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The Sweet Signs of Spring

March 24, 2013

Today is Maine Maple Sunday, and this year local maple producers are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the event that brings Mainers and visitors alike to sugarhouses across the state for samples, demonstrations, tours and more.
Held on the fourth Sunday in March, Maine Maple Sunday is a local tradition that typically symbolizes the beginning of spring in the state. More than100 sugarhouses are taking part in this year’s festivities, which include opportunities for visitors to enjoy freshly made maple syrup and maple confections, demonstrations of syrup production, sugarbush tours, and a variety of other family-friendly activities.

In 2011, Maine was the third largest producer of maple syrup in the nation, producing 13 percent of maple syrup in the United States. According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the state had 1.47 million taps and produced 360,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2011, a 14 percent increase from 2010.

The beauty of Maine maple syrup is in its quality and its complexity. Much like wine, even though the degree of sweetness is fixed by law, the taste is unique from farm to farm. Sometimes the syrup is dark and rich, sometimes pale gold and delicate. It all depends on the soil and terrain, the wind and the weather. Maine’s maple producers, like winemakers, take a lot of personal pride in their product. Similarly, it seems as though everyone has a personal favorite when it comes to the syrup that they like the best!

It’s a long journey from tap to table, and producers have been working hard for months in preparation for this year’s season. The sugar maples need to be tapped, the lines run, the buckets hung, the sap gathered daily, the wood cut, the fires watched, the sap boiled down to syrup, and the syrup packaged and labeled before the finished product can be sold and enjoyed. Maine Maple Sunday is also a celebration for the producers, the culmination of months of around-the-clock work and their dedication to the quality of the final product.

So on this beautiful and sunny Maine Maple Sunday, we thought we’d celebrate by sharing a little history and some facts about the state’s sweet stuff, courtesy of the Maine Maple Producers Association.

The History:
The art of making sugar and syrup from the sap of the maple tree was developed by Native Americans of the Northeast. For them it was the all-purpose seasoning, used as we might use salt today. It was also one of their staple foods, a primary source of nourishment in the early spring season, so valuable and portable it was often used as money.

Important festivals celebrated the sugar harvest and there was much merriment and feasting when the last elm bark bucket had been emptied and a year’s supply of sugar safely made. European settlers were quick to learn about this tasty natural resource, and they brought something very important to trade for the Indian’s knowledge - iron kettles. Until the Europeans arrived, there were no fireproof vessels in Eastern North America, and the Indians boiled the syrup by dropping red-hot stones into thick wooden containers full of sap. Iron kettles made the work of sugar boiling much easier (and the product a lot cleaner). They bubbled steadily, every spring, throughout the early centuries of our history, providing the self-sufficient New England farmers with an ample supply of home-grown sweetness. It was much cheaper and easier to get than imported cane sugar.

Of course, appreciation for maple sugar went way beyond New England. Thomas Jefferson tried several times to establish a “sugar bush” at Monticello, and there were even a few attempts to start a maple industry in Europe. They all failed. The trees grew all right, but they yielded no sweetness. The sugar in maple sap only appears where warm, sunny days and below-freezing nights follow each other for days on end, as they do in Maine’s long, slow spring.

Degrees of sweetness:
The grade, or color of the maple syrup, indicates the carmelization of the sugars present and generally the strength of maple flavor. Lighter syrup has a candy/vanilla flavor, and the darker syrup is the heavier sugar flavor. Every true syrupmaker will tell you the hardest syrup to make is a delicate Grade A Light amber with nice flavor. This is produced in the beginning of the season is followed by ever darker syrup. Medium has a nice flavor without the strong mapleyness of Dark or Extra Dark.

  • Light Amber colored syrup is most often made from the first, brief flows of the season. It has pronounced sweetness with a very delicate maple flavor and is popular with maple connoisseurs.
  • Medium Amber has a slightly darker amber color with a gentle but more pronounced maple flavor. This syrup is desirable for pancakes, waffles, French toast, and cereal and is a great all-purpose syrup.
  • Dark Amber syrup has a uniquely balanced maple sweetness that makes it a pleasing syrup for many consumers. Its characteristic flavoring makes it a favorite for cooking, as well as a superb table syrup.
  • Extra Dark Amber has a very hardy maple flavor but less pronounced sweetness. It may be used as table syrup or in cooking.

Maine has a mandatory maple syrup grading law. Pure Maine syrup must adhere to some of the strictest standards for density, clarity, color, and flavor. Maple inspectors enforce these laws and assist producers in maintaining high standards and superior quality in their maple products.

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How Maple Syrup is made:
The sap, or “sweetwater,” typically runs from late February to sometime in mid April. In a good year, one large tree may pour out as much as 60 gallons of sap without suffering any injury. While it may seem like a lot, all of that sap will actually be reduced to about one and a half gallons of syrup.

Once it flows from the tree, the sap must be processed within a few hours or it will spoil, so syrupmakers work around the clock once the spring run has started.

Much of the sap is still gathered the old-fashioned way, in buckets hung from trees, and boiled down to syrup over wood fires. Some of the larger producers have adopted labor-saving modern technology, gathering the sap with plastic tubing strung from the trees to the sugar house.

From holding tanks which may hold as much as a thousand gallons, the freshly-collected sap, usually about three percent sugar, is fed continuously into the evaporator. There it is kept constantly boiling, throwing off dense clouds of steam as it becomes more and more concentrated. When the syrup reaches a temperature of seven degrees above the boiling point of water, the syrup maker knows the sugar-density is right. Immediately, the finished syrup is filtered to remove particles of “sugar sand.” These, though harmless, would turn the syrup cloudy. Once properly clear, the finished syrup is packed in sterilized containers and sealed, ready to be distributed and enjoyed around the world.

Maple syrup facts:

  • It takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of pure Maine Maple Syrup.
  • It takes freezing cold nights and warm sunny days with temperatures in the 40s and up before the sap will run.
  • It takes approximately 40 years for a sugar maple tree to reach tapping size.
  • An average 40-year-old tree will yield about 40 quarts of sap per season. Just enough to make one quart of pure maple syrup
  • It takes one gallon of maple syrup to produce eight pounds of maple candy or sugar
  • A gallon of maple syrup weighs 11 pounds.
  • As the tree increases in diameter, more taps can be added - up to a maximum of four taps
  • Tapping does no permanent damage and only 10 percent of the sap is collected each year. Many maple trees have been tapped for 150 or more years.
  • Each tap will yield an average of 10 gallons of sap per season, producing about one quart of syrup.
  • Sap flow is heaviest for about 10-20 days in the early spring.
  • Maple sap is what the tree uses to make buds.
  • During the Summer months, Maple trees make starch which is stored and then turned into sugar, or sap.

Did you know?

  • Maple Syrup is a 100 % natural and organic product.
  • Maple Syrup has the same calcium content as whole milk.
  • Maple Syrup has only 40 calories per tablespoon, unlike corn syrup which has 60 calories per tablespoon.
  • Maple Syrup is rich in minerals such as calcium, potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron, and vitamins B2, B5, B6, niacin, biotin, and folic acid are present in Maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup can be used as a replacement for sugar in baking recipes, by replacing 1 cup of sugar with 1/2 cup of Maple syrup and decreasing oven temperature by 25 degrees.
  • Pure Maple syrup is only produced in certain parts of North America. It is not made anywhere else in the world.

So, get out and enjoy a little piece of Maine history and this annual tradition. Even if you can’t be here for Maine Maple Sunday, be sure to support our local producers, many of whom sell syrup and maple products online. Check out information on Maine Maple Sunday and all of the participating sugarhouses on the Maine Maple Producers Association web site.

Some of our local producers:
Sparky’s Moody Mountain Maple
130 High Street
Hope, Maine 04847
Phone: 207-831-5085
sparkyshoneyandmaple.com

Ducktrap Valley Maple Farm and Wildlife Conserve
153 Dickey Mill Road
Belmont, Maine 04952
Phone: 207-342-3179
Email: ducktrapvalley@localnet.com

Bradstreet Maple Farm
69 Peters Rd
Searsmont, Maine 04973
Phone: 207-441-8801
Email mark@bradstreet.com

Simmons and Daughters Maple Syrup
261 Weymouth Rd
Morrill, Maine 04952
Phone: 207-342-2444
Email johndeer2@fairpoint.net

Beaver Hill Plantation
130 Sibley Rd
Freedom, Maine 04941
Phone: 207-382-6129
Email sben@fairpoint.net

Kinney’s Sugarhouse
200 Abbott Rd
Knox, Maine 04986
Phone: 207-568-7576
mapleconfections.com

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