Last year, a prospective customer named Tom emailed me with the following question: “I love your maple syrup evaporators. But, without being a jerk, why should I spend $895 on a Sapling when some guy is selling a homemade barrel evaporator for $300 on Craig’s List? What’s the difference?”
I corresponded with Tom for a few days. And I can assure you that he is most definitely not a jerk. Not only that, but his question is a very, very good one! So, without being a jerk, here’s what I told him:
First, the Sapling is engineered for maximum backyard efficiency. Although the Sapling is simply designed, it is engineered especially for sugaring, and has some of the advanced features of more expensive evaporators. Most importantly, the Sapling’s stainless pan is baffled, which allows it to operate as a continuous-flow evaporator. Continuous-flow evaporation merits a blogpost in itself, but suffice it to say that this configuration allows syrup to be drawn off and sap to be added without emptying the pan. The continuous flow is more efficient than boiling off sap in batches, or pouring the boil from pan-to-pan.
I’ve talked to a LOT of people who have used the kids of homemade barrel evaporators Tom is talking about. Typically, those evaporators use a cast-iron, barrel-stove kit and hotel pans, both widely available items, to convert the barrel to an evaporator. The barrel-stove door does not have as much space for air intake as the Sapling’s specially engineered door does (making it harder to keep temperatures optimal for sugaring), the legs are shorter (requiring more bending on your part), the exit pipe comes out of the top of the unit rather than the back of the unit (leaving less surface area for boiling, which means slower evaporation) and, MOST importantly, the pan(s) are not baffled, meaning that you have to batch your boil, or pour from pan-to-pan, instead of doing a continuous-flow boil. From the (literally hundreds of) conversations I’ve had, I’d say that the Sapling, which boils at anywhere from 4 to 8 gallons of sap off per hour, depending on conditions, is easily twice as efficient as a comparably-sized batch operation.
Second, we stand by our Saplings, which are built to last. Our Saplings are coated with a high-temperature powder coating that is both durable and clean for the environment. And, all fasteners and hardware on the exterior of the Sapling are either powder coated or made of stainless steel. Homemade barrel evaporators probably don’t have stainless fasteners, typically have cast iron pieces that rust, and are not at all likely to be powder coated.
We are a going concern, and are in this business for the long haul. Our reputation is important to us, and we support our customers whether they are happy with our products or not. (So far, so good!) That homemade barrel evaporator guy may not be as responsive to your requests for customer service as we will be. Take Tom, for example. He asked a question, and got an essay!
Third, the Sapling is multifunctional and can be accessorized. The Sapling is not just an evaporator! Each unit comes standard with grates that convert the Sapling into a wood-fired grill. And now, with the purchase of the Sapling Smoking Package, the Sapling can be a smoker too! Soon, a Sapling-shaped heavy-duty cloth cover (like a grill cover) will be available for purchase, and we hope to launch a warming pan that will fit neatly on the back of the Sapling in time for next sugaring season. The Sapling is unique among all evaporators for its multifunctionality; the current and future availability of Sapling accessories sets it apart from homemade units of all kinds.
Fourth, the Sapling was built with safety and the environment in mind. This is my last-but-not-least point. Saplings start as new, unlined, unpainted steel. They are assembled, media-blasted, powder-coated and outfitted with a stainless evaporation pan bearing lead-free welds and a lead-free pour-off valve. Our operations are so environmentally responsible they require no permitting.
As far as we are aware, homemade barrel evaporators are made with barrels that have been used, lined, and/or painted. Such barrels are widely available at little or no cost. When we were in our R&D phase, we started with used, painted barrels too. We learned quickly that this would be a mistake in production.
To start, in order to put high-quality, high-temperature paint on used barrels, you have to clean off the old paint, which is not suitable for high-temperatures. Otherwise, the old paint will peel off right under the new paint on the first burn. This is extremely difficult, dirty, and time-intensive work that we suspect lower-cost barrel evaporator makers do not engage in. Unfortunately, many people who have made their own evaporators have reported to us that they burned the old paint off before applying the new paint. We do not know whether homemade barrel makers engage in this environmentally suspect practice, but we most-certainly do not.
Even as we were bemoaning the work involved in rehabbing an old barrel, someone was mistaken (or less than honest) about what had been in one of the used barrels we purchased and we had a health and environmental issue on our hands the moment we opened it up. We handled it responsibly, and everything turned out fine, but it put us off used barrels for good. Now, we doubt whether anyone would work on and sell to you a barrel that smelled as bad as this one did, but nevertheless, we feel REALLY good about being able to tell people that we use new, unused, unlined, unpainted barrels to make our Saplings. You do not know where that used barrel has been! And we are not messing around with safety!
Last time I talked to Tom, he was still thinking about whether to become a customer, but I appreciated his inspirational question so much that I offered him a free Sapling Cover if he came our way. So take this as a not-so-subtle hint, readers. Send me your thoughts!
And thanks, Tom!