The alarm is off. Slide the gate open. Then follow the two-track to the sugar shack.
Meeting instructions for an undercover spy rendezvous? Nope. Just the start of my latest food and travel adventure!
I’m tapping some trees on my own property and the team behind Dixboro Pure Michigan Maple Syrup is showing me how they make cool, sparkling sap into a pancake’s best friend. They’re one of approximately 500 maple syrup producers in Michigan, which ranks among the top 10 states for production with 90,000 gallons annually.
I arrive at the post-and-beam sugar shack in Superior Township in early evening. Steam from the evaporator hangs like a cloud over the roof. Derrick Oxender, the group’s leader, says I’ve come on a good day. The sap is running well, thanks to freezing temperatures at night and highs in the 40s during the day.
Dixboro Pure taps more than 1,100 trees in the area. Many are on the team’s own property. Others are on neighboring lots, tapped in exchange for a share of the finished product. Some years, the sap flows like a spigot. In 2019, their best year so far, they netted 225 gallons of syrup. This year is off to a good start.
In the center of the shack is a stainless-steel evaporator the size of a pool table. Fresh sap is pumped into the first chamber where it percolates into a furious boil. Steam rises as the sap weaves through the chamber’s maze and the water evaporates, concentrating the remaining sugars. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of sweet, delicious syrup. When the sap is almost fully reduced, it is moved to a second chamber for finishing.
It’s quiet in the shack except for the steady burble. The eight members of the Dixboro Pure team met while playing hockey in an adult league. Making syrup was a way to enjoy the outdoors during the long stretch between hockey and hunting seasons and Michigan’s glorious summers. They take turns monitoring the boil and stoking the fire, which they believe adds depth to the flavor. Four blue ribbons from county fairs say they may be right. When the syrup reaches about 219 degrees, it’s poured off and readied for bottling.
Most of the finished syrup is sold through friends and family or given as gifts. Some is sold to the general public at Downtown Home and Garden in Ann Arbor. But it’s not just for breakfast. Dixboro Pure has experimented with maple sugar, maple beer and even a “Maple Smash” cocktail.
Dribbling down the rungs of a pancake stack, the taste is warm, sweet and earthy.
I say goodbye and head out into the late winter’s chilly air. A half-moon bright enough to cast shadows lights the way to the two-track and the drive home.
Hungry for more? Check out these upcoming maple syrup events in Michigan.