It’s a beautiful time in southwest Michigan as the sap rises and the sugar shacks are busy producing the oldest agricultural crop in the state. And for those up for a road trip, the Michigan Maple Syrup Association is once again hosting its Michigan Maple Syrup Weekends.
The further north you go, the later the sap flows and the event is therefore divided into three regions: the Southern Lower which is all the way south of US 10 which runs from Ludington to Bay City, Northern Lower Peninsula (north from US 10), and the Upper Peninsula across the Mackinac Bridge. Michigan Maple Syrup Weekends are held in the Southern Lower Michigan region, which includes Southwest Michigan on March 19 and 20, Northern Lower the following weekend, and ends on Weekend. -end April 2-3 in the Upper Peninsula.
Ty-Kat Sugar Shack in Galen, Michigan, a small town just across the Indiana state line, is one of 24 Michigan Maple Syrup Association members participating in this year’s Michigan Maple Syrup Weekends. This is a good starting point for those in northwest Indiana.
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Denise Klopfenstein started Ty-Kat both as a way to get back to family roots – her grandparents owned a sugar shack that was destroyed by a tornado in the 1940s and to give her son Tyler, who was 12 years back then, a way to enjoy the outdoors. On March 19 and 20, they’ll be doing syrup (or liquid gold as it’s often called) demonstrations. If you can’t get there, text, call, or message Facebook to find out when they’ll be boiling sap in the future as they welcome visitors.
Ty-Kat maple syrup is sold year-round at the family-run Payne Heritage Country Store located on their farm right next to their sugar shack. The family store is open Saturdays and Sundays all year round and also sells the honey they harvest and the meat they raise.
“We only carry items made by family businesses such as Crystal Springs Creamery, Ebel’s Little Town Jerky, and Walnut Creek,” says Klopfenstein, noting that they also have homemade goat’s milk soap and bath products. hand as well as candies. “We also make gift baskets, using our products.”
They also sell Freakin’ Pickles made at a family-owned gourmet pickle business in Gres, Michigan, which currently comes in 12 flavors including Old Fashioned Dill, Garlic Dill, and Dill with hot garlic. So shopping there is one way to stock up on Indiana and Michigan artisan goods.
According to the association, Michigan ranks 5th in the nation for maple syrup production with more than 3.6 million gallons of sap harvested each year. The sap, produced by tapping the maple trees when the weather is nice in the spring, is then boiled to make the syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Overall, Michigan typically produces about 90,000 gallons of syrup per year.
Like wine, the terroir or the soil where the trees grow gives its flavor to the syrup. The same goes for the type of maple. Sugar maples are the best because they have the highest sugar content at 2%. But other maple trees can be tapped for sap, including black, red, silver, and ash leaf, even though their sap is only about one percent sugar. Fortunately, Michigan has an abundance of sugar maple trees, more than three times the amount of Vermont (the top producer of maple syrup in the United States) and Quebec, another major producer. But Michigan maple syrup is in demand because local wineries, breweries, and distilleries offer different ways to use it when making their beverages.
To check this out, stop by the Journeyman Distillery a short drive from Galen. Once the home of the revolutionary Featherbone Factory where they made corsets from turkey feathers instead of whale bones, the grand building is now a restaurant, bar and distillery. One of the ingredients in Journeyman Fig Old Fashioned is their Journeyman Bourbon Maple Syrup.
Although Ty-Kat is the only syrup maker in the southwest to participate in Michigan Maple Syrup Weekends this year, there are other sugar camps in southwest Michigan.
John Newell of Primal Woods in Hartford evokes the past but also uses today’s technologies during the sugaring off season. Newell, who moved to a sprawling patch of woods surrounding a lake from Napierville, Illinois, to escape corporate life, can wear a headset to handle the constant stream of calls he receives each day. He checks the 10-day weather forecast online to determine which days the sap will rise and uses a state-of-the-art evaporator to turn the sap into syrup, but when it comes to collecting the sap, he’s decidedly old fashioned.
“I said to myself why not do as before?” says Newell who hires Elmer Beechy, an Amish farmer who lives nearby. Beachy, along with several of his sons, bring two fat Belgians and hitch them to the sap-collecting wagon that Newell has built. The horses, huge as they are, cruise through the trees, stopping while the Beechys scoop up the buckets of sap hanging from the oaks and empty the buckets of sap into the large container on top of the cart.
“We depend on the weather,” he says as the evaporator wood fire heats the evaporator to 219 degrees, the boiling temperature of sugary sap.
This is because the sap really begins to flow when outside temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. People can visit the farm to see the whole process, but it’s best to call ahead to make sure the sap is rising.
An interactive map listing Michigan Maple Weekend attendees along with directions can be found online at MichiganMaple.org.
Each of the 24 farms offers a variety of activities designed to be family-friendly and educational. Along with the opportunity to observe the process of producing syrup from sap, many farms also offer tapping demonstrations and tastings of maple candy and other syrup-based foods. Because the woods in the spring can be a muddy affair, it’s important to wear boots.
Primal Woods is located at 60734 46th Ave, Hartford, MI. 269-222-0101; primalwoods.com. Newell welcomes visitors but you have to call first.