Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mountainside Maple Sugaring

     My father-in-law is a retired engineer who spends the majority of his time at his mountain retreat, hunting, fishing, and working hard to prepare for sugaring season. I wish I could tell you more about how hard he works repairing lines, fighting with the weather, and chopping wood. A better kid would know and might even offer to help. Somehow he still smiles when we he gives us our yearly gallon, and black fly season aside, I think he enjoys his time alone in the woods.

Dave's design/build sugar house

     You must've heard by now that mountain living is bit different from your standard country living. Loretta Lynn still gets airtime, right? Well, there's no electricity here, although some people have wind turbines and solar panels, as well as gas lights. We're talking outhouse life. Roads turn into trails that are only accessible with snowmobiles or skis in the wintertime, and everything becomes impassible as the  mud takes over in the springtime. School bus deer camps, cooking kettles hanging from chains, huge deer fences around gardens, and the steady hum of buckshot. Paradise or Hell, depending.

Beaver dams abound up here

A house down the mountain; I think I want to live here. Those black dots make up a sweet little container garden that got blown over in the high winds. Notice the covered bridge over the creek bed. Perfect place to sleep.

     This was my second trip up to camp this season. The first time the sap wasn't running because the nighttime temperatures were too high (sap runs best when the nights are cold and the days are warm.) This time around we had a different issue; a recent cold snap froze all of the sap in the tank, and although we were expecting the weather to warm up, the wind really kept things in check. We had to thaw the sap with boiling water so that the boiler would fill before dark.

   A web of sap lines work their way down the sugar bush to the mainline that fills this outdoor tank. From the inside of the sugar house, the quantity of sap in the tank can be read right through a window. My father in law keeps excellent records of the sap flow, sugar content, weather conditions and overall quantity and quality of syrup. Mostly he writes it on the walls inside the sugar house. The building is designed with a vent that opens via a hand crank, allowing the steam to escape. (My mother used to boil sap in our kitchen, until she ruined the walls - all for about 1/2 cup of syrup...)

     As soon as the sap began flowing freely from the outdoor tank into the boiler, it was time to fire up the stove. Maple syrup is 66 % sugar, and this sap was about 2.5 %. At 2 %, it takes 43 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. The higher sugar content meant that less sap would be needed - about 34 gallons per one of syrup.
     On a cold day like this one, it's really nice to be in the sugar house as it turns into a sweet smelling sauna.

     For all of that water to boil off takes a really long time. You're supposed to drink beer, I think. Personally, I could take pictures all day long without ever getting bored, but my nephew was losing his ten year old mind. My mother -in-law had told me that years ago everyone would boil hotdogs in the sap for lunch as well as eggs, which I brought along. Jack would've killed for a hotdog as he has no use for eggs. But he did peel one. There's a pond right outside the door that we were able to cool the eggs in, and then we stored them in the snow so that they couldn't float away. I thought they might have a hint of maple sweetness to them, but no such luck, they were pretty ordinary.

     The egg trick did not take much time. Severe boredom began to set in. Even the dog was bored. Jack and Georgia shared 2 cups of snow to pass the time.

     And then, it all happened. And by this I mean very slowly, and after a really long time. The sap began to thicken, and we all tried to stay out of the way while Dave made a draw. If you've ever made jelly or candy, you'll know about that visible moment when the liquid has evaporated enough water to change the sugar content and begin to congeal. You really have to master instinct and timing to recognize when to act, or else you'll get it all wrong. If you overdo it you can taste a smokiness in the syrup, aka: Bean Syrup. Only good for making baked beans.

     You may know that syrup is graded, and often times it continues to darken in color and gain a stronger maple flavor over the course of a season. This is usually weather related and is not set in stone. This year, for the first time ever, my father-in-law's total take was comprised of more than half 'Fancy' or Grade A Light Amber. I don't even remember the last time I tried Fancy, and I don't know anyone who buys it. But we have a whole entire gallon, and it is wicked, wicked good.

Fancy on the left, then medium amber and dark amber

     All of the syrup passes through a filter before being graded and packaged. This particular batch was Grade C, and therefore went into a 5 gallon bulk container for cooking. Most likely, whatever is left of the season up here will also produce Grade C, and after this container is full, Dave will call it quits.

     We finally made it to the good part. Sugar on Snow. Followed by shots of syrup. And then a long, bumpy car ride home.

    Here are our favorite things to do with maple syrup:
  • slushy spoonful out of jar from freezer 
  • drizzled over spoonful of peanut butter
  • mixed with cocoa powder on the stovetop to dip fruit in
  • pan fry tempeh in oil, then add a glug of syrup and a dash of soy sauce at the end to make a glaze
  • toss with carrots, salt, and a little oil before roasting
  • maple baked beans, good feta cheese, homemade bread, and salad = my favorite dinner
  • maple apple butter, maple pumpkin butter, maple sweet potato butter
  • thinned syrup with cardamom/ginger over fresh berries 


  1. Hi Jenn:

    What a great story to read. The pictures are wonderful and take us all back to Vermont. You can almost smell the boil through your images and writing. Next year, we will try to come back and help out Dave (dad, grandpa). Matt, Kandi, Noah, and Riley

  2. Yummmm! Fresh Maple Syrup! I can smell it now.
    Does anyone in your area try Birch syrup?

  3. Hi Jennifer: You made me remember way back when I lived in central Massachusetts on the side of Mt. Wachusett. Two or three Sap Houses in town and our favorite fishing hole had a beaver dam. Nice post and thanks for the reminder it was great.

    Have a great evening,

  4. I prefer the really dark, smoky syrup. It is hard to find. Maybe it is because it is really that kind that is considered only good for beans ;)

    We used to collect sap from our huge maple tree in the yard when I was kid. We never made syrup from it, but we did filter it and drink it like koolaid!

  5. You take awesome pictures and tell a good story...I really enjoyed this post...

  6. Excuse me, I NEED lunch now! That was quite fascinating. Sadly, no maple syrup here. Diana

  7. Amazing! I've not had any experiences like that from Virginia or NC. :) Great pictures!

    I think we've lost a lot with modern media, though. No one told stories or sang songs while you sat around and waited for the sap to thicken? That's one of the Old Fashioned things I'm all about restoring - stories!

    Keep having amazing experiences!


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