“It’s definitely a labor of love … “
By Beth Friedman-Rommell
“Welcome to the Sugar Bush!” Bill Rosner ambles up to greet me in his Malvern area front yard on a sunny August afternoon. The tall and trim retired attorney begins our lesson in homemade maple syrup production with a short quiz.
“Guess how many sugar maple trees there are on this lot.” I glance around, take a stab. “I dunno – 20? 25?”
“None!” he declares with glee, pointing at a stately tree in the front yard. “That’s the only maple on the lot, but it isn’t a sugar maple. You need a true maple to get sap for syrup.”
Noticing my confusion, Bill explains that his syrup hobby is made possible courtesy of his neighbors, Drs. Mike and Nancy Roizen, who allow Bill to tap the stately double row of trees which form a border between the two properties, in exchange for some complementary syrup.
“We’re like sharecroppers,” he jokes. Making maple syrup at home seems an unusual pastime for a Shaker native who has worked all over the world for the U.S. Department of State. When the Rosner family first returned to Northeast Ohio, they settled on wooded land in Chardon. Bill was impressed with Amish maple syrup production, and decided to try his hand at it, with his two children drafted as reluctant schleppers.
Bill says his biggest mistake the first year was boiling down the sap indoors, in an unvented kitchen. After 50 gallons of steam took off all the wallpaper, his wife, Kim, wryly observed, “You can buy the damn stuff for ten bucks in the grocery store, you know.”
After that experience, Bill purchased huge galvanized steel tubs and ordered stacks of seasoned wood to make an outdoor bonfire for the first stage of sap reduction. When the family moved to Shaker, Bill missed his hobby. After a few years, he enlisted the Roizens’ enthusiastic cooperation.
Bill talks me through the “horribly labor-intensive” process he follows each spring: “First of all, you have to make sure the trees are tagged with paint so you can tell which ones are maples in the early spring, before anything is leafed out.” Bill says that he follows the Amish tradition of tapping on or around Presidents’ Day in late February. Fluctuating temperatures, featuring relatively warm days and freezing nights, provide the best conditions for the sap to rise.
Once the sap starts to flow, it must be boiled down within three days, or it will sour.
Nancy Roizen has told Bill, “It makes it feel like springtime around here” when the tapping starts. To tap a tree, Bill first drills a hole with a hand brace to a depth of around two inches. The metal tap, or spile, is pounded into the tree far enough to hold the weight of the metal bucket into which the sap drips. A lid is fixed on the bucket to keep out bugs and squirrels. Once the sap starts to flow, it must be boiled down within three days, or it will sour.
Bill’s outdoor bonfire boils continuously in the back yard on dry weekends. He hauls 100-pound cement blocks across his yard to support the grate, kettle, and sap. Next, the reduced sap is finished in giant stockpots indoors, where it boils down to two percent of its original volume. The piping hot syrup is then strained and poured into individual bottles and sealed with self-sealing caps, ready for sharing with friends and family.
Bill clearly adores this challenging process. “It’s definitely a labor of love,” Bill muses. “It’s very hard manual labor, but it’s something I can do.”
When done properly, tapping maple trees does them no harm. Each tree will yield up to about two quarts of syrup, depending on weather conditions; the ratio of sap to syrup is around 50:1.
At this stage of his life, Bill would like to pass on the tradition to a new generation of tappers. He and Kim will be moving, and Bill says he would be thrilled to give away his large collection of tapping supplies to someone interested in making syrup. Pancakes with homemade syrup, anyone?