easy to access. There’s no need to climb over downed limbs and trees while carrying buckets of sap as is often the case in the woods.

Tapping a maple tree for sap does it no harm, said Leslie.

He got his start with this hobby while growing up on a Meeker County farm near Dassel, Minn. His parents’ farm included a patch of hardwoods from the Big Woods that once covered the landscape all the way to the Mississippi River. Leslie said his dad started him and his siblings on maple syrup making in the early 1970s, “probably to keep us busy,’’ he said.

He made maple syrup making his 4-H project as a member of the Dassel Lamplighters, but quit his hobby after leaving his childhood home.

He had been thinking about taking it up again in his adult years. When friend and former co-worker Art Mehr took it up as a hobby after retiring, Leslie Bergquist said he decided it was time for him to do so too.

As a result, for the last 10 years there’s anywhere from three to six weeks in the spring when it’s harvest time. Susan Bergquist is able to work at home, and consequently is able to watch over syrup production during the day hours. The sap runs when daytime temperatures are 40 and over and nighttime temperatures fall below freezing. At peak, the sap will run at 120 drips a minute, or two drops per heart beat.

Boiling requires a constant eye. The Bergquists watch for the sap to “sheet” on a ladle dipped into the boiling sap. Then, they test it with a hydrometer. The sap must be boiled to the point where it is just about 67 percent sugar. Below 66 percent it is not syrup, and above 67 percent it crystalizes, they explained.

The syrup is usually the lightest in color when made from sap taken at the start of the run, and many consider this the best. The Bergquists enjoy the darker version that comes as the season progresses as much if not more.

Many commercial producers and hobbyists will filter the syrup to remove the small amount of gray-colored niter or sugar sand that results when sap is boiled. The Bergquists do not. It is loaded with healthy minerals from the trees, and does not affect the flavor whatsoever, they explained.

And, of course, this is all about the flavor. “Absolutely delicious,’’ said Leslie Bergquist.

Ever since he resumed maple syrup making, he said he cannot go back to the artificially flavored sugar and corn syrup versions so many pour on pancakes. “Aunt Jemima is out the door here,’’ he said.

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