For nearly 20 years, the last Sunday in March has been designated Maine Maple Sunday by the Maine Maple Producers Association. On Maple Sunday, Maine's maple producers open the doors of their sugarhouses for the public to see how maple syrup is made and to sample the wares of this centuries-old practice.
The sap in the sugar maple trees starts flowing usually around the first of March through the second week of April in a good sap year. It travels from the roots, up through the trunk, and out to the ends of the branches, where it nourishes the buds before making the return trip back to the roots each day during the four to six week maple syrup season. The sap flows best when temperatures fluctuate between 40o+ F in the daytime and below freezing at night. During an average sugar season, each tap may produce 10 to 15 gallons of sap which boils down to a quart of so of maple syrup at 2% sugar content.
The Native Americans of the Northeast first developed the art of making maple syrup, and used it to flavor foods and for trading. When Colonial settlers came to the Northeast, they adopted the practice and maple syrup and maple sugar were cheap, home-grown alternatives to imported sugar from cane.
One of the first signs of spring is the sap dripping from broken twigs and branches when the sap starts to run. Often the cold nights will freeze this drip into a small "sapsicle" that I delight in snapping off and sucking on. But for real maple syrup production, dripping twigs aren't enough. The biggest sap flow is in the trunks of sugar maples (Acer saccaharum). In New England these are also often called hard rock maples, or rock maples.
Sap also flows in other hardwoods in the spring - including red maples, white and gray birches, even ash and elm. The 2-3% sugar content in the sap is only found, however, in the sugar maple. A stand of sugar maples is called a "sugar bush".
The earliest settlers tapped their sugar maples with an axe. Three or four whacks with the axe grouped together in a tight pattern created what the settlers called a "box". Then one more, slightly harder cut would be made about an inch below the box. Into this bottom cut a flat chip of wood would be inserted. When the sap started flowing, it would run down the bark, out to the end of the chip, and then drip into a hollowed out piece of pine log, or trough.
When the troughs were full, they were dumped into a nearby iron kettle with a fire underneath. A kettle can only handle the sap from one or two dozen maple trees, and the boiling process is slow. Several kettles would be set up in the sugar bush, and fires would keep the sap boiling for the duration of the sugar season - day and night.
Not only was this system fairly inefficient, the axe cuts would slowly kill the trees. Eventually, another group of trees would have to be found to replace them. Around 1800, tapping trees as now practiced began. Small holes are drilled into the trunk of the trees with an auger, about 2" deep and 2-3' up from the ground. A small wooden spout is inserted into the hole, and the dripping sap is caught in a bucket. Initially spouts were made from elderberry branches from which the pith was removed. Later, metal spouts replaced the wooden ones. These had the advantage of a little hook upon which the bucket could be hung.
A rule of thumb that many sugar makers follow is to make one tap on a tree once it has grown to 10" in diameter. At 18" diameter, two taps are made. As the tree grows in girth, up to four taps per tree are made. New taps are made each year, and the old ones heal over. This process doesn't seem to harm the maple tree any, and it is not uncommon to have a mature sugarbush with years of maple sap production to its credit. In a favorable year, one large tree may give as many as 60 gallons of sap (which will boil down to about 1.5 gallons of maple syrup) without suffering any effects.
On many maple syrup cans and jugs is a picture of a team of horses pulling a sled with a large wooden gathering tank on it. A farmer is wading through the deep spring snows dumping sap buckets into the tank (see the Maine Maple Sunday website). Thirteen quart buckets were common, and were first made of wood, then tin, and then galvanized steel. Depending on how fast the sap is flowing, each bucket needed to be emptied at least daily.
While the horse drawn sled is still used here and there, it more common to see tractors and wagons used - if individual buckets are still used. The gathering tank was hauled to a centrally located sugar house where a flat-pan evaporator cooked down the sap into maple syrup.
After WWII, the use of plastic tubing started. Smaller diameter tubing is connected directly to the tree and flows sap downhill into a central trunk line. This in turn is routed to flow down to a central collection tank. In many sugar bushes the lines are left up year-round, or at least the central trunklines. Each spring new taps need to be drilled and connected to the tubing, but the requirement to collect sap from each bucket is eliminated. Sometimes, however, there are problems. I've heard of more than one instance when a moose has run amuk through a sugar bush and cleaned out all of the plasting tubing hanging from the trees - probably comical to look at, but not too humorous to the poor farmer who has to string out all the tubing again.
A number of other refinements have been added to make the collection of sap more efficient. Larger operations run their collection system under a slight vacuum, to "encourage" the trees to flow sap at a higher rate. What this will do to the long-term health of the maple tree is open to discussion.
Collected sap is often run through a reverse osmosis machine, to remove water from unheated maple sap. The concentrate is then run through an evaporator with a much more efficient production of syrup.
I was in the Sebago Hardware talking with Jason late one morning in early March. Even though the snow banks along the roads were higher than a car, Jason was working on an order of mulch and fertilizer and other spring-time supplies that would soon be needed. His brother Alan came in, looking exhausted.
I looked at his brown canvas bib overalls and snow boots, and asked "What have you been up to today?"
"My dad and I have been digging the sap tubing out of the snow and digging down to tap the sugarbush" he said..."and the snow is waist-deep in most places."
"Any damage done to the collection system with the snow?"
"Nope, just buried underneath everything. We'll be up and running when the sap starts to flow, I expect."
Alan and Jason are sixth generation maple syrup producers, and work with their father Ted on the Greene Maple Farm in Sebago. The woods near Ted's house and the Sebago Hardware, are his sugar bush and the blue plastic tubing of their collection system can be seen running from tree to tree.
Ted was on the Board of the Maine Maple Syrup Producers when he suggested the idea of having one day during the sugaring season each spring when producers would open their sugar houses to the public. That was back in 1982, and Maine Maple Sunday has been an annual event since then. It is a great opportunity for the public to see how syrup is made, and to sample "sugar on snow" and other delights of the season. It has proven so popular that New Hampshire and Vermont now have their own Maple Sugar spring events.
He bought his current 2'x 6' evaporator in 1969, and produces up to 100 gallons of maple syrup a year with it. The Greene Maple Farm doesn't use either a vacuum system or a reverse osmosis filter, but they have gone to the plastic tubing collection system for much of their sugar bush. There are still a few trees with buckets to collect the sap, but most of the sap flows via gravity into a large tank at the sugar house. There it is filtered and run through the evaporator. The evaporator is wood fired, with the syrup finished using propane gas.
I asked Ted about one particular bucket that he has hung on a power pole near his house. "Get much sap from that tap?" I asked.
"Most years it doesn't give much, but I get such a kick out of watching people stop their cars and stare at it - I figure I should leave it up for the local interest if for nothing else!"
Both Ted and Alan were full of facts and figures about maple syrup production:
Sugarmakers haven't used kettles out in the sugarbush to boil down the maple sap for 75 to 100 years or more. Since the 1800's the central point in the sugaring operation has been the sugarhouse. On small family operations, this is usually a compact building with a cupola rising a few feet above the main roof. The cupola has hinged sides that can be opened to allow the steam to vent when the operator begins boiling, and which can be closed when it begins to snow.
Filling the center of the sugarhouse is the evaporator. These can be one-pan or two-pan evaporators, although the two-pan type is more common. In these, sugaring is a continuous process and more efficient. Evaporators have a long metal frame, called an arch. At one end is a grate in which the fire is built, and the rest amounts to a horizontal chimney. The arch is lined, sides and bottom, with bricks. The top is open, and the pans sit here. A fire is built in the grate, and it roars down the arch right under the pans. Then it turns and roars up a big stovepipe at the far end. The rule of thumb calls for the pipe is twice as high as the arch is long. If flames come out of the top of the pipe, the fire is a bit high.
The average ratio of sap to syrup is about 40:1. Maple sap is piped or poured into the first evaporator pan and flows through a float valve from the first pan into the second. When the fire is lit under the pans, the sap begins to boil and white steam rises to the cupola and out the steam vent. A thick, yellow-white foam forms over the pan surface and is skimmed off using a tin skimmer that looks like a narrow dustpan with perforations all over the bottom.
It is a juggling process to keep the fire hot enough to boil the sap without boiling the pans over. There are a couple of tricks that the operator can use to keep the pans from boiling over. An old New England technique is to hang a little piece of pork fat from a rafter of the sugarhouse so that it dangles over the back pan, just below the rim. When the boiling sap leaps up and touches it, just enough fat gets melted to stop the high boiling. Another technique is to drop a very small drop of cream into the pan - the whole pan quits tossing immediately and boiling is brought back under control.
Syrup is tested to see if it is done and ready to draw off from the second pan using either a thermometer or hydrometer. The thermometer will be at 7oF above boiling for maple syrup, at 25oF above boiling for sugar-on-snow, and 32oF above boiling for maple sugar.
A hydrometer is a glass tube with a bulb at the lower end and measures specific gravity of sugar solutions. In the bulb is bird shot for weight, and a strip of paper in the tube shows the Brix specific gravity scale.
Another, less scientific but just as effective in the hands of an experienced operator, is the technique called "aproning". The skimmer is dipped into the finishing pan and is held vertically over the pan until the last drops hang to the edge. If they "apron", or slowly merge into a little curving apron across the rim of the skimmer rather than falling, then the syrup is ready to be drawn off.
Most maple sap is made into syrup these days. Formerly, most was made into maple sugar for easier storage and shipping. Maple sugar "cones" were common units of trade throughout the country, and as an export commodity. I remember talking to a WWII veteran who was stationed with me in Denver years ago. He had ran across a cone of maple sugar in a grocers store when he was stationed in England. He bought it and carried it back for the cook at the barracks to make up maple syrup for his unit - and brought back a taste of home for this home-sick Maine boy.
The operator filters the drawn off syrup, and the syrup is poured into gallon, half-gallon, quart, pint, half-pint, and smaller containers for sale. All pure Maine maple syrup sold commercially is US Grade A quality as defined by Maine law. Maine syrup is further classified by legally defined flavor and color characteristics of light, medium, dark, or extra dark amber. The words "Maine Maple Syrup" may only be used for pure maple syrup that is tapped and processed within the State of Maine.
Light Amber colored syrup is usually from the first runs of the season - it is sweet with a very delicate maple flavor. Medium Amber is a slightly darker amber color with a gentle but more pronounced maple flavor - best for pancakes and as an all-purpose syrup. Dark Amber has a uniquely balanced maple sweetness that makes it a most pleasing syrup for many consumers - a favorite for cooking and for pancakes. Extra Dark Amber has a hearty maple flavor and is used for cooking and for pancakes. They all have the same sweetness - it is all a matter of an individual's taste as to which they prefer. Most folks prefer medium or dark amber.
Penny and I made a visit to Ted's sugarhouse on Maple Syrup Sunday. The sugarhouse was a community gathering place, with a number of neighbors assembled to watch the pans boil and the steam rise from the roof vents. We were offered syrup on vanilla ice cream by Ted's wife Loretta, but I scooped a dish full of snow from the snow bank instead. After all, you can get ice cream anytime, but syrup on snow is only in the spring. I had Ted autograph some containers of maple syrup that we purchased for ourselves, and to pass them to folks from away who appreciate Maine maple syrup as much as we do. (If you would like to buy some of Ted's syrup, see the information below.)
Every year, the Sebago Community Volunteer Fire Company and the Sebago Ladies Fire Auxiliary put on a pancake breakfast featuring the season's Sebago-made maple syrup donated by the Greene Maple Farm. This is both a fund-raiser for the fire company as well as a celebration of the maple syrup season. About 10 to 14 gallons are donated each year for the event.
The kitchen crew starts arriving at the old Sebago Town Hall before the sun comes up and fires up the griddle in the kitchen. Others start covering the long tables with paper from big rolls of white paper and setting out plates and silverware. In the kitchen, huge quantities of scrambled eggs, sausage and pancakes are cooked and passed through the window to the servers. A line starts at the front door, and fire-policeman Bob Burns collects $5.00 from everyone as they come in from the cold to the warm, fragrant smells in the dining hall.
Breakfast is served family-style, and everyone sits with friends and family. There are seconds and thirds for anyone who wants them. The highlight of the meal is the locally grown and produced maple syrup - everyone gets a taste of Maine's centuries-old practice of tapping the sugarbush for sweet, maple syrup. Since before the time of the first Anglo-American settlers, the making of maple syrup has signaled the coming of springtime.
I am reminded of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (New York: Doubleday, 1957), where he eloquently captures the intensity of summer. It is one of my all-time favorite magical works of prose. ...Uncork the wine slowly and inhale the heady aroma. Take a small sip. Recall the wonderful times and memories that summer holds for all of us.
If dandelion wine captures the essence of summer, maple syrup does the same for spring. After the long, hard and snowy winter we all came through in Sebago, the first maple syrup of the season is like a welcome glint of sunlight. It is a promise that the snow piles will soon be gone into memory and spring will return to our north country. Every time you take the cap off the maple syrup bottle, remember that it holds more than maple syrup - it holds the promise of spring!
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Last updated June 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree