March in New England is maple sugaring season. Sugarhouses all over the region begin collecting sap, building fires and boiling syrup so that soon the sweet smell of maple fills the air. The sugaring season is short, and at the mercy of mother nature, so each year is different which makes it a labor of love for the many families and small producers who bottle syrup every year. For them, the challenge and love of the process is what keeps the tradition alive.
You can visit a sugarhouse this season during Maple Open House and Maple Weekend events happening across New England on March 18-19 and March 25-26. Where ever you go, you will find friendly people who love to talk about syrup and show you how it is made. Not to mention maple treats and samples to try, syrup for sale and the opportunity to see first hand a New England tradition as fleeting as spring itself. (See below for helpful links to events and locations.)
One such small family producer is Babel's Sugar Shack in Mason, NH run by husband and wife team Jeff and Paula Babel. They were nice enough to provide some insight into the maple sugaring process...
What is something that many people don't know about maple syrup or making maple syrup?
I think the thing that people don’t realize about producing maple syrup is the amount of time and effort that goes into the process! It starts with finding the right maple trees—hard maple, also known as sugar maples are the best because they have the highest levels of sugar. Once the trees have been scouted out, then you need to have the right supplies—whether you are tubing, using buckets or bags, drills, drill bits and spouts and numerous other supplies are needed depending on your method. You will also need a way to boil down the sap—again, this involves planning—will you use a stove with fuel, will you use a wood stove or an evaporator? Do you have a pot or pan large enough? After you have made your syrup, how will you filter and store it? There are other factors which take time—gathering sap, boiling time, testing, filtering, bottling, labeling, getting supplies, marketing, as well as attending classes to further your syrup expertise.
What is the most challenging part of the maple sugaring process?
The most challenging part of the maple sugaring process is putting together all of the pieces to make a superior product. Mother Nature is in control so you have to learn to work with her. That means being able to gather sap and boil it as soon as possible so as to not compromise the integrity of the sap. If sap sits around in warm weather, it will spoil. We pride ourselves on making only the best syrup with the highest standards. Our name goes on every bottle and that means something.
Weather is a major factor in making syrup. Can you describe some of the variables that can effect the process and what are considered "ideal" conditions?
So everyone knows that you need warm days (around 40 and sunny) and cold nights (20-25) to have good sap flow. While this would be ideal—that’s not the case. Sometimes the weather throws you a curve with a 0 degree night, and a 40 degree day which means the trees may not thaw out before it gets cold again the next night. Then, several warm days in a row, without freezing temperatures at night, will gradually reduce the sap flow until it stops. Extreme warmth may cause the sap to spoil before you can process it into syrup.
What are the differences between different syrup colors/tastes? How is syrup graded?
Syrup grades are based on color and there are grading kits available to determine the grade. Early season syrup tends to be lighter because the sap has a higher concentration of sugar and requires less time in the evaporator. The longer the syrup stays in the evaporator, the sugars tend to caramelize and darken which produces a stronger flavor. No matter what color or grade the syrup is, the amount of sugar is the same.
What do you feel is most special or unique about making syrup in New England?
Making maple syrup in New England has been a tradition for hundreds of years. People look forward to sugaring season as the beginning of spring. There is nothing quite like going to visit a sugar house when the steam is rising and you breathe in the maple aroma.
What is your favorite way to enjoy maple syrup?
Everyone has their favorite way to enjoy maple syrup. Jeff’s favorite way is to have it as his ice cream topping - so we always have to have ice cream in the freezer! Paula’s favorite way is when we are in the sugar house and a new batch of syrup is being processed. "I am the taste tester! Tough job!"
Thanks Jeff and Paula!
To help you locate a sugarhouse and events in your area, here are some links...
Want to learn more about the different colors and flavors of syrup made during the season? Check out our LOOT Guide: Maple Syrup for an useful reference.
Photos: Melissa DiPalma