Making maple syrup, with the help of the Internet. And Fred.

WILLIAMSVILLE — This spring marks my first-ever attempt at making maple syrup, and I have no idea what I'm doing.

Luckily I have two resources on my side: the Internet and Fred. The Internet is that place with Facebook and the cat videos, and Fred is my next-door neighbor. The Internet is helpful because there's no shortage of tips and tricks for hobby sugarers. And Fred is helpful because, for the last quarter century, he's been making maple syrup in the sugarbush that straddles both our properties.

I've only recently begun hounding Fred for tips on sugaring, but I've been mining the Internet and reading books about it all winter.

Our Native American predecessors did it. Heck, even my attorney in town does it as a hobby. So I'm sure I can do this.

My research reveals that there are basically three simple steps in making maple syrup.

First, step 1: tapping the trees. When a warm spell swept through Vermont recently, I scouted half a dozen stately looking, wide-bellied sugar maples below my garage.

The Internet told me it's best to tap on the south side of the tree because that's where the sap flows strongest. Fred warned me to always clean out the holes after drilling, because shavings could clog the tap. And a book called Backyard Sugarin' taught me it's perfectly acceptable - encouraged, even - to use plastic milk jugs to collect sap. I obliged each recommendation, and after three days I had nine gallons of cool, crisp sap.

Step 2: boiling. Now, this is where the true creativity in backyard sugaring bubbles to life. The Internet showed me that boiling rigs can be nothing more than two crude cinder-block walls with a fire in the middle.

Evaporators can get pretty fancy depending on how much time and money you have to invest, but I chose a middle-of-the-road barrel evaporator like Fred's. I built it in my garage over the course of a few weekends. It's a plain old 55-gallon drum laid on its side. Two holes cut in the top cradle buffet-style steam pans that boil sap. I cut a hole in the front to feed wood, attached a chimney to the back and, voila, a homemade evaporator, a la Fred.

And now step 3: eating maple syrup.

After several hours of boiling, I was left with two mason jars of amber-hued syrup. For objective taste and quality-assurance purposes, I utilized the Toddler Taste Procedure, in which my 3-year-old daughter samples my maple syrup and supplies feedback.

It turned out that I over-boiled my test batch just a bit, ending up with a honey-like consistency.

But I can report that my daughter sopped up every drop of it, using her waffle like a sponge at the end of her fork. So we're off to a solid start.

I can tell, this is going to be a productive maple season. But I'd better go check with Fred, just to make sure.

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