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Inthewoods Sugar Bush gets ‘sappy’ with maple syrup

Manitowoc-based business to begin production in a few weeks

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February 6, 2024

MANITOWOC — When it comes to late winter and early spring in Wisconsin, that can mean only one thing — maple syrup time.

With Mother Nature being the ultimate decider in how plentiful — or not — the short season is, it can be a stressful time for maple syrup producers who must rely on the unknown when it comes to the weather.

One such producer, Jesse Wagner, owner of Inthewoods Sugar Bush located at 1040 S. Union Road in Manitowoc, said “the weather has to be right when the time matters.”

“The weather during the rest of the year can impact things slightly, but the part that matters the most is the weather from the end of February to the beginning of April — that’s our season,” he said. “We are 100% dependent on the weather during that time.”

The ideal weather for a successful maple syrup season, Wagner said, is below freezing at night in the 20s and warming to the 40s during the day.

When maple sap is extracted from a tree, it’s about 98% water. It takes, on average, about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Submitted Photo

“That was the weather (in late January and early February this year)- we need that same weather in a few weeks,” he said.
With the winter of 2023-24 shaping up to be warmer and drier than average thus far, Wagner said it’s “still hard to predict how this season will go.”

“That question is asked a lot of maple syrup producers,” he said. “I’ll let you know in April when we’re done. I can tell you (that) this odd weather we’ve had most of the winter (not much snow and warmer), the sap is already running, but we aren’t currently tapped into the trees yet — it was too early to do so.”

How it began
Wagner said he is a third-generation maple syrup producer.

“My grandpa and dad also both did maple syrup,” he said. “When I was a young child, I helped out quite a bit. My grandpa did it because back then, it was a source of food.”

Wagner said he started out on a small flat pan, sitting on concrete blocks in the driveway.

In time, he said the operation evolved — eventually moving from hanging buckets to a tubing system.

“My dad still helps me, but I’ve taken it to where it is now,” he said.

Wagner said Inthewoods Sugar Bush has 20 acres of woods and 1,000 maple trees of its own.

“It’s not uncommon for maple syrup producers to buy sap from other producers,” he said. “I have 1,000 trees of my own but process sap from about 3,500 trees total.”

Believe it or not, Wagner said a maple tree produces sap from an early age, but the tree must mature and grow before Inthewoods Sugar Bush taps into that sap.

“For the sustainability of the tree and the tree health, we don’t want to tap trees less than 40 years of age,” he said. “A sugar maple will produce sap its whole life, up to about 150 years. The whole process of collecting sap and turning it into syrup is a very sustainable practice.”

When the sap is collected at Inthewoods Sugar Bush, Wagner said it’s done so through a system of tubes and vacuums.

Inthewoods Sugar Bush utilizes a vacuum tubing system where the maple sap is extracted from the tree and sent to a central location for production. Submitted Photo

“All of our trees are hooked up on a network of tubing,” he said. “It’s plastic tubing that is specific to the maple syrup production. All the lines are hooked together and go into one central location in my woods where everything goes into one tank and then is pumped underground automatically into the sugar house.”

The vacuum system, Wagner said, is similar to what dairy farmers might use when milking cows.

“The vacuum helps the sap flow through the tubing a bit better,” he said. “The vacuum technology has probably been around for 30-40 years, but it’s gotten very common in the last 20 years.”

When it comes to the vacuum tubing system, Wagner said “everybody does it a little bit differently.”

“For the most part, we leave the tubing up year-round, but it’s not connected to the tree all year round,” he said.”We physically have to tap each tree every spring — drill the hole, put the tap/spout in the tree and hook the tubing up to the tree. We clean and sanitize the tubing in place at the end of each season.”

From the tree to the bottle
Wagner said it takes about 40 gallons of sap, on average, to make one gallon of syrup.

“Earlier in the season, our sugar content is higher, so it’s probably closer to 30:1,” he said. “Later in the season when the sugar content drops off, it’s probably 50:1.”

The sugar content of a tree, Wagner said, can also be different based on several factors — tree genetics, leaf mass, site conditions, the amount of sun the previous growing season and overall tree health.

“That’s all up to Mother Nature,” he said.

When the sap comes out of the tree, Wagner said, it’s about 98% water.

“Doing the math, it’s only about 2% sugar,” he said. “It looks just like water and is crystal clear. You could even drink it — it’s just a bit on the sweet side.”

Wagner said when it comes to turning the sap into syrup, “we don’t want the water in the sap.”

“That’s why we boil the sap so long — it’s the sugar we’re after,” he said. “We have to boil that sap like you boil a pot of water and evaporate the water to get the 2% of sugar we want. More into the sustainability of our operations, we boil the sap using wood from our property.”

According to the company’s website (, in 2013, Inthewoods Sugar Bush collected 17,000 gallons of sap and turned that into 600 gallons of syrup.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Wagner said. “In 2023, we collected 82,800 gallons of sap and turned that into 1,900 gallons of syrup.”

Finicky Mother Nature
In 2014, when Northeast Wisconsin had a cold and long winter, Wagner said that affected the season.

“If we get a cold, dry winter, the frost goes down deep in the woods,” he said. “When the frost is deep in the woods, all the tree roots are frozen. It takes a lot of warm days for the frost to come out of the ground and thaw those roots for them to start producing sap.”

Jesse Wagner, owner of Inthewoods Sugar Bush, said for optimum maple syrup production, the weather has to be conducive from the end of February to the beginning of April. Submitted Photo

That, Wagner said, can push the season into the middle or late April in this area.

“Sometimes in northern Wisconsin, they go into May,” he said. “The same thing happens the opposite way in Illinois and Indiana. Their season is going on now — they’ll be done by the time we’re making our syrup.”

Health benefits
The company’s website says 1/4 cup of pure maple syrup contains more calcium than the same amount of milk and more potassium than a banana.

Pure maple syrup contains natural sugars and minerals that are absorbed by the maple tree — therefore is made without additives or preservatives, and contains fewer calories than other sweeteners, such as corn syrup, honey and brown sugar.

The magnesium content of pure maple syrup also assists in maintaining a healthy level of HDL (the “good” cholesterol).

The zinc supplied by pure maple syrup can help decrease the progression of hardening of the arteries and other cardiovascular diseases.

Pure maple syrup, Wagner said, should not be confused with “pancake syrup” or “waffle syrup” — imitation syrups made with high fructose corn syrup and imitation maple flavorings.

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