Sap is flowing for Michigan maple syrup

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

About 10 miles south of Charlevoix, tucked amid the thickly wooded shoreline of Harwood Lake, stands a grove of maple trees that members of the Parsons family have tapped for five generations, laboring long hours for days on end to transform the flowing sap into a sweet, amber liquid.

It’s a late winter ritual that has ebbed and flowed with the seasons and changing generations. A century ago, sap was collected by pails and boiled over an open fire until it was almost syrup. It was then finished over a wood burning stove in the farmhouse kitchen and canned, and called simply “liquid gold.”

Today, blue tubes interlace the same sugar bush near Harwood Lake, a quarter-mile from the farmhouse. A vacuum system pulls the sap into collection tanks and transports the liquid underground to a sap house on the farm for boiling.

While maple syrup remains the primary crop on their 180-acre farm not far from the shores of Lake Michigan, the family members running the operation these days are tapping trees for more than a sweet breakfast staple. They’ve created a line of maple gourmet products, including ketchup, barbecue sauce, Sriracha, mustard, chutney and a maple syrup aged in a bourbon barrel.

Now, sisters Katie Untalan and Amber Munday, who grew up on the farm, and Amber’s husband, Phillip Munday, a transplanted chef from Tasmania, Australia, are taking the tradition to new levels. With an expanded and rebranded product line, the family is part of a growing trend of maple entrepreneurs in Michigan and across the country.

“Everyone makes maple cream and maple candies — all the normal stuff. We’re trying to do different things that are not the things you’d ordinarily find,” says Phill, who notes Harwood Gold’s Sriracha took several months from concept and recipe development to sale.

Part of the motivation behind developing new products was economical. When Phill and Amber took over the farm, they wanted it to be their main source of income. Creating maple-flavored sauces and condiments was a no-brainer given Phill’s culinary background.

“The Sriracha and maple syrup in bourbon have gone over well,” he says, noting the syrup is aged in local barrels — from the Grand Traverse Distillery, part of their plan to keep things local.

The explosion of maple can be attributed to consumer interest in locally grown and sourced products and a changing mindset among producers who are eager to sell their products beyond a roadside stand.

“We are seeing more maple in products — things such as barbecue sauces, yogurt, mustard and even water,” says Kirk Hedding, vice president of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, who also taps trees on his farm near Chelsea. “Cooking with maple has also picked up a lot with maple syrup or maple sugar as the sweetener. Being made local and sometimes seeing it made is also what consumers like.”

Phill Munday taps sugar maple trees prior to attaching a spigot and plastic line onto the tree to collect maple sap. His family will tap 2,000 trees on their farm south of Charlevoix this year.

Eric Randall, president of the North American Maple Syrup Council, credits the younger generation for helping grow the industry, “the oldest cottage industry in North America,” and realizing the greater profitability of turning a gallon of syrup into a myriad of products.

“New folks in the industry are getting into the business with significant capital investment, he says. “A lot of what you’re seeing across the industry is innovation by younger folks. They’re not tied to the legacy of their grandfather — it’s not something holding them back anymore. They’re creating all kinds of things — condiments, jellies, flavored syrups, cotton candy.”

Michigan ranks in the middle among the top 10 maple-producing states, behind Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania. Last year the state accounted for about 130,000 gallons of pure maple syrup.

Mike Ross, a commercial maple producer in the Upper Peninsula, said Michigan has the potential to produce much more.

Michigan, he notes, has more maple trees than any other state or Canadian province. Michigan’s utilization of rate of those trees for tapping syrup is less than 2 percent. Vermont, the nation’s leading syrup producer with far fewer maple trees than Michigan, boasts a 34 percent utilization rate, he says.

To help promote Michigan’s maple industry, Ross helped form the Commercial Maple Syrup Producers of Michigan.

“We’re trying to educate the public and promote maple syrup. Our goal to make Michigan maple syrup better known,” says Ross, who’s been making syrup for about 30 years and offers other maple products, as well. “It’s all about marketing and public awareness.”

What maple producers like the Mundays and Untalan are doing is upping the game. They’ve created a new brand, Harwood Gold (borrowing from the name of the nearby lake and the syrup’s color), chose a new tonic-like bottle (no more touristy plastic schoolhouse containers), created new labels, and a sophisticated website to tell their story and market their products. They’re also selling at regional farmers markets and in stores across the state, including Western Market in Ferndale.

And Munday has more lofty ambitions. He has more maple-flavored products in mind and plans to transform the property’s barn into a farm-to-table restaurant.

“That’s at least three years away,” he says. “We want to become a commercial destination. The stepping stones are in place.”

Phill Munday shows one of the nearly 1,000 gallons of maple syrup his farm made last year.

Salmon with Mango Salsa

Salmon with Mango Salsa

From Maple Syrup Cookbook

For the salsa

1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and chopped

1 small jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped

2 scallions, green part only, finely chopped

Juice of 1 small lime (about 1 tablespoon)

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup

For the salmon and glaze

4 salmon fillets or steaks (about 6 ounces each)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon (peeled) minced fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, minced

For the salsa, combine the mango, jalapeno, scallions, lime juice, and maple syrup in a small bowl. Refrigerate, covered, to allow the flavors to blend. (The salsa will keep for up to 2 days, refrigerated.)

For the salmon, preheat the grill to medium-high (or preheat the broiler).

For the glaze, whisk together the oil, maple syrup, mustard, lime juice, ginger and garlic. Set aside.

For salmon fillets, brush or spoon the glaze heavily over the flesh and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes. (If you’re using steaks, coat both sides and set aside.) Grill the salmon skin side down for 4 to 5 minutes, then carefully turn and grill another 4 to 5 minutes, until done. Thicker salmon steaks will require 2 to 3 minutes longer than fillets. To oven broil, line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and coat with a little oil or nonstick cooking spray. Place the salmon on the foil — skin side down for fillets — and broil 4 to 5 inches from the heat. Fillets should take about 7 to 8 minutes, steaks a couple of minutes longer. Transfer the salmon to a platter or dinner plates, spoon the salsa over it. Serves 4.

Per serving: 372 calories; 21 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 51 percent calories from fat); 20 g carbohydrates; 16 g sugar; 71 mg cholesterol; 203 mg sodium; 26 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Hot and Spicy Shrimp and Sausage Kabobs

From Maple Syrup Cookbook

1 1/4 cups North Country Basting Sauce (see below)

2 tablespoons minced onion

2 tablespoons minced jalapeno

1 pound spicy fully cooked sausage

1 pound large shrimp in the shell

Blend the basting sauce, lemon juice, onion, and jalapeno in a large bowl.

Cut the sausage into 1/2-inch slices and add to the marinade, along with the shrimp. Stir to coat well. Cover and set aside for 1 hour; it may be refrigerated for several hours.

Preheat the grill to medium-high (or preheat the broiler). Thread four or five long skewers alternately with the shrimp and sausage. Either grill or broil, far enough from the heat to prevent charring, for about 10 minutes total or until the shrimp are pink. Turn occasionally during cooking and brush with more sauce. And be sure to tell your guests that the shrimp are in the shell.

For the basting sauce

1 cup ketchup

2/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Bring the ketchup, vinegar, oil, maple syrup, Worcestershire, mustard, chili powder, salt and cayenne to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Decrease the heat and cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Let cool, then store in a covered jar in the refrigerator, where it will keep for at least four weeks. Makes about 3 cups.

Per serving: 410 calories; 22 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 48 percent calories from fat); 20 g carbohydrates; 14 g sugar; 273 mg cholesterol; 1,822 mg sodium; 33 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Crispy Maple Spareribs

From Maple Syrup Cookbook

All you need to make a meal of these is a big green salad — and plenty of napkins.

3 pounds lean pork spareribs

1 small onion, finely chopped

3/4 cup pure maple syrup

1 tablespoon chili sauce

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the ribs on a wire rack in a roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes.

Combine the onion, maple syrup, chili sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste in a small saucepan and bring to a boil; boil for 5 minutes.

Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Remove the ribs from the rack and arrange in a baking pan; brush them with the sauce. Bake uncovered for 45 to 60 minutes, basting frequently, until the ribs are glazed to a deep mahogany color.

Cut between the rib bones with a sharp knife and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 1,008 calories; 64 g fat (23 g saturated fat; 57 percent calories from fat); 44 g carbohydrates; 38 g sugar; 255 mg cholesterol; 439 mg sodium; 62 g protein; 0.4 g fiber.

Maple-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces (about 8 cups)

1/3 cup pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange sweet potatoes in an even layer in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Combine maple syrup, butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper in small bowl. Pour the mixture over the sweet potatoes; toss to coat.

Cover and bake the sweet potatoes for 15 minutes. Uncover, stir and cook, stirring every 15 minutes, until tender and starting to brown, 45 to 50 minutes more.

To make ahead: Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Just before serving, reheat at 350 degrees until hot, about 15 minutes.

Makes 12 servings, about 1/2 cup each.

Per serving: 92 calories; 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 20 percent calories from fat); 18 g carbohydrates; 5 mg cholesterol; 119 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Dreamy Almond Bars

From Maple Syrup Cookbook

These bars out of the question if you value your waistline. You could easily put on several pounds just reading this recipe, let alone eating it. On the other hand, this makes a large batch, to be cut into small pieces, so you could stash away a piece or two for yourself and put out the rest.

For the crust

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 egg, at room temperature

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour


1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

3/4 cup pure maple syrup

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup heavy cream

2 cups chopped almonds

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the crust

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 10-by-15-inch jelly-roll pan.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl. When light, beat in the egg. Add the flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, working it in with a wooden spoon. Divide the dough into four pieces and put a piece in each quadrant of the jelly-roll pan.

Push the dough into the pan with floured hands, forming a seamless crust. Keep it as even as you can and work it up the sides to the top of the rim. It won’t look perfect, but just do the best job you can; if you want to flatten it out some, roll it with a pin. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 15 minutes. Poke the dough three or four times with a fork, then bake for 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Mix a tiny amount of flour and water together to make a thick paste, and rub a little into the fork holes to close them up.

For the topping

After the crust has cooled for about 20 minutes, melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the maple syrup, sugar, and honey and bring to a boil. When it boils, add the cream and bring back to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Quickly remove from the heat and stir in the almonds and vanilla. Spread evenly over the crust. Bake for 20 minutes; it will bubble and darken somewhat. Let cool thoroughly on a wire rack, then cut into bars. Makes about 30 bars.

Per serving (per bar): 235 calories; 14 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 54 percent calories from fat); 26 g carbohydrates; 15 g sugar; 33 mg cholesterol; 80 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Maple Syrup Season Open House

Noon-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Parsons Farm

00061 Parsons Road, Charlevoix

(231) 547.2038

Michigan Maple Weekend

Various locations