During the cold winter months that annually visit the northern New England states, the temperatures often drop well below freezing for a good stretch of weeks, if not months. During this time folks flock to New England villages for skiing and snowmobiling, but maple sugarers are busy getting ready for the harvest. Sugar maple trees store natural made sugary sap in their roots during this time. The warmer days that occur in late winter and early spring cause the maple sap to start to thaw. With warmth comes expansion and the trees build pressure internally. This pressure drives the tree sap (with its sugar) upward beneath the bark of the tree. At night, when the temperatures fall, the pressure reduces and the sap naturally flows back down into the roots of the tree. That is why the best days for sugaring are when the days are above freezing temperatures and the nights are still below freezing. 


History tells us that maple syrup was first produced by the Native Americans of New England and Eastern Canada. They would cut "V" shaped incisions through the bark of maple trees and insert reeds into the incision to collect the sugar rich sap that flowed out. This sap was then boiled down to what is today's organic maple syrup. This is the heart of maple syrup production and the principles of it haven't changed for centuries.

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Making maple syrup is very labor intensive work. It is easy to find a sugar house full of smiles and laughs during the cool nights when the evaporator is fired. But the work that happens before that is where most of the time is spent. 


It takes 40-50 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup. On average, one maple tree will produce 10 gallons of sap in a sugaring season. Sugaring seasons run from 5 to 8 weeks long depending upon how cooperative Mother Nature feels like being and sugarers can never tell when she will start the season so they have to be prepared well in advance. Often times in late December, sugarers will strap on their snowshoes and venture into the sugar lot to inspect the work before them. 


Trees are tapped by drilling holes through the bark of the maple and then gently/snugly pounding a tap into the drilled hole. A “tap" is simply a spigot that is used to drain the sap from the tree. The maples have to be a miimum of 10-12 inches in diameter to be tapped. This size tree is generally 35-45 years old. Bigger trees can take more taps and sugarers are always sure to put their new taps away from the holes of the previous season.

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Previous generations, traditional, hobbyists and entry level sugarers still often use buckets for gathering sap. Buckets hang on the taps and have lids on them to keep debris out. In the 70s and 80s sugarers started using pipelines as a more efficient way of gathering sap. Pipelines are long runs of plastic tubing that attach to multiple taps and guide it to a central collecting tub. These lines are gravity fed and run much like the tributaries of a river. Many lines come together to a main line and then empty out into a holding tank. The holding tanks have to be emptied daily so the sap doesn't spoil in the warmth of the sunlight or overflow onto the ground. Some sugarers will also use vacuum pumps to aid in the collection of sap. This does as it sounds and applies a vacuum to the pipelines helping to pull the sap into the gathering tanks. This does not hurt the trees but does improve the sap yield from the sugar lot.. 


From the gathering tanks, the sap is pumped into a transport tank and trucked to the sugar house. The sugar house is where all of the excitement takes place. The sap is approx 2% sugar when it comes to the sugar house. The sap is pumped again from the transport tank into a holding tank at the sugar house. The holding tank at the sugar house is plumbed into the evaporator.

 
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The evaporator is the name for the piece of equipment that boils water out of sap and ultimately makes maple syrup. Generally speaking the evaporator consists of three components. The firebox (also called the arch), the back pan and the front pan. The arch is where the fire is built and a hungry fire it is. Sugarers who run wood-fired evaporators often spend significant time during the previous summer and fall months acquiring wood to feed the arch. The cast iron arch doors are known to glow red with the heat of the fire at full blaze. Wood fired arches are hand fed firewood. The doors are opened and brave souls wearing protective jackets and gloves jam-pack the firebox as full as possible and as quickly as possible, only for the fire to consume it in moments and to do it again. The sap first pipes into the back pan of the evaporator where the bulk of the moisture is removed. From here the sap flows into the front pan or finishing pan where the sap is in its final stage of becoming syrup. During the process the sap/syrup is also checked with a hydrometer. The hydrometer tells the sugarer how close they are getting to the finished product. When the boiling temperature of sap gets to 219 degrees Fahrenheit, they have syrup! When everything lines up, they get to draw the finished maple syrup off of the front pan, it is automatically replaced with sap from the back pan which in turn is automatically gravity fed with fresh sap from the holding tank.

 
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Along with the vacuum pump that assists with sap gathering, sugarers now run the sap through reverse osmosis machines prior to boilings. These machines (commonly called the R.O.) work to remove moisture from sap prior to the sap being introduced to the back pan. The machine works on the same premise as some water filters for your home but in the opposite direction. The water filters for your home filter out anything that isn't water and discards it. The R.O. does the same thing but collects what your home filter would be discarding, keeping the bigger sugars and discarding the excess water. This produces a higher sugar concentration of sap and drastically reduces boiling time. Larger sugaring operations also don't tend to run wood-fired evaporators either. Wood is time consuming. Anybody that has heated with wood knows how many times it has to be touched before heat is produced. Larger operations often move to oil as a source for their heat. With oil, there is no slow heat-up and cool-down times. Many good boiling pans have been lost to a hot wood-fired arch and boiling pans are expensive.

 
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But there is still work to be done after the syrup is made. From here the syrup gets filtered, graded for color and of course it is probably taste-tested multiple times along the way. It is filtered through a machine known as a filter-press. The filter-press holds multiple filters for removing anything unwanted in the syrup. The syrup is heated before going through the press to reduce viscosity and pressure is added to push it through the filters. It is run through multiple times to ensure quality. 


From this stage the syrup moves over to bottling and canning. Bottling and canning are also done when the syrup is hot. Hot syrup goes into the bottles, the special sealing caps are twisted into place and as the syrup cools, it condenses and sucks the seal on tighter. This preserves the freshness of the syrup for a long time to come, similar to canning vegetables. Glass seals indefinitely, plastic bottles/jugs are good for a few years and metal tins for 6 months. 

 
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Maple syrup should be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. After opening a container, it should be refrigerated but can still last up to a year. 
And of course, then it is time to clean up. Taps are removed from trees, pipelines are taken down, gathering tanks, transportation tanks, holding tanks, pans, R.O.s, the filter press, pipes and the bottler all get a healthy dose of soap and water. By now the snow has melted, the sun is higher in the sky and people around here are turning their attention to the gardens and bee hives. But the maple sugarer is looking at his wood shed, sharpening his blade and thinking that it's about time to get ready for next spring.