The sweet taste of something special

Courtesy photos Above: Jesse Hohm explains the process of tapping a maple tree for syrup to students from James Valley Christian School last April. Hohm has continued his hobby of making maple syrup from the sap he collects from trees in the area. Below: Jesse Hohm shows James Valley Christian School students the large boiler, in which he reduces maple sap into maple syrup.

HURON — The mention of maple syrup - true maple syrup - may bring to mind a snowy hillside in Maine or Vermont, covered with maple trees that have holes, or ‘taps’ drilled into them from which sap is harvested.

One young couple in the Huron area has begun using the process that dates back to before Europeans arrived on the east coast of what would become the United States and are creating maple syrup in Beadle County.

“It is something that my wife, Katie, encouraged me to try,” says Jesse Hohm, a Beadle County native, who grew up on a farm in the Lake Byron area. “My brothers-in-law down around Sioux Falls do this as well. It’s a hobby - it’s something we do for fun and because it is interesting.”

For a quick primer, real maple syrup is made from the sap produced by maple trees. When the weather turns cold,  trees store starch in the trunks or roots. Later in the winter and early spring, the stored starch is converted to sugar, which rises in the sap of the tree. Syrup makers tap the trees and gather the sap, which is then heated to evaporate most of the water, leaving the syrup.

Maple syrup was first made by the indigenous people of North America - most of the world’s supply is produced in either Canada or the United States - and settlers in the new world began distilling the sap as well.

Early syrup makers must have been optimists.

“The industry accepted number is 40 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup,” Hohm said. “It is reduced a great deal by heat and nothing is added. Because there is so much reduction, that’s part of why it take so much. It’s not a secret recipe — tap the tree, collect the sap, boil it down and then when it reaches syrup consistency you filter it to remove any sugary residue. Maple syrup!”

While maple syrup is by far the most popular use of the sap, further distillation produces different products.

For instance, Jesse said that he once made maple candy by accident. “I just let it cook further than normal and it became more concentrated.” Maple candy and maple sugar (which is great on popcorn) are among the other products derived from the industry.

Hohm said that mature trees that are at least 10-inches in diameter are prime for tapping. “When you find the older, larger trees that are 20-inches, then you can put in two taps,” he said. Taps are not deeply inserted, as the sap flows upward just below the bark layer.

All maple trees can provide sap, Hohm added, but the quality varies. “Around here we have a lot of silver maples and they are not the top choice. In fact, in true maple syrup country, silver maples would likely just get passed over. Box elder trees, which are also in the maple family, can be tapped for sap as well, although the sugar content is much lower. “It could take maybe 100 gallons to get a gallon of syrup,” Hohm said.

Production in 2022 was down greatly from what Hohm said they had seen before. “The temps were good as weather is a huge factor,” he said. Cycling temperatures — above freezing temps during the day with the mercury dipping below freezing at night — are optimal. Tapping takes place once per year, in the spring. “March is the perfect time for us.”

“Nothing was happening for much of our season,” he recalled, “however, there was one week that really took off and we did relatively well.” He said that his brother-in-law reported the same anomaly. Finding the reason for the surge is difficult.

“Was it snow cover?” Hohm said. “Frost level? Too dry? We’re really dry now so it will be interesting to see what happens in the spring.”

All totaled, Hohm said that his hobby enterprise produced about 15 gallons of syrup last spring. He said it could have been much more, but again, trees were not producing. Trees in town generally produce less than trees out of town, which may lend credence to the amount of moisture available being a strong factor.

Looking forward, Hohm said that he will continue to capture sap and transform it into syrup. “We sell a tiny bit of syrup,” he said. “People who have the trees we tap usually get some syrup. Hopefully in the future, we will be able to produce more syrup and have more that we can sell.”

If you have a maple tree - or a few of them - and would be willing to allow Hohm to tap them for sap this spring, he can be reached at 605-350-5899, and perhaps you may be one of those who are able to taste the sweet results of his hobby operation.

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