Sugar Season!

About this time of year the maple trees around New England become festooned in bright tubing. It isn’t as romantic as the old-timey, hanging-bucket pictures on all the syrup bottles, but it’s much easier to maintain and keep clean. The trees are tapped (meaning a small hole is drilled down to the inner bark) and a spile is inserted. The spile is connected to rubber hose that joins many trees together in a collection network. The sap runs through the tubing to a large tub that only needs emptying once or twice in a season, rather than every few hours as with the buckets at peak sap flow.

Of course, if you’re making your own syrup from a few trees — especially if your “sugar bush” consists of solitary trees spread over a large area — the buckets are better. Buckets are cheaper both to buy initially and to maintain. There is less material and energy use, though you have to expend more energy. Still, the whole production is more human scale. The tapping process for buckets is the same, but the spile should have a hook on it to hold the bucket. Be prepared to empty your buckets often, and you’ll need to have clean storage containers to hold the sap until you have enough to boil down, “enough” being entirely up to you. It will take hours, perhaps a full day, to boil the sap into syrup no matter the sap volume. Get the most out of those hours by boiling it all at once.

Native Americans have been tapping and boiling maple sap for at least hundreds if not thousands of years. There is an ancient tale of Nanabozho, the Anishinaabe trickster, and maple syrup. Long ago, sap flowed from the maple trees as pure syrup, free sweetness for the taking. Nanabozho decided this was way too easy, that the people did not appreciate the free gift. He thought hard work would make the people more grateful. So he diluted the sap with water, leaving merely a trace of sweetness. The people then had to boil off the water to get to the sugar — quite a lot of water. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Nanabozho truly made us work for that sweetness. 

Native Americans made maple sugar, not just syrup, so they really cooked out all the water. They stored large blocks of the sugar in special birch-bark boxes. Sugar is easier to cook with, easier to transport and store, and I suspect it lasts longer than syrup — provided the ants can be kept out.

There are other trees that can be tapped for sweet sap, but maple is the most concentrated. For example it takes somewhere around 110 to 200 gallons of sweet birch sap to make a gallon of syrup. That said, if you’re up for the work and have access to a large number of river birch trees (also called copper birch), the taste is divine. It’s a softer sweetness with a minty overlay; it can only be described as winter air. You’re not likely to ever find it for sale. However, there are birch beers that will give you an impression of the syrup’s flavor.

Since tapping a tree is literally taking its life-blood, choose your sugar bush trees wisely. Tap mature trees, those with a diameter of at least a foot measured at a height of five feet above the ground. I’ve seen some old trees covered in buckets, but most people will drill no more than three holes per tree per year. When using the tube-collection method, there is normally just one insertion in the tree; and to my eyes it often seems that these tap-holes are reused year to year though it’s commonly recommended that you drill at least 6” away from previous holes. In the centuries-old sugar bush surrounding my last home, the maple trees bear evidence of tapping all around the trunk; there was not much evidence of retapping old holes.

Sugar season is not set in time. It can begin as early as January or as late as the end of March. It’s the weather that is important. The trees need to experience warm days — a few degrees above freezing — so sap will flow. But nights must be cold. This daily variation in temperature creates pressure differentials which makes flow volumes that are high enough to keep the tap hole from drying and healing over. However, once the tree starts photosynthesizing, the sap turns bitter. This bitterness is the tree’s defense from sap-suckers of all kinds, including us. So when the buds open, it’s definitely time to turn off the tap. It’s also said that when the spring peepers start singing, tapping season is over. Many sugar producers will finish the season with the so-named “frog run”, the last sap collected before spring begins in earnest.

Collecting sap, even by bucket, is a somewhat solitary endeavor. With the tube networks, it’s not even that much of an endeavor. The truck drives up to the collection tub, empties the sap into a tank, and heads out to the sugar house where it gets dumped into bigger tanks until it goes into the evaporator. Still, the dozen-tree bush across the street from my last home could fill up a 1200 gallon storage tank in less than a week. (It often sounded like it was raining out there because there was so much flow.) So it can be a good deal of work for one. Collecting buckets is more time intensive, obviously, because there is isn’t a tank collecting the sap. You have to empty your bucket at least once a day in high flow season. If you have many buckets distributed over a wide area (the typical “bush” these days), the project starts to trend to one better managed by a community — unless you have nothing else to do in sugar season. (If that’s true, tell me your secret…)

However you manage the collecting, once the boiling stage starts, then this truly becomes a community project. For reasons I’m not too clear on but which seem to have actual bases in reality — and syrup quality — you can’t stop the boiling process once you start it. So if you are boiling down those forty gallons for your own gallon of syrup, you’re in for about 24 hours of standing over the pot, adding more sap as needed, stirring up the bottom to keep it from scorching, keeping the cooking temperature at the right level for syrup production. If you are cooking with wood fuel, like many sugar shacks, that means near continuous regulating of the firebox!

This is obviously tiring work for one person. But it’s a whole lot of fun for a small group. Brian Donahue’s Weston, MA community farm, Land’s Sake, figured out early on that maple sugaring is a wonderful way to give children hand’s-on experience with the production of their food. To this day, Land’s Sake still offers classes, partnering with local schools, church groups and various kid groups — from Brownies to Little League teams. Their maple season classes are starting soon. If you live near Weston and haven’t done this yet, I highly recommend signing up this year!

Donahue was and is a visionary, but setting kids to tend the boiler is not particularly novel. New Englanders have been granting their children these teachable moments for at least as long as the colonists have been recording syrup production methods. It’s likely that the locals here before Europeans made the same use of their children. There is certainly a festival air about sugar season that predates the colonists. The whole community worked together to tend the fire, to keep the sap boiler full, and to package up the sugar bricks. Others brought a continual stream of food and refreshments. There were games and dances and story-tellers for those who weren’t on active duty but who didn’t want to go home. It was a party. And in places like Land’s Sake it still is!

Here in Vermont, maple syrup is an industry. Evaporators are huge and computer regulated, collection and delivery are automated, and bottling is done by machine. But there is still room for community. Today, there are families heading out to the bush to drill tap holes and hook up the tube lines. There are kids who get off school for the critical crunch time when the boiler is fired up and the tanks are overflowing. And of course, the moment the doors are thrown open on the sugar shack shop, it’s all hands on deck until the last jug is sold. There is a celebratory atmosphere in these shops, with local musicians, craft bazaars, and the ubiquitous cider donuts all jammed into the shack — and overflowing into the parking lot when the weather is congenial enough.

Much like the old husking bees and planting day celebrations, sugaring is work that is turned into a carnival — all the more appreciated for coming at the last days of winter weather when everyone is desperate to get out of the house and see friends. It is community building at its finest. And, unlike the bewildered goldfish and enormous stuffies lugged home from other agricultural fairs, the take-home prize in sugaring is your own gallon of the best syrup in the world!

If you have untapped potential out there, go find a few buckets and a few friends and make a sugar bush. You will enjoy the party for decades!

From the Book Cellar

I’m starting a new feature on this site. I have this very useful library (mostly in my basement); I’d like to share it. From the Book Cellar will be a short list of pertinent books occasionally tacked on to these blog posts. Some are references; some are just topical recommendations. Many are kids’ books — because I curated a fabulous seasonal children’s collection!

My go-to reference on Native American storytelling is always Joseph Bruchac. The story of Nanabozho is based on his “Manabozho and the Maple Trees” found in Native American Stories Told by Joseph Bruchac (Excerpts from Keepers of the Earth, Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, eds. 1991, Fulcrum Publishing).

For information on Land’s Sake and an excellent tale of taking on suburban sprawl, read Brian Donahue’s Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town (2001: Yale University Press). Donahue, a historian and Environmental Studies professor at Brandeis University, also has many other wonderful books on the role of agriculture in community, particularly in New England.

One of the best introductions to making your own maple syrup comes from Martha Adams Rubin in her Countryside, Garden & Table: A New England Seasonal Diary (1993: Fulcrum Publishing).

Here are three more books on making and cooking with maple syrup:

Backyard Sugaring: A Complete How-To Guide (3rd edition) by Rink Mann (1991: Countryman Press).
— Maple Sugar from Sap to Syrup by Tim Herd (2010: Storey Publishing).
— Maple Syrup Cookbook by Ken Haedrich (2001: Storey Publishing).

There are quite a number of wonderful picture books on maple sugaring. All of them feature amazing art and storytelling. A few are award winners!

Sugaring Time by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight (my version is from Aladdin Paperbacks and dated 1998; original copyright is 1983).
— Sugaring by Jessie Haas, illustrations by Jos. A. Smith (1996: Greenwillow Books).
— At Grandpa's Sugar Bush by Margaret Carney, illustrations by Janet Wilson (1997: Kids Can Press).
— Maple Moon by Connie Brummel Crook, illustrations by Scott Cameron (1997: Fitzhenry & Whiteside).
— Pancakes for Supper by Anne Isaacs, illustrations by Mark Teague (2006: Scholastic).
— The Sugaring-Off Party by Jonathan London, illustrations by Gilles Pelletier (1995: Fitzhenry & Whiteside).
— Sugarbush Spring by Martha Wilson Chall, illustrations by Jim Daly (2000: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books).

And last but not least, there is Jane Yolen’s tender depiction of her daughter and now-deceased husband learning about nature in the cold nights of earliest spring. There is no maple syrup, but there are maple trees — and owls! Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrations by John Schoenherr (1987: Philomel Books).

©Elizabeth Anker 2022