“We’ve always been fascinated by these sugar maples,” he said. “These woods are absolutely beautiful when they awaken to spring. I’ve spent many spring breaks sugaring. We’ve been making syrup out here for 20 years.”
Back in the 1990s, Nobel and his six siblings considered this patch of woods their playground, often carving their initials in the tree trunks.
Taking a cue from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Farmer Boy,” Josh and his older brother, Jeremiah, decided to harvest maple syrup like Almanzo Wilder. Unbeknownst to their father, the brothers drilled holes with dad’s old-fashioned brace and bit, finagled a garden hose into tubing and used old Mason jars to collect the sap.
When the glass jars burst with the overnight freeze, making a big mess, “we got in big trouble,” Josh said.
But soon after, the elder Nobel bought the boys 20 spiles and buckets. Out in the open, they boiled off the sap into a concentration of 66 percent sugar content — at that point, it’s pure maple syrup.
Josh Nobel and sons Ezra and Silas walk in a maple grove near their farm. Melody Nobel bottles maple syrup with help from daughter Cassia.
Nobel points to the remnants of a stone-cut fire foundation earlier settlers used for sugaring, the process of turning maple sap into syrup.
“We figure the pioneers sugared right here, 150 years ago,” he said.
The sugar maple trees that produce maple sap are only found in North America. Quebec, Canada, produces 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup; Vermont accounts for 15 percent. Other states in New England and the Midwest make up the other 10 percent.
Since Michigan has three times more untapped trees as Vermont, the Mitten State has the potential to become the king of maple syrup production in the U.S.
Noble, who spends the rest of the year as a farmer, puts the business of vegetable-growing on hold during March. When the sap runs heavy — anywhere from seven to 10 days — he labors in a whirlwind of action around the clock.
He’s not alone. More than 2,000 hobby and 500 commercial maple producers bottle more than 90,000 gallons of maple syrup per year.
Christi Petersen of Maple Moon Sugarbush and Winery is on a personal crusade to encourage Michiganders to consume Michigan maple syrup.
“Sugar maple trees are all around us. We have the best climate, soil and can-do spirit to produce the absolute best-tasting maple syrup in quality and quantity,” said Petersen, who is a Calvin College graduate and former teacher.
Petersen and her husband, Todd, bought 80 acres of land in Petoskey. It didn’t take long for the family, which includes four school-aged children, to turn 28 acres of untapped maple trees into a working sugarbush.
The family started backyard sugaring with spiles and buckets. Two years later, in 2011, they launched Maple Moon Sugarbush by building a commercial sugar shack where the evaporating of sap into syrup takes place using the latest high-tech equipment, including a vacuum pump to draw the sap to the building, and reverse osmosis that removes 75 percent of the water from the sap before boiling.
In 2015, they turned a portion of their maple syrup into wine, fermenting the syrup into nine vintages and becoming America’s first maple winery.
Maple Moon’s tasting room offers samples of wine along with maple ginger hard cider and maple root beer.
Christi, the “maple sommelier,” loves sharing the wines with visitors, especially the Early Spring Reserve — made from maple syrup fermented in oak chips: “It’s just amazing.”
Josh Nobel pours sap into the evaporator in Melody Bee Farm’s sugarhouse. A refractometer helps determine the sugar concentration of maple sap and syrup.
Thus far, the wine is available at Maple Moon’s tasting room and at Petoskey’s D&W Fresh Market, Oleson’s Food Store and Symons General Store and Wine Cellar.
In Melody Bee Farm’s sugarhouse, a roaring fire heats the evaporator with gallons of sap bubbling away. Josh Nobel, along with a brother or two and many cousins, chops wood, feeds the flame, tempers the sap and checks the thermometer.
Once the sap reaches a sugar concentration of 66 to 67 percent, Nobel filters out the sugar sands, the bits that settle to the bottom of the pan. Throughout the several hours-long process, he grades the syrup into four categories — sometimes from the same vat of sap.
“This is a sticky business — you are constantly washing your hands,” he said.
The old way of grading syrup into Grade A, B and C (commercial use only) is out. In the new method, every maple syrup is Grade A, sorted by color only.
Nobel pulls out his color-grading equipment to separate the syrup into golden, amber, dark and very dark. He holds up a sample from a batch to determine the color and, based on that color — from warm gold to molasses-brown — he selects the appropriate label.
Generally the lighter in color, the milder the taste, while the darker colors offer more robust, flavorful syrup.
Melody Nobel — Josh’s wife and the daughter of a beekeeper — is the muse behind the farm’s name, Melody Bee. She oversees the bottling operation, using syrup bottles from 50ml maple-leaf-shaped miniatures to gallon-size glass jugs.
“Yesterday, I made some molded maple syrup, and they can disappear fast because everyone thinks they’re so cute,” she said with a laugh. “When bottling, I’ll start with the smallest bottles and work my way up to quarts. It’s really the sweetest part of the operation.” GR