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The Sweet Life

For many New Englanders maple sugar season brings back memories of grandparents boiling sap on an open fire, running through the sweet, dense steam and eating sugar on snow.  My family didn’t have direct experience with collecting sap or making maple syrup, but the bright red sugar maple leaves lining our New Hampshire road will always remind me of home.  Every mom and pop restaurant in the area served local maple syrup and we gave maple candies as gifts to out of town guests.  The Sugar Shack was a well known attraction in the area and maple walnut ice cream was a top seller at almost every creamery.

But the kicker is that I DID NOT LIKE real maple syrup.  It’s true.  I made my mom buy Aunt Jemima Lite because I liked the glass woman-shaped bottle and sucked down gallons of high fructose corn syrup  before adulthood along with other artificial ingredients that tasted sweet and poured thicker than actual maple syrup.  It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my parents part- my mom was a die hard maple fan and my dad refused to even try the fake syrup.  But the more they tried, the less I wanted anything to do with maple anything.  I even resorted to eating pure Karo syrup on my pancakes at one point to avoid any potential for maple flavor to creep into my diet.

Now that I am an adult I see the error of my ways.  Real maple syrup isn’t just about the taste (but oohhh…is it good…).  It’s about the process.  It’s an experience, a culture, and a memory.  In the few short years that I have been a first row spectator at our maple sugar process, I have come to anticipate the arrival of the season with unbridled excitement.  For me it means time spent with one another walking quietly in the woods collecting sap, inhaling the intoxicating sugary steam and crackling wood fire smoke with loved ones by your side.  The process takes days at a time and lasts about a month in entirety.  It is not a unique experience on our homestead in eliciting more than one emotion and allowing opportunities for learning and growth, but it may be the one season that encourages closeness, energizes discussion and evokes passion.  There is something about snuggling in close to the one you love next to a burning fire while the dark and cold of the winter night encroaches around you.  It makes you feel as though you could live solely on sugar and sensuality for the rest of the year.  But I digress.

There is a sweet spot between winter and spring where maple trees turn stored starch into sugar in preparation for growing buds and leaves.  And we can steal it.  Well, some of it.  Here’s a good link with more information.  Maple trees make much more sugar sap than they need for survival, so it typically doesn’t hurt their production to take a bit of their product.  When outdoor temperatures fluctuate between freezing and about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, the tree is “tapped” with a spout that allows the running sap to drip into a bucket or a tube.

Maple tree tapped with a plastic tap and bucket.

The sap is then collected in a big bin until it is time to boil it.  Kalina, our youngest, who is home from school during the day helps to collect the sap each morning.

Harley actually had rigged up a system to pump the sap from a lower bucket to this elevated bucket with a spout.
Harley actually had rigged up a system to pump the sap from a lower bucket to this elevated bucket with a spout.

When there is enough sap collected to fill a deep pan or pot, it is ready to be boiled to allow the excess water to evaporate.

Sap boiling over a fire, evaporating.

Harley wrapped a copper tube around the stove pipe to act as a preheater for the sap before it flowed into the open pan, to accelerate evaporation.

Copper tube preheat-er.
Copper tube preheat-er.

Evaporation takes a while.  We boiled about 80 gallons of sap to make 7 quarts of syrup and it took all weekend.  The sap to syrup ratio will depend on the sugar content of your sap, with “sugar maple” trees having the highest sugar content.

Sap deepening in color as water evaporates.
Sap deepening in color as water evaporates.

Harley is the syrup guru in our family.  He had wood that was leftover from his saw milling stockpiled by the barn just for this purpose.

He worked from early morning to late at night- tending the fire and watching the sap.
He worked from early morning to late at night- tending the fire and watching the sap boil.

One reason that I’ve come to really love sugaring season is that it forces  you to take time.  You can’t go far from a molten pot of boiling sugar water if you want to end up with a usable product.

Using a refractometer to measure sugar content.
Using a refractometer to measure sugar content.

You must wait for the water to evaporate from the sap until it reaches a sugar content of about 66-67%.

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Using a hydrometer to check sugar content.

When it gets close to the end, the perfect temperature can be reached quickly, so it’s important to watch it carefully and test often.

Removing the finished sap from the heat.
Removing the finished sap from the heat.

Once the sap has completed boiling it can be removed from heat and strained.

Straining finished syrup.
Straining finished syrup.

After straining, it can be bottled right away or brought back up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit later and bottled for long term storage.  We keep most of our syrup as a sugar substitute for use throughout the year.  It can be used in just about any recipe where cane sugar is used at 3/4 cup maple syrup to 1 cup sugar  ratio.  We especially love making maple candy, maple ice cream and maple cream.

The finished product
The finished product

We may even have enough this year to sell a few jars.  And stay tuned for a super special soapy project starring our own homegrown maple syrup!

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