A sappy sweet job

Published 6:24 am Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Every year, elementary students are taken to the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center to see first hand how maple syrup is made.

Not the way of a store-brought brand, but natural, homemade maple syrup. They are taken into the grove of maple trees and shown how it’s collected before being directed to Duane Sucha at the Sugar Shack.

It’s there the good stuff is made.

Sucha has been with Austin Parks and Recreation for 36 years and 10 of that has been making maple syrup during this special time of year when the maple sap is collected from the trees.

In December of this year, Sucha is looking to retire and while his years have produced far too many memories to choose a favorite, this time of year may rank as his tastiest.

In the week prior, the sap began its flow, heavy enough to be collected. On Thursday, Sucha waited near the shack with steam flowing from a boiling batch of sap in the Sugar Shack. As students from Neveln made their way to the shack Sucha explained what the kids would be seeing.

“I try to keep a batch ready so they can see the difference,” he said.

It’s that part of the process that Sucha said really grabs the kids attention.

“It’s actually showing the kids the difference from water to syrup,” he said. “They really can’t believe the difference boiling it makes.”

The process of boiling down the sap is a simple concept, if not simple in time taken or the amount needed. The ratio needed of sap to syrup is lop-sided to say the least with the only difference being dictated as to whether the tree is a hard or soft maple.

A soft maple is a 40 to 1 ratio, meaning 40 gallons of sap is needed to create one gallon of syrup. A hard maple requires far less at 28 to 1.

After that, it’s up to Mother Nature. Ideal conditions dictate how much sap flows and from there, how much is collected. For optimal conditions, the temperatures need to drop below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day, which makes this part of the year, March and April, the best time.

The best times, Sucha say are around this time of year, the end of March, first week in April. By the second week, the flow will start getting weaker, however, it’s the first run that’s the best.

“The first run is always the sweetest,” Sucha said.

All of these things the kids learn during their shot at maple syrup gathering.

Sucha takes the kids through the process with easy, explaining each step to the kids are becoming involved by watching Sucha work and answering questions he throws out during each step.

But again, don’t look to Sucha to narrow down this part of the year as his favorite. It’s just part of a bigger perk.

“I’ll miss it all,” he said. “It’s just a good place to work. I’m outside all day with different kinds of jobs. It’s just being outside.”