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Maple Sugar, New England's Liquid Gold
By James Hyde

What "liquid gold" and "Texas tea" are to oil, New England's "liquid gold" is to
maple syrup. And depending on whom you ask, one of three states makes the
best syrup in the U.S.: Vermont; New Hampshire and Maine.

While the quality is arguable, quantity isn't. Vermont is the largest producer of
maple syrup in the United States.

Visit a Vermont Sugar House

If you're visiting Vermont during the early spring, one "must" getaway stop is a
sugaring house, of which the state has many. There, maple tree sap is boiled
down to one of the more delicious confections from nature: maple syrup. But
don't wait long to make the visit. The season is short and unpredictable.

When you do get a chance to visit, it's an experience you'll remember for a
lifetime. That's especially so after you sample sugar on snow. Your taste buds
will be demanding more.

In any state that produces this nectar of the gods, the collection and processing of
the sap is called "sugaring," and the methods of collecting it and turning it into
syrup have improved considerably over the years. New technologies have
brought more efficient harvesting and easier and faster ways to produce it.

But it's not an easy harvest for sugarmakers, and except for the bigger of them,
it's a supplement to other kinds of farming.

After all, it can take as long as 40 years for a maple sapling to reach the ten- to
eighteen-inch diameter it needs to be to yield it's sap without damaging the tree.

Sugaring Begins in March

Sugaring starts only with ideal weather conditions. In general, as winter begins
to sputter, almost always in March, the sap begins to flow if the days are above
freezing. But if winter decides to hang on and the thermometer gets stuck below
32 degrees, the sap won't run and the sugaring season, generally six weeks, is
shortened, sometimes dramatically.

Cold nights and warm days produce the best and most syrup. When it gets
below freezing at night, the tree absorbs water through its roots and produces a
barely perceptible suction within the tree. If the next day is warm, pressure
builds causing the sap to run.

Steps in Producing Maple Syrup

The first step in the process is drilling a "taphole" into a maple tree. The hole is
no bigger than five-sixteenth of an inch in diameter and goes in about two inches.
The larger a tree is, the more tap holes can be drilled in it, but rarely are more
than three drilled in any tree.

It's critical not to drill too many holes in younger trees because it can damage
them, so sugarmakers are very careful about how many holes they drill. Their
future yearly income relies on keeping trees healthy and ready to give up their
sap each year.

A spout is then inserted into the taphole. It can be metal or plastic, but it keeps
the sap from running down the bark of the tree, and instead, diverts the flow into
a metal bucket, or plastic tubing, which is becoming the preferred method
among sugarmakers with a lot of trees.

Smaller sugarmakers may tap from 100 or 200 trees, while the big sugaring
outfits harvest sap from as many as 30,000 to 40,000 trees. Whatever the number,
collectively the trees tapped are called the "sugarbush."

What comes out of the tree is mostly water, but it has between 2% and 4%
sucrose and contains trace amounts of enzymes and other ingredients that
provide the maple flavor.

Tubing Brings Sap to Collection Tanks

Several factors determine what technology is
used. Among them primarily are: terrain, and
the closeness of the trees in the sugarbush.
Plastic tubing may seem the ideal way to go,
but that isn't always so. If the trees in the
sugarbush are far apart, the tubing approach
becomes too costly and impractical. If the
terrain is flat, sugarmakers may still use metal

Depending on how well the sap is flowing,
buckets (or tubing) collecting it need to be
emptied daily or even several times a day.
When buckets are used, tractors haul collecting
tanks to the sugarbush and hired hands collect and empty the buckets into the

In the old days, horse-drawn sleighs were used to haul in the vats, but, while
some sugarmakers still use horses, it's rare.

When plastic tube is used, small tubing is attached to the tap and runs down to
larger tubing (also known as the "pipeline"). The pipeline delivers the sap to
collection tanks. The tanks are drained into tanker-like trucks (sometimes old
milk haulers) or trucks that have tanks or vats that can hold it all. If you hike
through the woods off trail, you've likely seen plastic tubing wending its way
from tree to tree.

The conveniences offered by plastic pipes are countered by the huge amounts of
time the sugarmaker takes in checking every inch of his piping for any damage
done by fallen branches, wildlife or for any leaks in the system. It's a yearlong
chore that continues through the sugaring season.

Sugarhouse Evaporators Boil Sap to Syrup

The sap is brought by the trucks (or tractors) to the sugarhouse, where it's
poured immediately into an evaporator, which boils the water off. Sugarhouses
are easily identifiable by the large chimneys atop them. Usually lined with
stainless steel, a tremendous amount of steam escapes through them during

It's critical to start boiling the sap almost as soon as it arrives. Cold when it's
delivered, if it warms, it begins to break down, and the longer it's not being
boiled, the more likely the sap will spoil. As it breaks down, it produces dark,
undesirable syrup.

Evaporators do the boiling. They come in a variety of sizes and some with extra
buzzers and whistles. Small ones tend to be two-by-four-feet in size, and the
bigger ones, six-by-twenty-feet. The size is predicated on how large the
sugarbush is.

Evaporators are heated either by wood or oil in what's called an "arch."
Customarily, wood has been a fuel staple, but like the horse-drawn sleigh, it, too,
is going the way of the buggy whip.

While more costly, oil requires no effort on the part of the sugarmaker. Stoking
the arch is no longer necessary, although with the cost of oil rising and wood
selling for $150 (or more) a cord, there may be a step back from oil until prices
fall again.

The sap is poured into a flue pan containing channels that serve to bring it closer
to the fire and get it boiling faster. As it moves through various pans, it grows
thicker. It finally winds up in the syrup pan at the front of the evaporator. When
it reaches the end of that, it should comprise 70% sugar for good syrup. At that
point, the sugarmaker pours it off to keep it from getting any thicker and to
prevent burning.

Syrup is Ready for Tasting

A sample is poured into a cup and a hydrometer, an instrument that tells the
sugarmaker if the syrup is the correct consistency, is placed in that. Next, the
syrup is poured through a conical wool filter to remove such substances as sugar
sand, a mineral produced by the trees.

After that, further testing is done to check for color and Vermont grades, which
are: Fancy, Medium, Amber, Dark Amber and B, the appropriate one of which
appears on the label containing the final product. The syrup is then poured into
a large drum and covered. When it's cool enough, it's placed in retail containers,
often cans, or made into maple-sugar candy.

Sample Northern New England's Maple Syrup

I won't say which state I think makes the best maple syrup, but I encourage you
to sample the various grades from each of the three and decide for yourself
which is best.

You'll notice immediately that this is NOT what you pick up in glass or plastic
bottles on supermarket shelves. For one thing, it's less viscous, so be careful
when you pour.

For another, the flavor is different. You won't find it an easy task to decide which
is the best, but I can guarantee it'll be a taste sensation, and you'll pass by the
supermarket brands without batting an eye.

If you have family and friends expecting gifts from your trip, buy small cans of
syrup or maple-sugar candy for each of them. This is definitely a food item your
both want to keep and eat too.

Click here to purchase northern New England-made maple syrup.

About the author: James H. Hyde is Co-Founder, Editor and Designer of
NewEnglandTimes.Com and Co-Founder, Editor and Designer of
ExploringNewEngland.Com. He has served as Managing Editor of three magazines; is a
winner of the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award; and has written two syndicated newspaper
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