TRAVERSE CITY — The Matriarch towered as George and Judy Rokos unpacked moving boxes at 8768 Cedar Run Road in 1975, and she towers today.
The matronly old maple is as reliable for her shade as she is for plentiful syrup sap — she yields the most of the 10 trees George taps, many of which started as carefully planted saplings in those early years.
“I put two taps on her — I could probably put three,” said George, who nowadays spends early spring downtime tapping maples in the couple’s shaded yard on the outskirts of Traverse-City.
George’s children, and now grandchildren, were fans of the sweet, sticky syrup, and that was enough to keep him at it.
“We’ve been doing it a long, long time — since the kids were little,” Judy said. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”
There’s a bit of a trick involved.
He starts by drilling a small hole in each tree and carefully tapping in a spile — a small spigot used specifically for tree tapping — and, if all goes well, the sap starts flowing.
“You’ve gotta wait for a little bit of spring to show up,” George said.
Some backyard operators get more technical, rigging up tubing to more easily catch the gooey goodness. Others hang a bucket — or bag, like the Rokos' do — on the spigot and call it a day.
Once full, each sap bag is dumped into 5-gallon buckets and are stored until George is ready to boil the sap down into syrup — a long, messy process.
The couple’s granddaughters jump to help. They’re happy, too, for a taste of the spoils.
“The grandkids love the stuff,” George said with a laugh. “It’s fun. You make some smiles.”
He often saves a couple bags for the girls — Cady, Ellie, Marian and Anika — to dump on the weekends.
The Rokos' keep much of the haul for their breakfast table and for the children and grandchildren. Friends get dibs on any extra, Judy said.
“It’s all-natural, no added sugar or anything. You can make different things with it, like candy, but we like the syrup,” George said. “It’s just pure tree.”
The longtime local waits until about 50 gallons of sap stock the garage shelves, and then it’s time to cook. George does that in the garage on a gas stand.
The sap’s usually banned from the kitchen, though sometimes he finishes a small batch on the stovetop at night.
“It’s giving off steam the whole time — your cupboards would get pretty sticky after a while,” Judy said with a laugh.
The process requires careful monitoring of consistency and temperature, and if done right, draws water out of the sap to concentrate it down into a naturally sweet syrup.
“If I do a full batch, it’ll take close to a full day,” George said. “I can usually get 15, 20 gallons boiling at the same time.”
He boils every two or three days until the batch runs dry, keeping a close eye on the pan to avoid a hard, lumpy, syrup-less mess.
“It’s busy work, really,” Judy said. “It’s not anything you can rush.”
That 50 gallons of sap yields about 1 gallon of syrup.
Then, it’s back to the trees.
George’s taps went in around mid-March, and he says the sap tends to flow until mid-April, depending on the weather. Cold nights and warm days are ideal.
It means a good year for syrup — he’s already on batch No. 3.
“If it’s a pretty good year, you get about 3 gallons of syrup — that’s about 150 gallons of sap,” George said.
If it gets too warm at night, Judy added, the sap stops running. A cold front can restart the process, but late-season sap comes with an odd taste, she says.
George bought his spiles and mapped the yard’s maples after being inspired by a friend’s tapping set-up. He grew fond of stopping by to watch the man work on his larger operation off Cedar Valley Road.
“It just seemed like something to do in spring, to get outside,” George said.
Now, he’s on year No. 10 of tapping his own trees. It’s easier this year after switching to part-time work at Max’s Service Appliance. He’s worked at the shop for more than 50 years.
The new three-days-on, four-days-off schedule means more boiling time.
“It gives me a good reason to clean the garage,” George said with a laugh.