Waconia Family Makes Maple Syrup

One family’s sweet adventure in their own back yard.

It’s quiet on the shores of Lake Waconia. As every Minnesotan knows, March is notorious for its unpredictable weather patterns that facilitate blizzards, occasional early thaws, and one more month of quality indoor-time. For most people, that is. But for the Machtemes family, March marks the beginning of the busiest time of year: it’s maple syrup season. And East Bay Sugarbush, their family-run maple syrup business, is about to take off.

Just up the hill, off the southeastern corner of the lake, Clark Machtemes is busy gathering supplies, rounding up family and friends, and waiting in anticipation for the first signs of spring. “The trees will tell you,” he says. Sap is like the blood of a maple tree. “[Trees] come alive from the inside out. If you tap it and the sap is flowing, the trees are beginning to thaw.”

These few weeks at the beginning of spring provide a 6–week window of time to collect sap and boil it down into syrup—if you wait too long the sap turns milky and the trees begin to bud. The tricky thing about maple syruping, is knowing when this change is about to happen since every year is different. So syrup producers monitor the sap flow from test trees and talk amongst themselves to see who’s trees have “turned” yet.

Clark has learned to be patient and wait for the trees to signal the start of spring. “As soon as you think you can predict it, you’re wrong,” he says. The mystery is part of the fun.

The People

Once the season officially begins, Clark rallies the troops, consisting of his father, Ron, who lives across the lake; a few good friends; and son, Mason, and wife, Kathy Oliphant, who he describes as the heart and soul of the operation. “It’s a business, but yet it’s a family-driven thing, it’s communal. Everyone looks forward to it,” Clark says. And everyone has a part to play:

Mason, who is in fourth grade, is on scouting duty, checking buckets throughout the day to monitor the flow and quality of the sap. He can identify the good sap and knows exactly what it should taste like: “like sugar water, kind of like Dr. Pepper but without the fizz,” he says. Since everything at East Bay Sugarbush is done by hand, they can easily monitor the quality of the sap to keep it pure, which has resulted in numerous awards, including the Best of the Midwest. Depending on when the sap is harvested in the season, the final product may vary in color since the minerals change as the tree “wakes up.” But it’s all classified as Grade A and every batch carries that distinctive caramel-y taste, the mark of East Bay Sugarbush syrup.

The Process

Clark, along with his friend, Lee Gilbert, do the heavy work of drilling and tapping trees at the beginning of the season, then hauling the heavy buckets of collected sap to the large evaporator vats daily. There’s a careful science behind tapping the trees, and a certain care and intuition required for long-term success.

Clark taps a small tube three inches into each tree, then hangs a bucket beneath it to catch the sap. He only taps those that are at least 15 inches in diameter to ensure he doesn’t strain a young tree, while some of the larger trees can handle multiple taps per year. But he never taps in the same place year after year; “you candy cane around the tree about six inches,” he explains. Since the trees seal up every year, if you look at a cross-section of an old tree, you’ll see “scars” marking the tree’s tapping history.

Clark has a couple cross-sections of old trees he’s turned into small tables that indicate someone was tapping on the land more than 50 years ago, long before his family moved in. “It’s gorgeous, like artwork,” he says. 

Once the sap is collected it is brought over to Ron, who mans the next stage of the process: turning the sap into syrup. His job is to keep the wood fire going underneath the big evaporator vats in the sugarhouse until the sap boils up to 219 degrees, just past the boiling temperature of water. Once it reaches that temperature “that’s syrup right there. Push it farther and it turns to sugar,” Clark explains. Typically 40 gallons of sap make one gallon of syrup, but this number fluctuates every year depending on the weather. In 2013, they produced a total of 107 gallons of syrup, their best season yet. All of that from 3 acres, 150 trees, and 363 taps.

Next the syrup is transferred to a nearby building where it is filtered and put into bottles. The walls are lined with old family photos from the early days of the business: Mason as a toddler, Grandpa Ron, Kathy’s late father and long-bearded Gilbert, all key players in the history of East Bay Sugarbush. This is where Kathy heads up the bottling and finishing process, preparing the final product for market. She uses labels that were specially designed and hand-drawn by her sister Karna Oliphant of a sugar maple that still stands in their backyard. “It’s great to produce something so down to earth with the ones you care for the most,” Clark says.

The team strives to keep their entire process as hand-made as possible. Even the evaporators were welded by Gilbert, and the outdoor shelter protecting the vats was constructed by docking material from Lake Minnetonka. “We don’t want to grow bigger because then you get removed from the process,” Clark says. “We pride ourselves on being hand-made.”

For Clark, maple syruping is more than just a hobby to fill those snowy days in early spring. It’s a way of life and part of his identity. As a high school history teacher and native to the Waconia area, he is proud to share his enthusiasm for the natural world, for Waconia and for history with everyone around him because “you always come back to what originally makes you.” It’s not uncommon to see a class walking around his property, identifying maple leaves or learning about the history of the land. “What a gift to have so many people grounded in the wonders around this area,” he says. 

Where to buy East Bay Sugarbush:
At the Farm: 8880 East Highway 5, Waconia
Mackenthun’s: 851 Marketplace Drive,
The Mocha Monkey: 115 S. Olive St., Waconia
Green Olive Catering: 37 W. First St., Waconia