Austin produces maple syrup in homage to his father’s sweet dreams

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The most recent product of Austin’s Rush Creek Farm is its homemade maple syrup—which Brian Austin proudly shows here—in addition to their popular dilly beans, pickled beets, jams and jellies. (Photos by Correne Martin)

After the bags are about half full of sap from numerous maple trees, Brian collects the results and then transports the sap back to his cooker, where the syrup making begins.

Brian skims froth from the top of a pan of boiling sap.

By Correne Martin

Three years ago, Brian Austin set out to fulfill the sweet dreams of his late father, who always had a deep yearning for Brian to produce maple syrup. The first jar of his creation, aptly labeled Dad’s Dream, was capped in 2013, seven years after Brian’s dad passed away. He made only one gallon that first year of production.

“I just started talking to people at farmers markets and reading up on how to do it,” Brian said, noting that his dad’s desires stemmed from growing up on his father’s sugarbush farm in northern Vermont, where the family patriarch made maple syrup too. Now, Brian is quite proud that the Austin family tradition has come full circle. And he’s pleased with the results of his growing operation as well.

Brian, and his wife, Carolyn, co-own Austin’s Rush Creek Farm in rural Ferryville/Rising Sun. They’re well-known in the area for their fresh, crunchy dilly beans, pickled beets and delicious jams and jellies. The local entrepreneurs both began their lives on farms—Brian on a hog and beef farm in northern Illinois and Carolyn on a dairy farm near Rising Sun. Living in Rockford, Ill., and leading busy lives in the manufacturing world, in 1997, the couple purchased the farm that has been in Carolyn’s family since 1853. In 2009, they quit their jobs and moved back to that Rising Sun property, making them the sixth generation to work the beautiful soil.

“This is probably the most serene place people can be,” Brian said. “It’s really nice to be sustainable and to stay on the farm. We need to enjoy what we’ve got here in the Driftless Area.”

The carefree business of making their own maple syrup has been a slow but natural fit for the Austins. Brian said, after the gallon of maple syrup he made in 2013, production jumped to eight gallons in 2014. This year, he’s shooting for 20 gallons, as orders have already come in for that much.

“It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup (from a hard maple tree),” Brian explained, pointing out that sap is about 98 percent water. “From the soft maples, it takes about 60 gallons.”

Overall, syrup making is not a complex operation. The process may be labor intensive, but the season is a short one—two to three weeks—and, as a farmer, Brian said, it comes at a time of year when the earth is wet and muddy and little else can be done around his property. In Wisconsin, March is the prime month for sugar maple sap to be the sweetest.

The Austins have many maple trees on their farm and on nearby church property that they have permission to utilize. A week and a half ago, when Brian shared the ins and outs of his syrup-making operation, he had about 50 taps on one hillside. He started tapping the trees the second week of March, but the sap wasn’t running much at all then.

“The weather hasn’t been the best this year,” he stated.

During an ideal season, temperatures dip below freezing into the 20s at night and rise to about 40 degrees, and sunny, in the daytime. This alternating freezing and thawing cycle causes pressure changes inside the trees that make the sap flow. If the nighttime temperatures are too cold, it takes longer for the sap to warm up and “run” in the daytime. Temperature also affects the color of the syrup. Colder temperatures at the start of the season usually produce a lighter-colored syrup that is subtle and vanilla-like in flavor, while warmer temperatures at the end make it darker and more robust tasting.

“If I can make a gallon a day, I’m happy,” Brian said. “On a busy 16-hour day, I can cook about 40 gallons of sap down.”

To start production, Brian first identifies the maple trees he wishes to tap. Using a cordless drill, a few feet up from the soil, he creates a hole that measures five-sixteenths of an inch wide and goes about one inch into the tree. He then places a plastic spout into the hole and hangs a two-and-a-half gallon plastic bag on the spout to collect the thin sap that drains from the tree. By nightfall, he pours the sap from each of the bags into five-gallon buckets, making sure to take the bags off the spouts because frozen sap could break the bags. On days where the sap flows quickly, he empties the bags a couple of times.

“I use one tap for a 9-inch tree or bigger, two taps for a 16-inch tree and three taps for a 24-inch tree,” Brian said. “Keeping in mind the health of the trees, I don’t drill in the same spot the following year. And when I pull the taps, I plug them with a wooden cork or stick so the tree can heal.”

When Brian has collected enough sap to begin developing his product, he fires up an outdoor cooker, which he built from an old milk house basin. The basin acts as a woodstove in which he burns black locust and oak lumber. On top sits a three-inch deep, stainless steel pan that holds the unprocessed water-like sap. The sap is boiled until most of the water evaporates, and it becomes concentrated, or reduced, to syrup. As it boils, Brian skims froth from the top frequently.

“I don’t sleep much during the season,” Brian commented. “I usually go out every two hours in the night to check it, and during the day, I check it every half hour.”

Once it’s about 90 percent syrup, he strains it, cooks it to about 95 percent and strains it again.

“I filter it a bunch of times and then I filter it again,” Brian said, noting that repeating that process helps to get almost all of the natural grittiness out of the finished syrup.

Eventually, he pours the reduction into stainless milk cans and transfers it to the commercial kitchen on the farm. There, final filtering and bottling processes are done. A hydrometer is used at around 211oF to assure proper sugar content before the syrup is bottled. Mainly 8-ounce and 12-ounce jars are sold.

“I lay it down for three minutes to seal it, then I stand it up,” he demonstrated.

From the farm, the Austins also sell their products to visitors. Currently, Dad’s Dream maple syrup, in addition to their other products, are sold at Driftless Edibles, The Local Oven, Valley Fish and Cheese, Quality Beverage and the Villa Louis gift shop in Prairie du Chien. They also have food items for sale at local farmers markets, Johnson’s One Stop in Seneca, the Wooden Nickel and Ferryville Cheese in Ferryville, Finders-Keepers in Mt. Sterling, the Kickapoo Exchange in Gays Mills, numerous stores in the Viroqua and Westby area, People’s Coop in La Crosse, the Driftless Market in Platteville, Metcalfe’s Market in Madison and Sendik’s Food Market in Shorewood.

Next year, Brian said he plans to fabricate a pan four times as big for cooking his maple syrup. Also on his farm, he would like to build his own sugar shack, a general store and a shelter where he can host spring breakfasts, summer lunches and fall dinners for special parties.

“People like a destination, and I’d be glad to offer that,” Brian said.

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