March in Vermont means a few things. We’ll get at least one more dumping snowstorm. We’ll have mud season for about three weeks or more. This picture from the Burlington Freepress a few years ago shows our typical dirt roads. There are plenty of memes and funny pictures about mud season. Most show terrible ruts, cars bottoming out, and just mud everywhere. Spring Fever hits hard as we desperately want to be out in the warm sun. 50 degrees that was nasty and cold last fall is supremely, warm now! And, it means Sugaring Season.
We don’t have a Sugar Bush on our property, in other words we don’t have a large group of maple trees to tap. But our friends have a couple hundred acres and plenty of maple trees. They built a sugarhouse and make amazing Spring Gold (aka maple syrup) each Spring. We help them out: in the fall clearing the lines, in the spring tapping the trees, repairing lines, finding leaks, and eventually we enjoy hanging out in the sugar house while the sap is gathered and boiled. Later, after the sap has run (no longer is there much sap running through the trunk, and the sugar content has gotten too low for tapping to be worthwhile) the taps are removed from the trees and closed off. This means the tree will quickly heal over the ¼” hole we put through the bark and remain healthy for another season.
- Arch – the main piece for the sugaring operation, how the sap is boiled down to syrup.
- Holding Tank – a plastic or metal tank to hold the collected sap until it can be boiled. Sap can only be held a short time before being boiled.
- RO – Reverse Osmosis (this magical mechanism removes some of the water from the sap prior to boiling)
- Sugar Bush – a group of maple sugar trees (although some people tap other trees such as birch).
- Sugar House – a structure with a huge arch for boiling the sap down to syrup.
- Taps – the plastic or metal piece drilled into a tree to drain sap from a tree (there is a way to do this to prevent damage to the tree).
- Tap lines – plastic lines strung between taps to collect the sap, rather than having individual buckets on each tree.
- Vacuum pump – a pump to pull the sap along the lines to the holding tanks.
- Approximately 40 gallons of sap boils down to 1 gallon of syrup.
Anytime there is a windstorm one must worry about trees being knocked over or branches torn down, in a sugar woods this can be devastating as the falling wood also tears down sap lines.They are designed to weather the elements not trees. The best time to go through is in the fall when everything is dry, leaves are coming off so you can see well, and it’s not hot, humid, or buggy. Many sugarers (those who sugar) also combine this work with looking for signs of deer or other animals they hope to hunt or trap in the fall and winter. It’s helpful if some of the thorny and nasty prickers and bushes are cut down on the main paths (there are main paths with many, many offshoots).
Winter Spring Work
Sometime about the middle, and usually the end, of February, the days go from frigid to mild and we start prepping for the season. There is a finite window to tap trees, and even less of a window in which teh sap can be collected and boiled. Once we see the days warming up (mostly) we know it’s time to start. All the lines are checked by eye, and someone (or two) goes to every tree. The tree is drilled, a new tap is put on the line (this is for health and cleanliness) and the tap is hammered into the tree. The goal is for an airtight fit, so none of the precious sap is lost. There’s more to it though. One must look to see any scars on the tree from the past two years of tapping. There might not be any, but if there are you want to place the new tap at least 6” over and a foot or more above or below where the recent taps were. This is better for the tree (less stressful) and you will collect more sap. At the same time, repairs are made to the line from fallen trees and branches, or the errant moose who decided to walk through.
Sometime in March, the weather warms up to above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.Hopefully there is a swing of at least twenty degrees. This means the sap will begin to flow in the trees and slowly that clear, sugar water will fill our lines. Now, every single tap line is checked for minor kinks or tiny holes. You cannot find the small ones until the sap begins to flow. Some sugarers rely just on gravity feed (the sap will flow downhill). Most who have any number of taps will use a vacuum pump to pull the sap over greater distances and over uneven terrain.
Our goal on our lines is 26 pounds of vacuum. We started at 11 pounds the other day. Walked (we say walked because it is all done on foot, but really we are on snowmachines) most of the lines, fixing small holes, or taps that weren’t quite correct, and ended the day at 7 pounds. This can be frustrating, but it is because as the lines thaw, more leaks are able to leak. We were up to 17 pounds that morning. The next day, the temps were too low, the sap was frozen and we won’t be finding anymore leaks until it thaws.
As the vacuum improves, and gravity works as well, Mother Nature sings to her trees, the Sun warms the sleeping waters and the sap really begins to run (to flow). Now, among fixing new leaks, it’s time to really monitor the levels of sap in the holding tanks. Nothing worse than that sweet water spilling on the ground. The sap is then transferred to a truck tank and then transferred to tanks at the sugarhouse.
The Sugar House
Some sugaring operations are lucky enough to have an RO (reverse osmosis) before the Arch. The RO removes a fair amount of water from the sap, which makes the boiling process faster. Regardless of the set-up whether there is an RO and huge arch or a small kettle over open flame, the sap needs to boil. Sugar houses are notoriously steamy, and this is why they have the opening up at the roof. The water vapors evaporate and rise and the sugar content is stronger. The boiling temperature of water is 212*F, typically you want your sap boiling at 219*F. This temperature can be affected by altitude and such, just like baking temperatures vary. You also want to be aware of any “hot spots” in your pans, or areas that just seem to heat unevenly. The sap will boil until it reaches a sugar point of 66%. While it will vary on your sap, generally the average is 40 gallons of sap boils down to a gallon of syrup. If you achieve this magic 66% number your syrup will not mold, but will crystalize instead (think of how honey crystalizes instead of molding). You will know it is close when you dip a metal spoon into the boiling sap and let it “lace” or “apron” off the edge. When you are almost to the right consistency, the syrup will not just drip off the spoon, but is much thicker and starts to create a lacy sheet (flowing, not solid) off the edge. But, if you boil too long, you will suddenly hit the candy stage. Congratulations, you made maple candy and it will burn extremely fast.
Once the syrup has achieved 66% sugar, you will need to filter it (remove the sugar grains and any possible debris) and seal it. Depending on your needs you may want to keep it in large jugs, or measure it out into smaller containers for gifts and resale. It is imperative that you check your state or provinces regulations about grading and selling your syrup. There are plenty of free resources for you.
After the Last Boil
Even though you stringently cleaned between boils (everything was swept and washed down), you still need to do a massive cleaning at the end of the season. You cannot have any open or spilled sugar anywhere or you will have a rodent problem. It’s not just the sugarhouse, but also all the tanks need to be drained and rinsed thoroughly. It’s a good time to make sure there weren’t any random pieces of trash lost under a counter, or dropped outside. It’s amazing what shows up in the light of day that was overlooked at 11pm the night before.
Now, all those trees that were painstaking tapped, need to be untapped. Part of having a healthy sugarbush is taking care of the trees. Untapping them right away, allows for each tree to heal the ¼” hole in their bark, seal their internal straws, and carry on without problems. Each tap is closed off into a loop, this seals the system from little bugs, but also helps with the vacuum next season in case a random tap is missed. As every single line is walked to be untapped, it’s another chance to check for animal or weather damage.
While it could be done immediately following the untapping, most sugarers need a bit of a break. But soon, supplies need to be inventoried, the bush needs to be evaluated and next years plans need to be finalized. Ordering supplies now, isn’t a bad idea. Marketing is of course done year round. Maintenance in the sugar house can be done right now, and then checked again in the fall.
So Why Do We Do This?
Sugaring season is this blip of time at the end of winter that truly shows us Spring is here. For anyone who has dealt with 4+ months of snow and cold, the warm sunny days are crowned by the sweet smell of maple vapor. This is a very labor intensive process, but it’s fun too. It is great to be out on snowshoes, hiking around the trees, absorbing the bright sun. There is an amazing revelry at the sugar house that can’t be rivaled by anything except the evening porch after a week of haying. There is usually good foods, plenty of drinks, and a yard full of laughter. Considering how labor intensive sugaring is, it’s not surprising that maple syrup is called Liquid Gold and is priced accordingly. Depending on the year (weather heavily affects the sap production) and the market, syrup prices can easily range $40-75/gallon.
I use maple syrup as a sweetener in all sorts of things from coffee to granola, brussels sprouts to chicken, candy to muffins, but if you’re looking for ideas check out these easy maple recipes on Pinterest. There is so much more to do with it than just pouring it over pancakes and waffles or dipping bacon in it. I highly urge everyone to have “Sugar on Snow” at least once as well!
What is your favorite use for maple? I’d love to know your best recipe!