The Real Deal

I grew up with those maple-flavored corn syrups with folksy names. That’s what we put on our pancakes, French toast, waffles, etc… I remember quite well the first time I tasted 100% real maple syrup. I didn’t like it, frankly, it was too smoky, too sweet, too intense… it just didn’t taste right. I don’t remember when I started using only real syrup, but it was before I moved to Vermont. Since I’ve lived here, which is going on 20 years, I have made my own syrup nearly every year. Since I have also been brewing for 20 years, I suspect that some do-it-yourself part of me must have switched on back then, and I am thankful it did.

I am fortunate to have a fair number of sugar maples on my property, a few of which are ancient, huge and easily accessible. This year I hung six buckets out for sap, and depending on the weather, I hope to get two gallons of syrup, in addition to three brews. Last week I brewed a maple mead, using 9 gallons of sap. Today I used another 6 gallons of sap, and plan on using another 6 next week. Which means that I need to collect about 100 gallons of sap total – 21 for brewing, 80 or more to boil down for syrup… Thus far, I have gathered about 40. Hmm, maybe I need to put in a couple more  taps…

Anyway, today’s brew was designed to showcase the wonders of maple. It’s a fairly light-colored, medium-bodied golden ale, roughly based on the classic Canadian Ale style. The use of fresh sap (although I boiled my down 50% to increase the sweetness and OG) gives the beer a maple base. The addition of syrup in the kettle brings the maple flavor to the fore. It will also be primed in part with maple syrup, just to make sure you know there’s maple in there…

Maple Golden Ale
5 gallons, all grain

Ingredients:

  • 6-1/2 lbs. pale malt
  • 1 lb. cara-amber malt
  • 1 lb. toasted pale malt (375° for 15 minutes)
  • 1/2 lb. 20°L crystal malt
  • 1 pt. 100% real maple syrup
  • 1 oz. whole Cluster hops
  • 1/4 oz. whole Willamette hops
  • 3/4 oz. whole Cascade hops
  • White Labs California Ale yeast (WLP001)
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar (for priming)
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup (for priming)

Procedure:
Toast 1 lb. pale malt. Crush all grains. Heat 15 quarts water (or maple sap) to 165°F. Mash in crushed grains, hold at 152°F for 60 minutes. Heat 13 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 24 quarts sweet wort. Heat to boiling, add maple syrup and Cluster hops. Boil 30 minutes, add Willamette and Cascade hops. Boil 30 more minutes, 60 total, and turn heat off. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal, ferment at 64°F for 7 – 10 days. Rack to secondary, age cooler (55°F) for 10 – 14 days. Prime with corn sugar and maple syrup, bottle and condition 10 – 14 days.

OG: 1068
IBU’s: guessing around 42 (no idea what my own hops are at…)

Style notes: This is a little stronger than the typical Canadian golden ale, partly because I reduced the sap in half. If you use water or fresh sap instead, your gravity will probably be around 1053 or so.

Notes on sap & syrup: The rule of thumb among sugarmakers is that it takes between 30 and 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, depending on the weather and the length of the season. My fear is that the weather will get too nice too soon – once the trees start budding and the nights no longer go below freezing, sap flow stops.

If you end up buying syrup to use in this brew, don’t spend a ton on Grade A Fancy – this beer will actually be better with a Grade B Amber or even darker – and the lower the grade of the syrup, the cheaper…

It’s Springtime, and a Brewer’s thoughts turn to…

Well, it’s still officially 12 days until Spring but… my road has turned to mud, we are about to set the clocks ahead an hour, the maple sap is running, and there are Bocks and Spring Ales in the stores… and I just went out and found that 75% of my hopyard is now snow-free. Not that there are hops up yet, but at least there’s the possibility that the warming late-Winter/ early-Spring sun is beginning to awaken the rhizomes and soon I will see tiny purple-green shoots breaking ground… Last week, I tapped my maples. I have 6 taps with buckets in 4 trees – 3 in one healthy behemoth (about 12 feet around) and 1 each in three other lesser but still impressive trees. I have made a gallon or so of maple syrup each of the last few years, just enough for my household’s annual consumption. I usually also brew a couple batches with fresh sap, but I don’t overdo anything. Since it takes between 35 – 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and one tap can produce about 1 gallon of sap on a good day, it is not an instant process. Right now, after one week of collecting sap, I have about 12 gallons in storage waiting for the Big Boil Day. But I have also just used 9 gallons of sap to make my annual (and much-anticipated) Maple Mead. Mead is, in many aspects, much easier than beer. Only a couple ingredients, less precise time requirements, generally a simpler beverage to make. The big factor for mead is patience – I’ll be lucky to be bottling today’s mead within 6 months, and may be able to begin drinking it around Thanksgiving. It’ll be worth the wait – and besides I have 30 bottles or so of last year’s still maturing in the cellar… My Maple Mead is meant to be fairly dry and bottled as a sparkling mead.

2010 Maple Mead

6 gallons

NOTE: requires a BIG kettle (or more than one)…

Boil 9 gallons of fresh maple sap down to 5.5 gallons. (This may take several hours!). Add 1 tablespoon Fermax yeast nutrient and 2 teaspoons winemaker’s acid blend. Stir well, add 12 lbs. honey. Stir very well to avoid sticking and burning. Rinse out honey containers with a couple quarts of water, add to kettle. Bring back to boil, add 1 quart (last year’s!) maple syrup. Boil approximately 45 minutes or until volume is about 6 gallons. Remove from heat, chill to 80°F, pour into sanitized fermenter, add a wine yeast that will produce a dry-ish wine (Red Star’s Première Cuvée works well…), seal and ferment for about a month. Rack to secondary, age cool (50- 55°F) for another 8 – 10 weeks. Test a sample, verify the water in the airlock, continue to age for another month or more… Prime with 1/3 cup corn sugar and 1/2 cup maple syrup. Bottle and condition 6 – 8 weeks minimum. There’s a good chance that no matter how long you wait, this mead will end up over-carbonated and will gush when opened. Be warned, I have yet to figure out how to avoid this…

2010 brewing notes:

OG of fresh sap: 1015

OG of condensed sap (before addition of honey) 1027

OG of mead: 1105 (which projects to better than 12% abv…)