The sweetest way to get outdoors in March? Tap a tree
When Diamond Duryea left North Norway for college 10 years ago, her parents took up mapling as an empty-nester’s hobby. They had inherited an evaporation pan—a wide, flat metal pan that maximizes surface area when cooking down sap—and decided it was worth buying the other equipment they needed. Not only did they get hooked, tapping as many as 60 trees a year, but Duryea, an artist and public art consultant, now drives home from Portland to help.
Running sap means the end of winter is in sight, and in March, when most sugaring happens, that’s more than welcome. But Duryea also likes the way it shifts her focus. “During sugaring season, I’m paying a lot of attention to nature,” she says. “The daylight, the warmth, the temperature at night. I’m monitoring things I don’t really pay attention to the rest of the year. There’s something very grounding about it.”
When it’s time to tap, Duryea and her father put on snowshoes and head into the woods with buckets, taps, lids and a drill. “Tapping is the fun part,” she says. Collecting is a lot more work. They strap 5-gallon buckets to their backs or pull a sled to carry the sap back to the sugar shack. When they have enough to boil, it’s a full day’s work and no one rests until the final boil is over. “You never want to lose the boil,” Duryea says. “So you’re constantly splitting wood into small pieces, feeding the fire, adding sap to the pan. It can be a 12-hour day.”
Despite the hard labor, the production of this 100 percent pure pancake staple is enjoying a resurgence of popularity with Mainers. Roberta Morrill, who makes maple syrup with her husband at their Nash Valley Farm in Windham and is the secretary of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association says there has been a steady uptick in the interest in backyard sugaring in recent years. “I see it as a combination of the locavore movement, a desire to be self-sufficient and sustainable, and the insights around the health benefits of maple,” Morrill says. Maple has a high concentration of minerals and antioxidants, and fewer calories than honey. Many consider it healthier alternative to processed cane sugar. Maine’s indigenous peoples used syrup and sugar made from maple sap as an all-purpose seasoning—much like we use salt today—as well as currency for trading. And as homegrown foodstuffs go, it’s relatively easy to make.
On a winter’s day in Falmouth, a classroom at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Falmouth was packed with men and women of all ages and a few kids, who had come to get a free lesson in making maple syrup. Backyard Sugaring: Maple Syrup 101 has been given once or twice a winter for the past six years and is a collaboration between the university and the sugarmakers association. Morrill and her husband, Richard, the association president, were there, offering instruction and encouragement.
Jason Lilley, a sustainable agriculture expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, started the class with images of maple leaves. “You’re looking for the Canadian flag,” Lilley said, referencing the unique leaf shape of the sugar maple, which has the highest sugar content in its sap. Red, silver and Norway maples can also be tapped, but their lower sugar content means more sap is required to reach syrup-level sweetness. It takes at least 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to produce one gallon of syrup; the other varieties can require upwards of 60 gallons.
Over the next two hours, the professional syrup-makers explained the craft. Some parts of the process are imprecise, including the timing of maple season itself. It all depends on the weather. It has to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day in order for sap to run. This generally happens around mid-February, but very cold winters and unusually warm days can interfere. There are times when sap runs briefly in February, then might not run again for a month. (Maine Maple Sunday is always held the fourth Sunday of the month and sometimes, it can be a scramble to get fresh syrup made for it.)
Thus flexibility is key, along with a willingness to be outside. The bulk of the boiling can be done on an outdoor wood fire, with two simple rules, keep the sap boiling and add new sap as it reduces. The last step, called finishing, needs to be more controlled. “Almost syrup” is moved onto a propane heat source and carefully watched. Diamond Duryea and her parents use a cauldron and a propane camp stove when they hit the “almost syrup” stage. Sap becomes syrup when the boiling temperature reaches 7.5 degrees above the boiling point of water, about 219 degrees. The syrup is then filtered twice to remove niter, or “sugar sand,” natural minerals in the sap that concentrate as water boils off. It’s not dangerous to eat, but it makes the syrup cloudy.
For Nicholas Record and his wife Christine, who make syrup at their home in Boothbay with their children, ages 5 and 8, filtering isn’t worth the bother; the niter just gets tossed when they get to the end of the jug. That’s because they have deliberately kept their backyard sugaring process very simple. Record and the kids tap two trees in their yard with three taps they bought for $3 each at the hardware store. “I also had to buy the right size bit to drill the holes, but that was it for investment,” he says. They collect the sap in gallon water jugs and store it packed in snow. On a day they’re going to be running the wood stove morning until night anyway, the sap “goes into a few pans and just boils away.” Record doesn’t even bother to test the temperature. When it looks like syrup, or when he’s ready to go to bed, he calls it done. “To the refined palate, I’m sure it isn’t the very best,” he says. “But it’s sugary, it’s mapley, and it tastes good on pancakes. And the kids love that it’s theirs.” That’s why the Records do it. “Like the garden in the summer, it’s a way to show them where food comes from, other than the grocery store,” he says.
The Duryeas produce about six gallons a year, which they consume themselves, give as gifts and use to barter for other local goods. Duryea would love to make syrup in Portland, but, she says, “You really need a community of people to do it. It’s much more enjoyable that way.”
That’s exactly how Tap of the Town in Bethel came to be. Friends Gabe Perkins, executive director of Mahoosuc Pathways, and Tracey Wilkerson, a teacher and manager of the Farm and Forest Program at Gould Academy, teamed up to start a community sugaring project. Perkins had seen a similar program when he visited The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, New York, and Wilkerson’s students in the Farm and Forest Program had been tapping the trees on campus for years. They had both been informally pitching the idea of community tapping to friends. Wilkerson says the general idea was, “How cool would it be if we tapped the trees in town and boiled down the sap in a common location, that could be enjoyed by anyone who felt like stopping by.”
Perkins, who had discovered some old sugaring equipment in the basement of his family farmhouse, had been making syrup on a small scale for a few years. “My wife, Jessie, saw an ad for an estate auction at an old sugar farm in Andover, Maine. She said, ‘We have to go to this.’” They went, and for $50 they got three evaporating pans, 75 spiels, 50 buckets with lids, and a skimmer. “Once we had that stuff, there was no turning back,” Perkins says.
The Tap of the Town started in 2014. Perkins and Wilkerson went door to door in town, stopping when they spotted a maple tree and asking homeowners if they wanted to participate. The response was overwhelmingly positive. When it was time to start collecting sap, Wilkerson was able to use a horse and sleigh from Gould to travel around town picking up the buckets. They boiled the sap down on the lawn in front of the Bethel Historical Society. “Syrup was part of the original trade and commerce of the Bethel, so the society loved it,” Perkins says.
Plenty of other people loved it too; there was immediate and constant interest, especially on boiling days. Local businesses donated jars for bottling, friends volunteered their time, neighbors stopped by to check things out. Teachers from the nearby elementary school brought students over to learn about (and taste) maple syrup, and older kids hung around the sweet, steamy fire for hours on weekend evenings. After the syrup is finished and filtered, it’s divided among participants. Last year 10 gallons was produced. “Tap of the Town has brought out some of the best in our small town,” Wilkerson says. “The project engages people of all ages, and it appeals to local folks and visitors. Nobody makes money, and everyone involved gives time. It’s a pretty cool thing that connects us to our past.” And also to the present, when the woods are waking up and the sun’s warmth is finally reaching through the trees. Perkins says, “It’s an easy way to be outside when it’s just warm enough to get that first Maine tan.”
The Rules of Sugaring from the Pros
- Tap trees greater than 38 inches in circumference (any trees smaller might experience growth disruptions as a result)
- Don’t put more than three taps on one tree
- Move at least 3 inches over and 6 inches up from last year’s tap hole
- Rinse your equipment with hot water, never soap (the taste will leach)
- Flag your maples in the fall, while they still have their identifying leaves
- Use food-grade plastic or aluminum to collect sap (other metals can contain lead), or invest in professional stainless steel
- Don’t let collected sap get warm (it will spoil, treat it like milk)
Courtesy of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association
- Maine Maple Producers Association: mainemapleproducers.com
- Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association: smmsa.org
- Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide, by Rink Mann
- North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual from Ohio State University
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.