I don’t tap maples or make syrup but lots of people nearby do, including a local college (see here and here). Each year, on a weekend near the end of March, New Hampshire maple syrup producers host tours and tastings at their sugarhouses, and yesterday I went to one, probably my 20th one in 20 years, between living in New Hampshire and Maine.
The last couple of years we’ve visited sugar houses in Warner and Springfield, NH. This year, we chose one in Sunapee, NH, called Harding Hill Farm. It’s a 3rd generation farm that makes maple syrup, raises beef cattle, and harvests hay and firewood. They have certified arborists and foresters on their staff. They also offer their land and trails for public use.
The sugarhouse is in Sunapee, with about 70 taps on their trees there, while their primary major maple syruping acreage (12 acres of maples) is in Croyden, NH. Acer saccharum, the sugar maple, is the preferred tree from which to make syrup; other maples produce sap, too, but the sugar maple’s sap has the highest sugar content.
The season here has been slow so far. Usually after 10 days of making syrup, e.g., Harding Hill has produced about 200 gallons of syrup; this year, they have 80 gallons. The days just have not been warm enough to get the sap flowing reliably and continually. Daytime highs need to be above freezing — preferably in the 40s — with nighttime lows below freezing for sap to flow well. The cold nights we’ve had; the warmer days, not many so far. But the forecast this week is for daytime highs from 37 to 55F (and lows from 19-37F), which should speed up the sap flow. On the other hand, once low temps don’t go below freezing, the sap will stop flowing, so it’s a precarious thing. In any case, in a few weeks the trees will be in full bud and the sap will become bitter, so tapping will end.
Depending on the level of sugar in the sap (1.5-3% or so), to make a gallon of syrup requires anywhere from 30 to 60 gallons of sap. Ideally, there’s at least 2% sugar in the sap and the ratio is about 40:1 (gallons of sap to syrup) or less.
The sap is collected by tapping, then often runs through tubing, often via vacuum suction, into the sugarhouse, where it goes into the evaporator. For small operations, folks will often just tap into buckets and carry the buckets to the sugarhouse. Before it goes into the evaporator, the sap may be put through a process of reverse osmosis, as Harding Hill does, to quickly reduce the water content even before it goes into the evaporator.
The evaporator at Harding Hill is a system of large metal pans, with baffles in between sections, heated — by their own firewood, in Harding Hill’s case — to 7.5F degrees above the boiling temperature of water (212F at sea level) at the sugarhouse’s elevation. It fills the sugarhouse with a lovely warm steam.
Harding Hill had theirs set to draw off the concentrated sap when the temperature of it reached 218.3F. They also had a hydrometer to measure specific gravity (I read online that the finished product should have a specific gravity of at least 1.33 and ideally 1.37), with a Brix scale to measure sugar content. The syrup needs to have 66.5-67.5% sugar content to make good maple syrup. Below 66% and you run the risk of fermentation; above 68% and some of the dissolved sugar will come out of solution as it cools.
Once the syrup flows into a container, it’s taken to be filtered and graded. And eaten by sugarhouse visitors, usually just the pure syrup, in a small cup, and sometimes — as yesterday — also on top of locally made vanilla ice cream. Other sugarhouses serve pancakes, cider or maple donuts, maple milk, maple cream (used like butter to spread on breads), maple sugar, and any other maple-related product you can think of.
I’m not a fan of maple syrup, though my spouse loves it. But Harding Hill’s was about the best I’ve ever had, smooth, thick, and very good tasting. (And their presentation was excellent, and they had a black lab — whose name is Acer — for us to pat.) I might be a convert. We bought a half-gallon of syrup to bring home.