Making Maple Syrup
Making delicious maple syrup starts with a maintaining a healthy forest. That is one of the reasons why we decided to be a certified organic sugaring operation. By going through the organic certification process we keep the records to show that we are following the best practices for sustainable and ecologically friendly maple sugaring.
Our sugarbush is covers 50 acres of land on the Maine-New Hampshire border in Western, Maine. We maintain 1375 taps on two species of maple: sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and red maple (Acer rubrum). Both species of maple trees produce sweet sap, although sugar maples tend to have high sugar concentrations of 2-3% sugar in their sap.
Sugar making is a spring tradition. The reason why we make maple syrup in the spring is because that is when the sap runs! The freeze thaw cycle in the spring is key to having good sap runs. The best days for sugaring are those that are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. For many years people thought the sap would run down into the roots when the temperatures got below freezing, and travelled up the tree through its xylem, or sapwood, when temperatures got above freezing. However, now we know this is not the case. When temperatures get below freezing the tree starts to freeze solid. The gases inside the tree compress, the humidity decreases within the sapwood cells, and a negative pressure is created inside the tree. When the temperature starts to rise, the sap starts to thaw, the gases expand, and a positive pressure is created inside the tree - and wonderfully - the sap will start to flow or "run" as sugarmakers say.
From baskets to buckets to lines. Sap collection has changed over the years, but it still remains to be one of the most physically demanding and fun part of the job! We have set 57,000 feet of tubing out in our sugarbush to collect the sweet stuff and bring it straight downhill to our sugar house. All of this tubing needs to be maintained throughout the season, and it's a beautiful time of year to be out walking in the woods and tending the lines. Because our sugarbush is steep, we use smaller diameter tubing to carry our sap out to our lateral and main lines. When the sap is running downhill through the smaller diameter tubing a vacuum is naturally created following the column of sap which increases the efficiency of our sugarbush without any added energy input and also increases the sap yield from each tap-hole.
From 40 gallons to 1! Once sap is collected and filtered, the name of the game is removing water. The commonly shared fact is that it takes 40 gallons of pure maple sap to make 1 gallon of pure maple syrup. The actual amount of sap needed will vary year to year and even change throughout one season based on the sugar content of the sap, but 40 gallons is a good round number to generalize with. Where do the rest of those gallons go? Well, they are pure water and we remove it using two of the most common sugaring techniques. First, we run our sap through a reverse osmosis machine (or RO). The RO can remove almost half of the water in the sap by using a high pressure pump and a filter bag that contains holes so small that water molecules can pass through it but sugar molecules cannot. Even though half of the water sounds like a lot, at this point the sap sugar content may be anywhere between 4-8%. There is still a long way to go before it becomes organic maple syrup! The next place it goes is into the evaporator.
Boiling down. The second method of concentration the sap goes through is boiling. This is where the majority of the work gets done. The boiling process is also where our organic maple syrup gets its beautiful shades of amber from. The longer the syrup is boiled, the darker the color will be. We inherited our evaporator from the Mayhew Family who used it in Freedom, NH and rebuilt it into our own. Our evaporator is 3 ft x 10 ft and is comprised of two pans (a back pan that holds about 25 gallons and a front pan that holds roughly 5 gallons). Our evaporator steams off 100 gallons of water an hour.
Finishing. Once the boiling sap reaches a temperature that is 7 degrees above the local boiling point of water we draw it off the front pan as our very own organic maple syrup! We transfer it into a smaller finishing pan where we test its density with a hydrometer to make sure that it contains the correct amount of sugar by weight. While the legal standard for maple syrup designates that it must be at least 66% sugar by weight we finish our syrup to a slightly higher density to create a rich and full-bodied consistency.
Canning. Once our organic maple syrup has reached the correct density, we push the syrup through a filter-press which makes it crystal clear and transfer it into our canner (a tall stainless steel container on top of a slow burner with a nozzle at the bottom for filling bottles). Here we fill each bottle of our organic maple by hand and set the bottles aside to cool before they are labeled.