Reenactors at the National Maple Syrup Festival Credit: Mike Sula
  • mike sula
  • Tim Burton

Bearded, burly Tim Burton assembled a small crowd around a tall, moss-spackled hard maple tree just outside his log-walled sugarhouse, in southern Medora, Indiana. He dipped a cup into the tin bucket hanging from the sunlit south side of the tree and ladled out some cool, clear sap, sloshing a bit on the ground in the process, and then stuck a hydrometer into it to measure its sugar content.

“Holy cow, wait a second,” he said, squinting at the scale. “That can’t be right. Oh my god. That’s really good. That’s over 4 percent. Hold on a second.” He leaned over and planted a smooch on the rough bark. “Keep going, girl.”

That Saturday in early March was the midpoint of the annual six-week sugaring season, and conditions were ideal for tapping the tree, one of some 700 maples Burton has on his farm, or “sugar bush,” about two miles outside of town. The temperature had warmed from a frigid night (22 degrees) to the low 50s under a brilliant afternoon sun-perfect freeze-thaw conditions to get the trees’ sap flowing. This also happened to be day one of the second annual National Maple Syrup Festival, which Burton hosts at the farm and at the nearby Medora Community School. Earlier in the day bluegrass bands had played onstage at the school and John Young, the world record holder in the vertical pancake toss (28.5 feet), had griddled flapjacks. Along the “sugar trail” Burton had cut through the woods, reenactors demonstrated how Native Americans and French settlers boiled sap down to sugar in kettles over open fires (sugar is easier to store than syrup, which can ferment and go bad). There’d also been a maple syrup cooking contest, judged by Chicago chefs Jason McLeod and Danny Grant from the Elysian Hotel, Paul Kahan of Blackbird and the Publican, Publican chef de cuisine Brian Huston, and me.

The chefs’ reasons for the trip extended beyond gauging the merits of maple cheesecake blondies and baby-carrot-maple cakes—though the 18-and-under competition was high stakes for some (the only local finalist, a young girl, collapsed weeping into her mother’s arms when she learned she hadn’t won). Though Burton and his wife, Angie, make the five-and-a-half-hour trip to Chicago’s Green City Market almost every week during the summer to sell their syrup, the chefs wanted to see for themselves how it’s made. Each week at the Publican they go through about two gallons of Burton’s syrup, braising meats in it and using it to baste dishes that come out of the wood-fired oven. At Balsan, the Elysian’s casual restaurant, they run through about a gallon and a half every week. McLeod eats it every day on his own breakfast, and Kahan says when he searches the fridge for something to subdue his late-night sweet tooth, more often not he reaches for the Burton’s and takes a swig.

Volcano 2000 evaporatorCredit: Mike Sula

If the festival’s title sounds grandiose for Indiana—what about Vermont?—consider that up until the 1960s the state produced more maple syrup than any of the 17 others that make it. The Burtons began sugaring about four years ago not far from the land Angie’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jacob Flinn settled in 1810. Three years later he was captured by a band of Potawatomie and forced to haul his sugar kettle north some 135 miles to the area around West Lafayette before making his escape.

Canada has always reigned supreme in the field, producing about 80 percent of the world’s output (“They probably spill more than we produce,” says Burton), so whatever happens to the Canadian harvest affects prices in the U.S. Two years ago, when Canada’s production went down the tubes, Burton was paying the Amish producers that supplement his own yield about 50 cents a gallon for sap. This year the economics are much more favorable to him: he’s only paying his neighbors about 32 cents a gallon for sap. If one of them offered the 4 percent sugar sap he’d just tapped, he’d be obliged to pay twice that.

Burton invited Huston to drill another hole into the tree, and clear sap spurted out and dribbled down the bark before McLeod inserted a tap, or stile, and hooked a bucket onto it. He collects sap in this relatively low-tech, traditional manner on this part of his property largely for the sake of the tourists that visit. But at one modern sugar bush he buys from he milks the trees with a network of plastic tubing that runs from tree to tree to a vacuum pump attached to a central, 1,000-gallon tank, then is hauled to the sugarhouse. Here Burton invited the chefs to lower their heads and take a slurp—it tasted like cool, clean, faintly sweet water. It takes 40 gallons of sap at 2 percent sugar to boil down to one gallon of syrup. Burton pumps the sap into a milk tank bolted to the top of the sugarhouse and it’s piped down into a gleaming 18-foot-long stainless steel Canadian Volcano 2000 evaporator.

The machine was running at full tilt, with steam billowing from stacks reaching through the roof and sweetening the air. Usually he cooks it at lower temperature, which he thinks gives it a more nuanced caramelized flavor, but he had a lot of sap to boil down to the 63 percent sugar syrup he sells, and he was in a hurry.

He grabbed a bunch of mugs, filling them with the 20 percent sugar sap that was currently roiling away in the machine. He dropped a couple of teabags in each one and passed them around. At the moment the machine was producing the lighter Grade A sap commonly used at the table. But as the season wore on his trees would begin to undergo chemical changes and yield the darker colored, more robustly flavored Grade B syrup favored for cooking.

Brian Huston drilling a mapleCredit: Mike Sula

This season—which ended on March 14 (the last day of the festival’s two-weekend run)—Burton figures he produced about 2,000 gallons of syrup. Grade A used to sell for more, but the prices for B have caught up to it, and with both at $20 for a 12-ounce bottle, he predicts that they’ll sell equally well at the Green City Market this year. He thinks this preference for the bolder grade might be his customers’ reaction to growing up on the caramel-colored corn syrup that bears little resemblance to real maple syrup, a handicap he’s somewhat conflicted about exploiting.

“We’re at these farmers’ markets and these kids come up and taste it and I say, ‘You know what we call that? We call that Mother Nature’s candy.’ And they go, ‘Oh, mom, it’s so good. Can I have a bottle?’ So mom whips out $20 and I’ll tell the kid, ‘Now, this isn’t the kind of syrup you’re used to, so let mom pour it on.’ And then I think to myself, ‘Hell no! Go for it!'”