If you happen to be in northern New England during late February or March, are you in for a treat! Maple sugaring is a tradition that has been taking place in New England for centuries. Although the process has evolved over the years to what it is today, generations and generations of New Englanders have been tapping maple trees every spring to create maple syrup. Maple sugaring is so much a part of the northern New England culture that the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association now has a weekend set aside to celebrate this time honored tradition (Vermont and Maine have similar celebrations).
Tapping usually begins in mid-February and continues until the maple trees begin budding. In order to produce sap, trees need cold nights (below freezing) and daytime temperatures in the mid-40s. This allows the sap to flow up into the trunk and branches of the trees where the sap is taken. Once the warmer weather sets in, trees begin to bud and the sap runs dry. Each tap can produce anywhere from 10 to 20 gallons of sap per season. Although it sounds like a lot, each tap only yields about 1/2 to 1/3 of a gallon of maple syrup. Trees are finicky, just like people. The best sap production occurs on sunny days with little to no wind. From year to year, the taps are moved to different areas of the tree. After a tap is removed, the tree quickly begins to heal; within 1-2 years, the hole will no longer be noticeable. Metal buckets can still be seen on trees (usually those close to the road, where the sap can be easily collected), but the majority of sap collection is done through the use of a network of hoses. Each tree that is tapped is connected to others along the same hose line, beginning with the ones highest in elevation. The sap then runs downward to holding tanks located close to the street, where it is collected daily.
The actual process of turning sap into syrup is fairly intuitive. The sap is boiled to a particular density, then collected and bottled. Sounds easy, right? In fact, many sugar houses boil sap for up to 12-14 hours per day during the days when sap production is highest. Sugar shacks are often small rooms with holding tanks for the sap and a large evaporation tank. Sap runs into the back of the evaporator tank and makes its way through a series of “Z” shaped channels until it reaches the proper density, and is then drained off. Believe it or not, it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup!
During New Hampshire’s Maple Weekend (mid-late March each year), over 100 sugar houses open their doors to visitors. Many offer samples of syrup and other maple treats, and of course, there is plenty of bottled syrup! Maple sugaring is a fascinating process, and watching the syrup being boiled (or even helping to bottle a couple of containers!) gives one a new appreciation for this centuries-old New England tradition! Visit http://www.nhmapleproducers.com/ for more information on New Hampshire’s maple syrup production and to make plans for next year’s Maple Weekend!