Arts: The Art of Maple Syrup

Spring is just around the corner and that means one thing: It’s maple syrup season in the Northeastern United States.

If you never have savored real maple syrup – if you only have had so-called pancake syrup or commercial brands like Log Cabin – well, then you have never lived, friends.

Real maple syrup is expensive – up to $20 a quart in 2013, and much more in small boutique purchases. But worth every penny.

Some people can nurse a quart for six months or more. Not Nikitas. As a long-time maple aficionado I will consume it in two weeks because every day is maple syrup day. There is nothing like warm, sweet syrup on waffles or French toast, or cold syrup on ice cream or mixed with yogurt, raisins, fruit and walnuts. Awesome.

Maple sap boils in a small-scale backyard evaporating pan on a sunny March day. This professional pan is only about 3 feet long and is one of the advanced products available today for home sugar making, replacing the old boiling pot. This producer will make 5 to 8 gallons of syrup this year.

Or, hey, just a spoonful or two straight out of the can. That is one of life’s extraordinary pleasures.

And remember… always refrigerate maple syrup after you open it.

While living in Vermont in the late 1970s  I worked for one of the finest men who ever lived, a dairy farmer named Everett Palmer who continued to “make sugar” as his family had done for generations. Alongside his wife Kathryn they produced some of the best syrup and maple candies in that famous syrup-making state, with 250 blue ribbons to prove it.

Everett and Kathryn taught me to love maple syrup and its handcrafted traditions. And once you have been involved with maple you will always be part of it.

Here is a photo of Kathryn and Everett Palmer taken in the early 1990s showcasing their maple products. I apologize for the quality of the picture. It is taken from a pamphlet about the Palmers’ operation.

Today you can visit sugarhouses all over the Northeastern US and you will meet friendly people like the Palmers; that just is the nature of the business in the optimistic Spring season.

Maple syrup is produced mainly in New England but also in New York state, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. It even is made in small quantities in South Korea and Japan. The biggest producer, however, is Canada, primarily the province Quebec. Its sheer size and syrup-friendly climate make it ideal for large-scale production.

What does it take to make real maple syrup?

Two elements – maple trees and a particular kind of weather. In late Winter and early Spring in Maple Country you can get the ideal conditions of cold nights and relatively warm days. That allows the sap to remain fresh and cool inside the tree but to ‘run’ out of the tree during the warmer daylight hours.

The sap is about 2% sugar and 98% water. Then after you boil down 40 gallons of sap you get one gallon of syrup. That is why you see steam coming out of a sugarhouse roof.

Maple syrup is an exclusive product. Look at this from wikipedia.org:

British culinary expert Delia Smith described maple syrup as "a unique ingredient, smooth- and silky-textured, with a sweet, distinctive flavour – hints of caramel with overtones of toffee will not do – and a rare colour, amber set alight. Maple flavour is, well, maple flavour, uniquely different from any other." Agriculture Canada has developed a "flavour wheel" that details 91 unique flavours that can be present in maple syrup. These flavours are divided into … families: vanilla, empyreumatic (burnt), milky, fruity, floral, spicy… These flavours are evaluated using a procedure similar to wine tasting. Other culinary experts praise its unique flavour.

Native Americans discovered syrup when they burned maple wood and noticed a gooey, sweet substance oozing out of the sides and ends of the logs.

Sugarmaking has been an American tradition for hundreds of years now. Farmers originally produced syrup as a locally-made sweetener but today they do it to make a delicacy with a market that extends far beyond its region of production. Maple income can be substantial.

Even as family farms recede in places like New England sugarmaking is booming. Since it is a labor-intensive process you might think that it would be fading away. But the opposite is true. It is one agricultural practice that is gaining enthusiastic new adherents all the time. Its rich traditions draw people in.

Many sugarhouses now are stand-alone enterprises, while others remain part of the family farm like the operation of Paul Phelps in New Ashford, Massachusetts. He works alone to make 500 gallons in a good year while big commercial Canadian producers can make 50,000 gallons per annum or more.

Sugaring is surging because supply is limited to small climate regions but demand is strong. While much syrup is consumed in and around its area of origin it also is exported to cities, regions and countries all over the world and often is sold at high prices in small decorative bottles through boutique food/gift outlets. According to wikipedia.org:

Canada produces more than 80 percent of the world's maple syrup, producing about 26,500,000 litres (7,000,000 US gal) in 2004. The vast majority of this comes from the province of Quebec which is the world's largest producer, with about 75 percent of global production totalling 24,660,000 litres (6,510,000 US gal) in 2005.

Canada exports more than 9,400,000 litres (2,500,000 US gal) of maple syrup per year.

Vermont is the biggest US producer, with over 1,140,000 US gallons (4,300,000 l) during the 2011 season, followed by New York with 564,000 US gallons (2,130,000 l) and Maine with 360,000 US gallons (1,400,000 l).

Note: The symbol on Canada’s flag is the maple leaf.

Paul Phelps bought a new evaporator last year. Check that gleaming stainless steel exterior. The fire burns in the bottom part (where the stainless is just decoration) and the boiling takes place in the upper half.

The sap boils down as it courses its way in channels from one end to the other of the evaporating pan that has remained largely unchanged in its basic design over the last century. Phelps also built a new sugarhouse in 2012. These are two sure signs that sugarmaking is going to continue for many years at the Phelps dairy farm.

Sugarmaking has been part of Phelps family tradition for 100 years. Although Paul does not even live on the farm – he has lived elsewhere and worked in the plastics industry for most of his adult life – he returns every year now to make syrup. It is like a religion to him, a retreat from the modern world into the historical past because the production process has remained largely old fashioned.

In the 1970s our crew at the Palmers’ gathered the sap by hand from 3,000 taps, which are metal spouts tapped into holes drilled in the maple trees, sometimes several spouts per tree. Each tap had a bucket hung on it. We emptied the sap from each bucket individually into a tank pulled on a sled behind a bulldozer driven on roads through the sugarbush.

Phelps has 2,500 taps. But his sap is collected the modern way – through a network of flexible plastic pipes that runs through the forest connecting the taps. This technology became widespread in the 1980s and it saves large amounts of labor.

Here is Paul Phelps’ sap collection tank. Note the black pipes running into the tank from all over the forest.

The other major technological innovation is the reverse osmosis process that also appeared in the 1980s. Today’s sugarmaker can use osmosis to press half of the water out of the sap in a filtering device, saving substantially on boiling time and fuel.

Some producers have switched to oil for the boiling fire. But Phelps still burns wood which offers the old-schoolers a way to fuel their fires more cost-effectively and at the same time to manage their forests through selective cutting. It is a win-win for the sugarmaker and for his property.

Phelps did his first 2013 boil around February 15 and will continue until the weather gets warm. Then the syrup turns dark and has a stronger flavor and is best for commercial purposes such as a maple sweetener for baked products or ice cream; as a fractional additive for the commercial table syrup sold widely in grocery stores; or as flavoring for other food products like ham or bacon.

While many sugarmakers quit when the syrup turns dark others continue to produce it for bulk sale to the processed foods market.

And obviously the farther north you go the later the season starts and ends. Canada will be boiling throughout April unless there is an early end to the Winter.

Phelps recounted one of those precious stories from his family lore. A Massachusetts governor had visited his family’s maple operation back in the 1940s. The story goes that the guv took some of the Phelps syrup to the White House and gave it to president Roosevelt, who is said to have called it “Berkshire Gold” after the Massachusetts county of its origin.

Phelps still calls his product Berkshire Gold. And contrary to what many people think after too many years of consuming fake syrup, the best maple – the so-called Fancy grade – is the color of ginger ale. It is made early in the season when the sap runs fresh and cold. 

Sugarmaking regions also have thousands of back-yard producers who tap a few dozen trees and make syrup for personal consumption or to give to friends.

If you are in Maple Syrup Country during sugaring season, stop by a sugarhouse and visit with the folks. Just look for the steam coming out of the roof. You will surely find friendly people working hard. And once they get you inside they will have a lifelong customer for one of the world’s sweetest and most special commodities.

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