Monday, March 23, 2009

Maine Maple Syrup

Sunday was "Maine Maple Sunday", an event which takes place every third Sunday in March. All the "sugar shacks" are open to the public to view the maple syrup making process. My visit was to Parson's Maple Farms and I was surprised to see so many cars parked up to a quarter mile away from the shack. It was as typical a country Maine setting as you could get, approaching "quaint" with the home-built shack and rustic atmosphere. As I approached the farm, I could see the maple trees with taps sticking out of the bark. Small trees have one tap and larger trees have2 or 3 taps. The old way of collecting sap used buckets slung over the tap to catch the dripping, watery sap. There were a few of these on trees that were separated from the main stand of maples. And, I supposed, these buckets hanging on tree trunks added to the visual marketing making one want to buy fresh maple syrup you've seen being collected. Within the actual grove of trees that were close together however, a new system is used to collect sap. All the taps have what look like spaghetti hose attached, like you'd use in the garden for drip irrigation. The lines run from tap to tap and from tree to tree and eventually to a large collection tank or directly into the sugar shack.

Raw sap is very liquid and is filtered through course sand before arriving to the boiling vat via hoses and pipes. The whole process is pretty low-tech using gravity to feed the vat and young men constantly stoking the fire with New England hardwoods. It's a pretty heavy roiling boil to evaporate off water and steam rises within the shack and exits through the hinged roof openings. As the syrup thickens, it passes into a cooler vat for slower evaporation until just the right sugar content is reached, and is checked periodically by use of a hydrometer which measures specific gravity of the liquid.

The final step is to transfer the syrup to a vat heated to 180 degrees, which keeps it warm enough to filter a last time. It is then drawn off from a spigot into glass containers or cans and cools down, forming a vacuum in the container. There are no machines here, everything is done by hand and the containers are either plastic, tin, or glass and pre-labeled.

Syrup grade depends on the incoming sap and is not manipulated by the process. Generally the first sap of the 4-6 week sugaring season produces the lightest grade and as the tree's metabolism changes the sap becomes darker until the end of season. There are three "A" grades: 1. Light Amber, 2. Medium Amber, and 3. Dark Amber. An additional "B" grade or "cooking grade" is darker yet. Darker syrup has more maple and carmel flavor than the lighter grades, but personal preference dictates which you would buy. Most table syrup is grade A medium amber. The aroma of the smoke and maple in the sugar shack really made me want to exchange some of my cash for a lasting reminder that delightful day.

Maple sap starts running in early March and most farms consider it a hobby or side business. This year the syrup is bringing about $55 a gallon and $11 a pint retail. The process is labor intensive as producers gather sap in the afternoon and boil it down sometimes until the early hours of the next morning. If one has even one maple tree on their property, they can harvest the sap yielding up to 2 or 3 gallons a day. It'll take about 10 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup.


  1. Thanks, that was very interesting. I can smell the aromas of the maple as you described it. Were are the pancakes?
    My brother had a camper named "The Sugar Shack". He had that written on the back of it. I took it on a camping trip- vacation- with my wife and kids. People would honk their horns as they passed. Try to explain that to your children. I'm not sure what my brother did in it? LOL
    We are having a great spring.
    Love and hugz, Sbei

  2. Daniel: Once again, you've a great job giving us a glimpse into a fascinating subject. Life in Maine is certainly different from California. It'll be in the low 80's today. I have to get back to my gardening chores. Keep up the good writing. Miss you. Chris

  3. Great article, Daniel, and your pictures are wonderful. I'd love to visit Maine and see this process - just visit; we're spending afternoons with books on the deck these days (when we're home). Couldn't help but notice all the maple syrup for sell on the above link is from Vermont. Miss you. Irene

  4. Its true that Vermont aggressively markets maple syrup. It is a state marketing push so that you are programed to think "Vermont" when maple syrup comes to mind. Maine produces vast amounts too, but just doesn't market as hard.