**Authored by Mr. Rob DelDuca**
It’s a crisp March morning; the sun is just rising as the frost slowly melts away. That warm sun we have been waiting for is not just an early sign of spring, but more importantly, the start of the maple syrup season.
Preparation starts long before the warm spring sun comes. The conditions needed for the sap to run are when the nighttime’s get cold, and the daytimes warm. The warm sun on the trees promotes the sap to flow. If its too cold, it will not thaw, if it is too warm overnight, the trees will develop buds and starts stealing all the nutrients and the sap will no longer be sweet. Many people do it for money, most do it for personal satisfaction but I of course, am one of the latter. Various setups exist for varying skill and dedication levels. Some people have full on sugar shacks with expensive boil pans and vents, vacuum hoses attached to many maple trees for central collection and hydrometers and thermometers to ensure proper moisture content and temperature…but not us. We are old school (by “We”, I mean my wife’s parents) everything is done by sight, feel and taste. But before we dive into it, a little lesson in where it all starts.
First things first, It takes a lot of sap to make syrup. In fact, it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap, to make one gallon of syrup. Sugar maples are of course the best. You drill a hole in the tree, roughly the same diameter as the tree tap. You lightly hammer the tap in the tree and hang a bucket on it, you could also run a hose from it to a bucket or like mentioned, some people use vacuum lines to suck it to the central location for collection/boiling. I will explain our personal set up, as that is what I am most comfortable and familiar with.
Collecting is primitive, old school and tiring. While running hoses to multiple trees, there is still a lot of buckets to collect, and this is just a small operation. There are roughly 80 taps in trees in various locations throughout the hardwoods, about 40 are run to a few barrels by lines, the other 40 each have their own bucket so depending on the type of day it was (how much the sap ran), it could mean collecting twice throughout the day to prevent overflowing the buckets. So by use of heavy machinery carrying the large barrels, each small bucket is emptied into larger barrels, which get taken to the central boil location. That’s where the fun starts.
The boil pan is a roughly 6’x4’ stainless steel pan with 6 inch high walls. The sap gets poured through filters into the pan, the fire is started under the pan and voila, it comes to a boil. As it boils, you add more sap, it boils down some more, you add more sap…. you get the idea. Every so often, you’re scooping sap from the pan, running through a filter back into the pan and so on. The cleaner and more filtered you get it during the process, the easier it is to run through a filter before bottling as syrup. You boil and boil until you have no more sap to add. This is the point where you boil down to syrup. This is the time that some will get out their fancy hydrometers and start testing and testing as it boils down more and more. This is the most critical time as it only takes a minute for the water content of the sap to get dangerously low, and will burn so quickly you don’t have time to react. So put the fancy tools away, the tool used by this pro who has been perfecting the method for decades is a simple metal spoon. I am convinced its black magic. He simply dips the spoon, swirls it around in the boiling sap and lifts it to shoulder height above the pan, and watches how the syrup running off the spoon acts. It is that how he can tell when he has a suitable finished product, and the smell coming from the pan is so sweet, it’ll make your teeth hurt. The syrup slowly rolls off the metal spoon and hangs off of it, and drips. Yes! That’s it! A quick finger sweeps a little syrup off the spoon for the taste test and a nod to confirm we have another successful batch. We pull the pan off the fire as to prevent burning, open the tap and let the syrup run out of the pan, through a filter, into a bucket.
The bottling process is the most fun. You pour the filter syrup into a little pitcher to make pouring into the final bottle a little easier. It’s a sticky mess but well worth it. After bottling if the weather stays consistent, you can do many boils and many bottling sessions until the weather gets too warm, the buds start arriving on trees and that is when you pull the taps for another year. After all these years, I really feel that it has become a pastime, the experience. Most of the syrup is given to friends and family as gifts, it is always well received. I like to do it for the personal satisfaction and seeing such a long process, which requires so much attention, come to such a delicious end.
Growing up in the Niagara region, the only experience I ever had was going to the “sugar bush”. All I remember is eating pancakes and not really seeing how it is done, nor did I seem to care. As an adult, I really appreciate all the hard work (and of course, why it’s so damn expensive to buy). I really appreciate the things I have learned and really hope my kids can grow and learn as I have over past few years.