Maple sugaring season is a special time in Maine. When the snow is finally beginning to melt, and the sun begins to feel warmer, the sap starts to run in the sugar maple trees. Farmers and others begin preparing during the dark of winter, and are ready to start collecting sap as soon as it starts to run. Each year Mainers celebrate maple syrup on the last weekend of March, and many sugar houses host special events in honor of Maine Maple Sunday. Fortunately, delicious Maine maple syrup is available all year round! Learn more about the process of making syrup through these photos and captions, and don’t miss the
Harvesting Maine Episode One: Maple featuring 6 maple producers.
In late winter, when the light starts to lengthen and the trees begin to thaw, maple sugarers walk the woods to tap.
A good sugarer inspects every tree, measuring its circumference, checking for damage, the location of previous tap holes, and looking up at the crown. A healthy tree will have a crown full of live branches and an intact middle.
The maple trees have been converting starches stored in their roots and trunks to sugar. When the days get warmer than 40 degrees, the sweet sap rises to feed buds for new leaves.
Tappers carry a drill and a pouch full of spiels. The spiels are connected to the sap lines and gently tapped into the hole with a hammer. It’s important to drill new tap holes far apart from previous ones. Although the holes are small, they create a small area of scarring that can block sap from rising upwards if spaced too closely.
Sap lines can run downhill into barrels, or even directly into storage tanks in the sugarhouse. In smaller operations, sap may be collected by hand, by hanging buckets from each tap and carrying it back to the sugar house.
A wood-fired evaporator must be fed every 5-10 minutes to maintain boiling temperature. A sugarhouse can burn through a cord of wood or more in a single day of boiling.
When the weather is right and the sap is running, sugarers must collect it quickly and ideally boil it the same day. The sap will pass through several sets of filters and tanks before flowing into the flat metal pans of the evaporator, where it boils until it reaches a density of 66 degrees on the Brix scale.
Finally, the syrup passes through another round of filtration to remove any crystallization. It is then heated again before being bottled and sealed.
Depending on how sweet the sap is when it comes out of the tree, it takes between 25 and 55 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
Although all real maple syrup is the same density, finished syrup is graded by color. A grading kit includes samples of each of the current Grade A distinctions: Golden-Delicate, Amber-Rich, Dark-Robust, and Very Dark-Strong. To be sold to the public, maple producers must label their syrup with one of these grades.
Many maple producers also offer maple sugar for baking and molded maple candy, both made by further processing the maple syrup.
Sugaring season ends when the buds on the trees appear. Maple producers walk their lines one last time to remove the spiels, allowing the trees to heal for next year.
Every fourth Sunday in March, the Maine Maple Producers Association hosts Maine Maple Sunday. Across the state, sugarhouses open their doors to the public for tours, treats, and to celebrate the spring tradition of sugaring in New England.