I don’t know about the rest of you all, but for this New England girl, the four seasons are summer, fall, winter and sugaring season. The maple sugaring season lasts for a sweet period of about six weeks from mid-February through mid-April. My father usually straps on his snowshoes and heads out to the woods to set up our family taps shortly after Valentine’s Day. This time of year is ideal, as there will be some thaw during the day, but the nights will still be frigid.
When I was young, this season was celebrated just like any other holiday season. It aligned with our school break, there was lots of family time and there were get-togethers with friends. The town I grew up in has a long tradition of sugaring parties and events, which span a number of weeks during the boiling season. In the good old days, some of the local fiddlers from my Morris dancing group would pop into the sugarhouses and play some tunes — yes, my siblings and I were Morris dancers as children and we were adorable.
What To Tap
My family has been tapping maple trees on our farm and bringing the sap to boil at our neighbor’s sugarhouse for over twenty years. We have a large sugar bush — i.e. a stand of sugar maple trees that we tap. Most people I know tap sugar maple almost exclusively. You can get a higher yield from the boil using sugar maple, because the sap has a high sugar content. The higher the sugar content in the sap, the less volume you lose from evaporation during the boiling process. To get one gallon of maple syrup, you need approximately 40 gallons of sap. One mature sugar maple will generally produce approximately 10-20 gallons of sap a season. A mature sugar maple should be at least 12.5 inches in diameter before it is tapped and it should only have one 1 tap. It is possible to stress out or kill the tree by overdoing it.
My family sometimes taps a few red maples, because they give off a nice yield if you start early enough. It should be noted, however, that red maples tend to wake up “break bud” earlier than sugar maples, and that can cause off-flavored syrup. So, if you’re going to collect sap from them, make sure you do it early.
Grading & Color
If you’ve never smelled or experienced a sugarhouse in full boiling mode, you’re seriously missing out. The mixture of the wood from the fire, the steam from the evaporator and the sweet, light vanilla scent of the sugarhouse is what I imagine heaven might smell like. My best friend’s family taps and boils their own maple syrup. When we were children, we would sometimes go warm up in the sugarhouse after spending a morning running around outside in streams of melting snow. If we were lucky, we would get to test a batch of their light, golden syrup. If we were really lucky, we would get some over her mom’s pancakes, which are as equally golden and delicious.
While some maple syrup is quite light and delicate, my family’s maple syrup has always been amber in color and robust in flavor. There are many different factors that go into the quality, color and taste generally. There are also many different uses for maple syrup, depending on the grade and color. I have entire cook books of experimental baked goods and treats I’ve come up with and another book filled with traditional recipes and ideas from friends. The possibilities are seemingly endless and mostly delicious. I say mostly because there was a mishap with maple-french-toast-grilled-ham-and-cheese, but it wasn’t the maple syrup’s fault (it was the mustard’s).
Grades A & B and Color & Flavor – Golden, Amber, Dark, Very Dark
Maple syrup grading under USDA standards is either A or B; grade A being the clear, clean, bright maple flavored product you would expect from maple syrup and Grade B being edible, but maybe not quite as clear and possibly having strong and inconsistent flavoring. Grade A maple syrup is further classified by color on a scale of golden (this being the most delicate maple flavor), to very dark (this has the heaviest flavoring). The flavor and color spectrum of amber and dark are found in the middle.
For more information about the USDA standards for grading maple syrup, you can visit: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/MapleSyrupStandards.pdf
What Makes Syrup Darker or Lighter?
There are a few different things that can contribute to how light or dark your maple syrup is, but the very basic explanation is — it depends on when you tap and boil and what you tap and boil.
If you tap and boil earlier in the season, you will have a lighter and more delicate maple syrup. This is the maple flavor that most people are used to. If you tap and boil later in the season, you will have a darker syrup with more minerals and a stronger maple flavor. This largely has to do with what’s going on inside the tree.
The Why & How
If you had a sunny summer and a fall with a late frost, you are looking at a good sugaring season!
As most of us learn in science class as kids, trees use light to make food through photosynthesis — i.e they use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into food. When winter comes, the tree goes dormant and the leaves fall off. The tree survives in part off of stored nutrients, just like a big, fat bear would do when it hibernates. When the weather starts to get warm, the sugary sap starts to thaw and the pressure builds in the tree to get it’s juices flowing again. If you put a tap in that tree, the pressures should send that sap dripping right out for you to collect.
The sugars, minerals and other nutrients that will help the tree to wake up and produce new buds and leaves will be present in that sap. The later in the season we get, the more of those minerals and nutrients are present in the sap. The result of those minerals comes through in the syrup, altering its flavor, color and transparency.
Tapping and boiling takes a lot of work, but the end result is beautiful if you do it right. I will definitely be sharing some of those lovely maple syrup recipes mentioned above. I’m going to have to narrow down the choices a bit before I do. We use maple syrup in a lot of our cooking and baking. It is a delightful addition to cookie recipes and, of course, a classic topping for pancakes and waffles. I hope that everyone enjoys the season!
Please Note: If you’re going to tap and boil, please make sure you do your research and use the right equipment. Your local cooperative extension office should be able to provide some guidance.