Move over, Vermont and New Hampshire. Maple syrup is being made in Gardenville, even if on a small scale.
On cool March mornings, the Brewster family harvests gallon jugs of clear sap from maple trees in their Northeast Baltimore neighborhood. Their trees are no farther from the kitchen door than the patio.
The Brewsters have successfully tapped sap-producing maples in the back yard of their bungalow in the 5700 block of Newholme Ave. and the back yards of their neighbors and have enough maple syrup for their pancakes and waffles.
"No one seems to know they can do this," says James Brewster, a Gardenville-Raspeburg handyman, whose wife and children have taken to making maple syrup with the enthusiasm of Yankee backwoodsmen.
On a good day, when the nights dip below freezing and the daytime highs are in the 40s and 50s, the Brewsters have been harvesting about two gallons of clear, unreduced sap. Hours later, after boiling on the kitchen range, the sap becomes the sweet substance we know as maple syrup.
"We bring in as much dirt as we do sap," says Katie Brewster, referring to the mud her brood tracks into the house. She's James' wife and the mother of Benjamin Lee, 7; Luke, 6; Rachel, 2; and Andrew, 5 months.
The Brewsters' interest in maple sugaring began at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center near Cockeysville. Their older boys spent several hours there listening to a guide describe and demonstrate the process whereby maple trees are tapped for their sap. They reasoned that if sap could be had in Baltimore County, why not at home?
Benjamin is very frank about his experience at Oregon Ridge. "It was sorta boring. The person who showed us around talked too much. He had a motor in his mouth," Benjamin says.
This very unshy youngster let his actions speak louder than words: "I got out an ax and hit a tree by the side of our house. Overnight, sap poured out. That was the way the Indians did it," he says.
After this initial experience, the family approached sap-gathering in a little bit more orderly manner.
"I'm from around Albany and had seen the process. I'm quite familiar with sugaring," James Brewster says.
It also doesn't hurt that he's a clever mechanic. He took a section of pulpy-wood sumac and hollowed out the inside to form a rod. He then drove this pipe-like rod into a backyard maple tree, forming a conduit for the sap.
On another occasion, he took a piece of electrical conduit and whittled its end down, creating a spike known as a spile. Each is notched so that a plastic milk gallon jug can hang on the spile and collect the sap.
When the Brewsters' trees were tapped out, they got permission to tap the trees of neighbors, since it takes many gallons of the pure sap fresh from the tree to make a quart of maple syrup. When first gathered, the sap is not as sweet as sugar. That sweetness comes later, in the boiling down.
"The sap isn't real sugary. It sort of tastes like the water that remains when you've boiled fresh peas," Katie Brewster says.