For 20 years, the fourth Sunday in March has been designated Maine Maple Sunday by the Maine Maple Producers Association. Maple Sunday will be March 23 this year and is the time when Maine's maple producers open the doors of their sugarhouses for the public to see how maple syrup is made and to sample the wares of this centuries-old practice.
For those of us who are tired of snow and ready for spring, Maine Maple Sunday is tangible proof that spring is on its way. The snow will melt away as the days get longer and warmer, and our white and gray world will once again be vibrant with green and the colors of flowers.
The sap in the sugar maple trees (Acer saccaharum) starts flowing usually around the first of March through the second week of April in a good sap year. The sugar in the sap is stored in the tree as starch throughout the year. During the spring, the warm days and cold nights help change the starch to sugar and the flow of sweet sap begins. It travels from the roots, up through the trunk, and out to the ends of the branches, where it nourishes the buds before making the return trip back to the roots each day during the four to six week maple syrup season. The sap flows best when temperatures fluctuate between 40o+ F in the daytime and below freezing at night. During an average sugar season, each tap may produce 10 to 15 gallons of sap which boils down to a quart of so of maple syrup at 2% sugar content.
Collecting and Making Maple Syrup
These days most of the sap in Maine is collected either in buckets hung on each tree, or with a system of plastic tubing that flows the sap from the trees to a collection tank near the sugarhouse. The sugarhouse (or sap house) is the focal point of maple sugar making. It is usually a compact building with a cupola rising a few feet above the main roof. The cupola has hinged sides that can be opened to allow the steam to vent when the operator begins boiling, and which can be closed when it begins to snow.
Dominating the sugarhouse is the evaporator. Evaporators are one or two metal pans located over a heated flue. Traditionally a wood fire is built in a firebox and the heated air passes through the flue under the pans, heating the sap in the pans and evaporating off the water in the sap and concentrating it into maple syrup.
The average ratio of sap to syrup is about 40:1. Maple sap is piped or poured into the first evaporator pan and flows through a float valve from the first pan into the second. When the fire is lit under the pans, the sap begins to boil and white steam rises to the cupola and out the steam vent. Thick, yellow-white foam forms over the pan surface and is skimmed off using a tin skimmer that looks like a narrow dustpan with perforations all over the bottom. The fire must be kept hot enough to boil the sap without boiling the pans over. Syrup is tested to see if it is done and ready to draw off from the second pan using either a thermometer or hydrometer. The thermometer will be at 7oF above boiling for maple syrup, at 25oF above boiling for sugar-on-snow, and 32oF above boiling for maple sugar.
Maple Syrup Grades and Colors
The drawn off syrup is filtered and poured into gallon, half-gallon, quart, pint, half-pint, and smaller containers for sale. All pure Maine maple syrup sold commercially is US Grade A quality as defined by Maine law. Maine syrup is further classified by legally defined flavor and color characteristics of light, medium, dark, or extra dark amber. The words "Maine Maple Syrup" may only be used for pure maple syrup that is tapped and processed within the State of Maine.
Light Amber colored syrup is usually from the first runs of the season - it is sweet with a very delicate maple flavor. Medium Amber is a slightly darker amber color with a gentle but more pronounced maple flavor - best for pancakes and as an all-purpose syrup. Dark Amber has a uniquely balanced maple sweetness that makes it a most pleasing syrup for many consumers - a favorite for cooking and for pancakes. Extra Dark Amber has a hearty maple flavor and is used for cooking and for pancakes. They all have the same sweetness - it is all a matter of an individual's taste as to which they prefer. Most folks prefer medium or dark amber.
Sebago's Greene Maple Farm
In Sebago, Ted Greene has been operating the Greene Maple Farm for years. This year he will be making syrup with a brand-new Maple Pro evaporator that he just installed to replace the old evaporator he has been using for nearly 35 years. The new Maple Pro is a two-pan evaporator fired with wood with an increased production rate over the old evaporator. Ted was tinkering with the pump he uses to transfer sap from one container to another when I dropped in to see him on Saturday. Piled around him in his work shed were stacks of sap buckets waiting to be hung on the trees, and coils of plastic tubing for collecting sap.
"All ready for syrup season?" I asked.
"Just about," Ted replied. "The boys have been helping me replace the collection tubing on the sugar bush up the hill where the ice storm last month caused a lot of damage. And we've repaired the section down below the barn where the moose went through last winter and took a part of the tubing with him. We've also started using a smaller diameter spout to put in the tree. This allows us to reduce the size of the hole drilled in the tree to 5/16" , which in turn reduces the potential damage to the tree and enhances tree life."
"Is it going to be a good year?"
"I guarantee that sometime between now and May we'll be making maple syrup. We're just waiting for the sap to start running good." he grinned. "There is still a lot of heavy, dense snow on the ground, and spring is going to take a little while this year." "However," he added, showing me a partially filled storage tank "the sap has already started to flow and my family and I will be making syrup pretty soon if the days start getting warmer."
He motioned me over to the sugarhouse and invited me to take a look at his new evaporator. It filled the center of the little building all shiny and gleaming stainless steel. Ted was clearly eager to fire it up and try it out and was optimistic about the increase in production the new evaporator would give him.
If you would like to see Ted and his family making maple syrup, the Greene Maple Farm will be open on Maine Maple Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. There is a self-guided sugar bush tour, and you can sample maple syrup on ice cream. He will be open every day during the sugaring season and he invites people to visit. Large groups are welcome but should call ahead (207-787-2424).
Sebago Pancake Breakfast
After you have visited Greene's Maple Farm, why not sample some of his syrup on pancakes? Every year, the Sebago Community Fire Company puts on a pancake breakfast featuring the spring season's Sebago-made maple syrup donated by the Greene Maple Farm. This is both a fund-raiser for the Fire Company as well as a celebration of the maple syrup season. The Fire Company will go through nearly 15 gallons during breakfast, all of which are donated for the event. Breakfast is served family-style, and everyone sits with friends and family. There are seconds and thirds for anyone who wants them.
The pancake breakfast will be held on Sunday, March 23, at the Sebago Town Hall at Sebago Center (Mud City) on Route 107. Breakfast will be served from 7:00 a.m. until noon. Adults are $6.00 and children under 12 are $4.00. Proceeds from the breakfast will go towards the Sebago Fire Department's Thermal Imaging Camera fund. For more information, call (207) 787-3490.
Spring is coming!
Since before the time of the first Anglo-American settlers to Maine, the making of maple syrup has signaled the coming of springtime. I am reminded of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, where he eloquently captures the intensity of summer. It is one of my all-time favorite magical works of prose. "...Uncork the wine slowly and inhale the heady aroma. Take a small sip. Recall the wonderful times and memories that summer holds for all of us..."
If dandelion wine captures the essence of summer, maple syrup does the same for spring. After the long, hard and snowy winter we all came through in Maine this year, the first maple syrup of the season is like a welcome glint of sunlight. It is a promise that the snow piles will soon be gone into memory and spring will return to our north country. Every time you take the cap off the maple syrup bottle, remember that it holds more than maple syrup - it holds the promise of spring!
Maple Sugar Houses Open on Maine Maple Sunday
There are several sugarhouses open to the public on Maine Maple Sunday in our area. Here are just a few. It is suggested that you call ahead to confirm hours of operation.
Greene Maple Farm
East Sebago: from Route 114 take
Long Hill Road to Mac's Corner; turn
left to 77 Bridgton Road
Grandpa Joe's Sugar House
North Baldwin: 103 Murch Road,
Fire Lane 16, off Route 107
Casco: 66 Spiller Road, off Route 11,
¼ mi south of intersection of Route 11
and Route 85.
Weston's Farm Stand
Fryeburg: River Street (Route 113N)
Pingree's Maple Syrup
Cornish: 74 High Street
Highland Farms, Inc
Cornish: Towles Hill Road, ¼ miles
off Route 25
Stacey Farms - Five Generations
Parsonfield: Elm Street
[Note - This article was published in the Bridgton News on March 20, 2003]
Last updated October 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree