It is mud season here at White Pine Farm, with nights dipping into the twenties and even the teens, followed by a daily thaw of frozen earth and the mud this brings. Yet this messy, seasonally ambiguous time of year is one my favorites. It is maple syrup season. Indeed, in late winter if you journey to our little farm at the top of Snyder Hill, you are likely to catch the sweet scent of maple sap boiling down to rich, dark maple syrup. It takes some time for this transition to occur as maple sap is mostly water, requiring reduction of the sap at a 40 to 1 ratio. However, there is no need to wait to enjoy the bounty of the sugar bush. Dip a clean cup into freshly collected maple sap and take a big drink. You will taste crystal clean, pure and cold water with just a hint of sweetness and rich maple flavor. I have often thought I should bottle this sap and sell it, but perhaps not. Maybe this can just be the special treat of the maple syrup maker.
So how does this sweet liquid get to my cup? It started as rain or snow melt in the forest that percolated through the soil to the roots of our maple trees. Tiny hairs on giant roots pull this water from the soil and pump it through the vascular system of the tree into the thousands of leaves spread out in the the spring and summer sun. Photosynthesis, the driving force of life on earth, uses that water to produce sugars. Sugars to grow wood and bark and more leaves, and to send seeds out into the world to bring us more maple trees. Come fall, with the return of cold weather, the trees pump this enriched water back down into the roots to wait under the soil for spring. In late February the days start to rise above freezing, but the nights bring the return of frost. Somehow this pattern tells the trees that spring, while not here yet, is on the way. They start to pump sap up into the branches in preparation for spring leaf-out. This is when the maple syrup maker comes in.
People fortunate enough to live in the hardwood forest biome of what is now the northeast US and eastern Canada have been collecting maple sap for thousands of years. In our region the Haudenosaunee (people of the longhouse) confederacy likely discovered this source of energy and flavor from tasting the liquid draining off the tips of broken branches in the spring. From there they devised methods to collect and concentrate the sap into syrup and sugar. Reports from early missionaries and colonists describe indigenous people chopping a descending slash in the bark of maples and collecting the sap in bark containers. The sap was then boiled down by placing hot rocks in the containers. Colonists likely copied these methods, but at some point introduced the simple technology of the metal spile with a hanging wood or metal bucket. This is the method most of us are familiar with, and the way sap has been collected for hundreds of years. In more recent decades we have seen the advent of miles of blue plastic tubing woven through the maple forests, all designed to flow downhill to large, plastic storage containers. While this method is certainly much more efficient than buckets on trees, it is not how we do it at White Pine Farm.
This year I tapped the maple trees in mid-March as the hard winter cold just did not want to give up. The method is simple. I use a cordless drill with a 5/16 bit to drill a 2-inch deep hole in the maple trees. This small hole easily heals once maple syrup season is over. I then place, and gently tap in, a metal spile in the hole and hang a galvanized steel bucket from the built-in hook. The buckets, 19th-century technology, even have cleverly designed lids that slide in place and keep rain, dirt, and other debris out of the sap. On a 40-degree day the sap will immediately start dripping in the bucket with a gentle pinging. Once, twice, or often three times a day I will journey down to the forest with two large, 5-gallon buckets to collect and carry the sap up to my evaporator. Of note, it is indeed an uphill carry as our sugar maples (Acer saccharum) are downhill from my shop. I then boil the sap down using electricity, but this power is largely supplied by our photovoltaic panels. Hence our maple syrup labels say, “Harvested the old way with buckets on trees. Boiled down with the sun.”
So come visit our sugar bush at White Pine Farm. If you find me harvesting, I may even give you a sip of cold, clear maple sap fresh from the tree. You can contact all of us at email@example.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.