...to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free....

26 March, 2011

sugaring: March's home brew

I was driving along yesterday, minding my business (well, almost)
and I came upon this lovely, evocative scene.

Someone had tapped the maple trees in the woods along his driveway,
just as we had always tapped our maples
at the farmhouse we sold four years ago.
Sugaring is a sweet rite of spring in these parts.

When we first looked at our old house so many years ago,
one of the first things we noticed
was the soothing steam in the kitchen, and the maple smell, 
as the owners boiled down maple sap on their stove.
(Talk about "staging"!)
 We maintained that tradition for almost every one of
the 28 years we lived there.

Nothing could deter me from stopping to take photos 
for all of you, to share this little miracle of March.
(Not even  my husband's impatience when he decided I was taking too long.)

Meet Brad, the sugaring man.
Brad generously let me follow him around taking photos 
as he emptied the last buckets of the day,
and then he allowed me to visit his sugar house to show the rest of the process.
Now get this:  I didn't believe this for a short minute, but in this small town
nothing surprises me anymore.  He is relatively new
to this property, having bought it from the widow of the
late naturalist whose writing I used to love to read each week in the newspaper.
As we talked, I discovered that he is the brother
of the woman in the family that bought our house four years ago!  
She brings the sap from the trees in our her yard
over here to be boiled down by her brother.
Small town, small world!

So grab a cup of tea, maybe sweetened with maple syrup, and
follow along in the sugaring process:

**~    ~*~   ~**

Here is a sap spigot. 
It gets hammered into a small hole drilled in the tree to collect the rising sap.
Don't worry about the tree.  The sap collected does no harm to the tree,
and the holes from last year can easily be re-opened the next year
to collect sap once more.  In between, the tree seals the hole
with congealing sap.
As you can see, the spigot has a hook that fits in a hole in the bucket rim.
(We always used gallon milk jugs, but this is far more beautiful and traditional.)
The cover on each sap bucket keeps the snow, rain and flies out.

In the winter, when the trees are dormant, the sap does not move 
through the tree's circulatory system.
When things start to warm up, usually in the beginning of March or so,
the sap begins to flow up the tree to nourish the little buds
for the maple leaves and flowers.  (Those buds were made last year.)
When the temperature falls at night, the sap reverses its direction.
If the next day is warm enough, it travels back up the tree,
making an ideal situation for sugaring.
Once the nights are warmer, the sap stops moving up and down,
and the sugaring season is then over.

The sap comes out--drip by drip by drip.
Over a day, this one tap could fill the bucket fairly full.

For some reason, some trees produce more sap than others.
Here is Brad, emptying the last of the day's sap
from one of his most productive trees.

A closeup to help you see the liquid pouring from the bucket into the pail.

The sap is crystal clear, and is only the least little bit sweet.
Or maybe it only seems to be sweet because you know what it is.
 I have seen squirrels and birds sitting on recently broken small branches
waiting for a drip or two, so maybe they sense the sweet, too.

This sap will be combined with all the other sap and boiled, boiled boiled.

Here is Brad, entering his most excellent sugar house.  
The smell in there is intoxicating:
equal parts wood smoke and maple scented steam.
And for me, these smells bring back hundreds of happy memories.

Brad feeds the roaring fire when he comes in. 
The rig above the wood stove is the evaporator that 
magically turns sap into syrup (well, almost syrup)
by the grace of this fiery energy.

The fire warms the sugar house, so much so that the doors were left wide open.
This time of year I love to be out in the air,
and I also love not freezing my fingers off.
A sugar house is the ideal compromise.

Just inside is the holding tank.  Can you believe that the 60 or so taps on the trees in the woods
would create enough sap to require this large a tank?
Or, on the other end, that it would take this much sap to make maple syrup?
(The answer to both is "ayuh, that's right.")

Brad collects sap every day.  He pours it into the tank.
When it gets time to make syrup,
 (a good day with lots of time to tend the fire),
he draws sap from this little spigot and pours it into the evaporator, bucket by bucket.

Notice how not a drop is wasted!

It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make a quart of syrup.
Brad makes enough to give away to friends,
as well as to enjoy for himself and family.
This is by no means a commercial operation.

Here is the evaporator, which sits over the wood stove's fire.
The smudges you see are yummy scented steam.
Sap goes into the container at the top.
After the faucet puts the beginning amount into the 
evaporator, it slowly keeps adding more sap, as the faucet 
remains slightly open at all times.

As you can see from the photo above, there are 
three chambers in this evaporator.
Below you can see the first chamber, and the faucet from the tank above it.

I asked Brad what was the technical term for the white stuff that collects as 
the dilute sap is initially boiled.
He paused with bemused but graceful politeness, then responded,  "Foam."
(Silly me.)

The more and more condensed sap moves
from channel to channel, so that the liquid in 
the channel at the top of the image is not quite syrup, but
significantly boiled down.

Then it gets collected into the sugar house's cookware and 
further condensed on this propane stove.
The thermometer in the pot to the right
 is an important piece of equipment.
When it reads about 7 degrees above the boiling point, 
you have syrup!

The bubbles in this pot go "blub, blub"
as the boiling liquid gets thicker and more fragrant.

The smoke and steam and the smell
create a magic atmosphere.  Wouldn't you like to 
spend some time in this chair, watching the 
process, feeling the warmth, and taking in the maple aroma?

This looks to me like Brad's chair.
It says "Big Dog" on the backpiece.
I had to smile at this scene.  Here is what  the modern sugar maker does
 as he tends his evaporator and his fire.


Many thanks to Brad for generously sharing this process.

Here's what Photoshop did with a very imperfect
image I took yesterday.  

Pancakes and syrup for Sunday breakfast tomorrow, anyone?


  1. Great tour! Especially since it was so spontaneous! Thanks, Brad! And it certainly is a small world. Glad you got to 'touch' a bit of your former property thru his sap boiling!

  2. Yum! I could almost smell the maple on your tour!!

  3. Yes please!
    That was a super post- thank you...and to the "sugar man":))
    It's a small world...glad you stopped the car!:)

  4. Mike, what time!! Sounds great.
    Great post! Very informative and great shots too! Again, I learned something new, thanks!

  5. Foam!!! Love it!! Wonderful time of year in Maine! Computer is the nice touch!! thanks again Mike!

  6. Now that's a sweet post! I just love the sugar shacks, the buckets, and the smell of the syrup boiling. It's truly intoxicating.

    Yes, your previous home owners were definitely staging. And it worked! LOL!

    Loved all your photos. Just wonderful. And what a contrast, sugaring with a laptop. Ha haa!

  7. Here I am, the sugar maker's wife, to say that the proportion of sap to syrup actually runs on an average of about 30-35 gallons of sap to one gallon - not one quart - of syrup. In good years it can go as low as 25 or so to a gallon; and it has been reported as high as 60 to a gallon. This is a good year, so our proportions are coming in at about 30 to 1. And as always the whole process seems like the essence of alchemy to me: raw sap drawn up out of the earth into the tree, then turned to liquid gold over a fire!

  8. Thanks, Katharine, for the clarification. I thought that was what Brad said to me, but when I checked it for accuracy online I got the number I posted. That will teach me!! Thanks for visiting--I am so glad you folks got to see this!! And for the pleasure of my visit yesterday--thanks once more to Brad.

  9. Very interesting and informative post. I do enjoy "real" maple syrup, which is pricy and a bit hard to find in these parts. Your descriptions and photos are wonderful; I can almost smell and taste the maple flavor from here. Your meeting with Brad was a serendipity!

  10. Quite an operation! I missed Maine Maple Sunday this year, so I'm so glad you posted this, great job Mike! ~Lili