A Walk in the Woods: Sugar Season

It’s maple sugar season here in New England. When the days are above freezing but the nights are still frosty, the maples (Acer spp.) begin sending copious amounts of sweet sap up the trunk and into the limbs, readying the buds to leaf out when the time comes.

We tap a few of our trees every year – rarely more than a dozen. A decent-sized maple can put out more than a gallon of sap per day, per tap, and all this precious liquid must be gathered, cooked down, and finished into syrup or (better yet) maple sugar. It might be the best stuff on earth. Larger producers use food-grade vinyl tubing to pipe all the trees in their “sugarbush” together, drawing the sap to a collecting barrel via a vacuum pump. We, on the other hand, do our sugaring on the cheap – lengths of copper pipe as spiles, and empty water jugs as sap buckets.

Our kids love the ritual of boring these shallow holes into the trees and driving the spiles, then awaiting the first drips of sap. It’s usually only a few seconds before it starts flowing. Straight from the tree, it has a subtle sweetness.

It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to boil down into 1 gallon of syrup. This cooking is typically done in huge, shallow pans fired by big wood or propane stoves, but we’ve developed a method that is slightly easier and less laborious. Because our woodstove in the house is still going constantly, we keep several big pots of sap on top and let them simmer. It never reaches a boil, but a great deal of water content evaporates off and the sugar concentrates (with the bonus of alleviating the winter-long bone-dryness of the house). We can continually add new sap to these pots, but once the contents have started to gain that syrupy-gold color we remove them from the woodstove and finish cooking down outside on a little propane stove.

Then we’ll safely store away our quarts of Maine gold, ready for drizzling on pancakes or stirring into an afternoon cup of coffee. It’s good.



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