Burton's Maplewood Farm
Here's a fact I bet most of us didn't know: "Indiana is home of the first run of maple syrup not just in the United States, but in the world." That's what Tim Burton, co-proprietor of Burton's Maplewood Farm, says to me that really makes an impact. His syrup is good—really good—so it was a no-brainer to take a closer look at his operation, and more importantly, his Grade "B" maple syrup, which is the syrup of choice for nearly every chef in Chicago. But how many of us knew that Indiana was where it all started each year?
Tim Burton and his wife Angie own a farm with 700 maple trees in Medora, Indiana, which is located just outside of Bloomington. (It is a long 480-mile round-trip haul to Chicago and back.) The couple have owned the farm for ten years, been collecting sap for five, and began producing maple syrup four years ago.
But the two didn't start off in the maple syrup business. In fact, before becoming farmers, the two owned an I.T. company. But while the job change seems drastic, it's not completely unexpected. "Maple sugaring dates back in Angie's family to 1810 in Southern Indiana," Tim says. And when Tim and Angie visited a friend's maple farm several years ago, the experience was so inspiring that they decided to sell their I.T. business and carry the family torch.
Tim's 700 maple trees are made up of a combination of Hard and Soft Maples (The latter, also known as the Sugar Maple, is the one most of us have heard of). It's around this time each year that the trees are tapped, and they'll continue to produce until about the second week of March.
"The rule of thumb is that one tap will yield approximately ten gallons of sap per season," and just to give you an idea of how much sap these trees need to produce, it takes forty gallons of sap to yield one gallon of maple syrup.
The sap doesn't look like maple syrup. It's thin and transparent and has a very low sugar content. To turn it into syrup, Tim reduces the sap in a three-by-twelve-foot pan in an evaporator machine called the Volcano 2000. The sap is heated to 210 degrees, and once the sugar content hits 67%, he removes the syrup. In one hour, the Volcano 2000 produces about twelve to fourteen gallons of maple syrup (so yeah, that's a heck of a lot of sap).
A common response to Tim's syrups is that they just taste a bit different. Tim attributes this to his usage of fuel oil rather than wood to keep the evaporator going. Most maple syrup producers use wood, which eliminates the control that Tim wants. (He constantly lowers and raises the heat during the evaporation process.) The result is maple syrup with a deep, rich caramel profile.
To be labeled as Grade "B," the syrup must be less than 44% translucent. (This site explains the differences well). The production of the Grade "B" Syrup depends on the weather. Currently, Tim's trees will be producing sap that will give him a Grade "A" syrup. To get Grade "B" syrup, the weather needs to be freezing at night and warm to at least the 40's during the day. In January, that just doesn't happen often enough, so the trees produce a lighter sap that becomes the Grade "A" Dark Amber syrup that Tim also sells. While very good, it lacks the depth and richness of the Grade "B."
While this makes for good eating atop pancakes and French toast, restaurants are finding other uses for the syrup. The Publican's Brian Huston uses the Grade "B" syrup in the braise for his bacon, and Goose Island brewer Jared Rouben made a Maple Bacon Stout Beer. Mixologist Adam Seger even worked with the Burtons to create several cocktails using the syrup (click here to check out some of the recipes).
The syrups are available for purchase online, and a list of restaurants and markets showing where the syrup can be found is coming (I picked mine up from Olivia's Market). But Tim also has a table at the Green City Market, and if you stop by his table, he might just let you try each of the different syrups he has. For more info on the process of making the syrup, I highly encourage you to check out David Tamarkin's piece on the farm in Time Out Chicago from last March.