We dedicated this past weekend to maple syrup and the people who make it.Actually, we went through the process ourselves. Once.Thirty years ago (okay, the truth is out — I am that old) we lived on a farm near the Erie Canal in western New York. We had these designs on being self-sufficient. Our garden provided such ample food supplies that we not only canned tomatoes but produced our own ketchup. Meat was bought from local farms; we corned our own beef. Naturally, all our bread was homemade.So come winter I decided we should tap the five huge maple trees in our front yard and boil the sap down into syrup. Inspired more by zeal than expertise, and with Department of Agriculture manuals as my guide, I bought sap buckets at an auction and spouts at Agway. When the time came, I drilled the holes and put in the taps.Twice a day we emptied buckets into 30 barrel plastic vats. We bought wood and fashioned a fire ring from concrete blocks. A retired farmer down the road, keeping a straight face all the while, loaned us an evaporator pan that his own father had welded together perhaps seven decades earlier.And we must have looked good. Tourists stopped to take pictures of us emptying buckets. Neighbors came by regularly to check on our progress. With about 90 gallons of sap at our disposal, we began to boil. And boil.
And boil some more.Close to midnight, I fatigued and went to bed. Though my wife was the one who finished the job, please understand that I never stopped providing moral support. Our efforts netted us close to two gallons of the most delicious syrup we've ever tasted.This past weekend was the second of two Maple Weekends, so declared by the New York State Maple Producers Association. Only Maine and Vermont surpass the Empire State in syrup production, and this is a way to build awareness of the 1,500-plus syrup-makers in the state. Four sugar houses in Clinton County welcomed visitors. We decided it was time to see how our own past efforts stacked up compared to the pros.Well, we learned a few things.The basic process hasn't changed. Sugar maples need to be at least 30 years old, and 10 inches in diameter, before being tapped. Sap moves from the tree's roots upward toward the branches. Sub-freezing nighttime temperatures and warm days make for optimal flow. One must still collect the sap, boil it down until the temperature rises seven degrees above the boiling point of water, filter the product, then pour it into the desired containers.
But the details have evolved.Our spouts represented an improvement over the hatchet marks that Native Americans slashed into maple trees, but no one really uses them any more. Nor are there many metal buckets hanging on the trees. Everyone now uses plastic tubing to collect the sap. Gravity brings some of the liquid to its destination, but the suction from vacuum pumps has become almost universal.It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup. That leaves a lot of water that has to go up in steam. Methods have been developed to save time — and fuel. Dick Atwood explained the Steam-Away, a process that removes a fair amount of water via preheating. At Parker's Maple Farm, Josh Wingler taught us about reverse osmosis, the same process Wayne Brow employs in his operation. Up to 70 percent of the water can be removed this way, increasing the sugar concentration of the sap five-fold.Principles of evaporation remain the same as always. There's a lot of water to boil off, and copious amounts of steam rising into the sky still help to identify active sugar shacks. Atwood figures on burning about a cord of wood for each 30 gallons of syrup he makes. Parker's and Brow's have changed to oil to power their evaporators. Earl Parker can go through 26 gallons of fuel an hour.Altitude and weather conditions can affect boiling points, so each sugar-maker must determine the exact temperature at which the syrup is ready. Traditionally, one uses a thermometer but also checks to see when the syrup "sheets" off a spoon. Indeed that's how we did it ourselves once upon a time.Now, temperatures are checked electronically, and hydrometers confirm that the liquid has reached the desired sugar concentration of 67 percent. At two places we visited, the syrup is drawn off automatically just as it hits the appropriate level.
We had poured hot syrup through simple discs of filter paper to draw off any impurities. Now syrup-makers use accordion-like conglomerations of core, paper and waffle board to collect "sugar sand" and other particulate matter that might have made their way into the brew.The final product is poured into 30-gallon barrels, from there to be bottled or reserved for sale in bulk. Grading depends on how much light can pass through. Classic light-colored syrup generally gets sold retail for table use. As the sugaring season winds down, sap becomes less ideal and leaves a darker syrup. Much of this will be sold to wholesalers.It's not hard to make A Day Away out of visiting active sugar operations. They vary in size, of course, from the 4,400 taps set out at Atwood's to the 20,000 (!) harvested at Parker's. (For the record, when we tapped, we had 14!) As a rule of thumb, figure 10 gallons of sap, or a quart of syrup, per tap.Each place had its idiosyncrasies, making it well worth the effort to visit all the farms we could.Brow showed us how he has his sap traverse an ultraviolet light chamber before boiling. One display panel at Parker's related the history of this family farm, whose roots date back to 1889, while another showed the evolution of spiles used for tapping. Atwood taught us the nuts and bolts of vacuum devices, and how they enhance gravity-based systems of tubing.
But there are more similarities than differences. The owners are immensely proud of their product and articulately describe their operations. All showed an interest in advancing technology but retain a healthy respect for the traditions of syrup-making. They all reminded us that, although the collecting and boiling may take up only six to eight weeks, other tasks necessary to a successful crop go year-round.And they all make a delicious product.