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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
buckets.

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 tanks.

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
processing.

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.


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 columns
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