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Maple syrup: The first harvest of the season

Ah, maple trees. As if they don’t give us enough in beauty, shade, and oxygen, they give us the equivalent of their blood when we tap into them for a bit of sap.

Between the depths of winter and the glories of spring, the sap begins to flow. Making maple syrup, while not easy, is simple: tap the trees, collect the sap, boil the sap until it turns into syrup. How people have done this for centuries is determined by their resources, inventiveness, and desire for sweetness.

Maple sugar hobbyist Karl Nocka shows off his Leader evaporator. (Photos by Jen Manell)

Virgil Bagdonas tends to upcycled sap-collecting containers. 

Harvard hobbyists participate in the harvest at their chosen levels of engagement and commitment.

Karl Nocka on Shaker Road has tapped 10 of his backyard trees for about 20 years. He credits local sugarmaker Jim Burns as his go-to source of information. Being outside was the attraction that drew him to this hobby.

His favorite tree, a magnificent specimen, hangs over his attractive hand-built sugar shack that houses a 2-by-3 foot evaporator. His evaporator resembles a wood stove with a pan-like apparatus on top for boiling the collected fluid. The clear fluid is poured into the top of the evaporator; as it flows through four lower sections, its color intensifies in gradations of golden brown, as its density and sugar content increases. With the last section drawn off, Nocka finishes boiling in the kitchen until a hydrometer, which measures the density of liquids, indicates the desired density at 66.6% sugar. Every five days or so, Nocka goes through this daylong process, feeding wood into the evaporator every 45 minutes. At the end of about three weeks, he has three to five gallons of syrup, enough for family and friends for the year.

Meg and Virgil Bagdonas have been tapping three or four of their backyard sugar maples on South Shaker Road for about seven of the 30 years they’ve lived in town. After they tap the trees, they hang clean and empty food-grade gallon containers, such as are used for milk, water, or vinegar. Virgil fashioned little protective roofs out of aluminum sheeting.

The amount of sap collected varies from year to year. The decision to boil depends on the amount of sap they collect, whether it’s worth the effort, and if they have the spare time.

Then Meg boils it down on the kitchen stove (steam fills the house, so it’s a good thing they don’t have wallpaper on their walls) until her instant-read thermometer reads 219 degrees. She has learned that a fast boil at a high temperature produces the dark amber taste she prefers. They end up with one or two quarts of syrup, enough for the year, stored in the refrigerator.

After a visit to Sap Castle, a third-generation family farm in Rutland, Gloria Pierce’s family on Stow Road was inspired to try tapping their two backyard red maples—their sugar maples not having grown to the 8- to 12-inch diameter recommended for tapping. But she found that, as has so often happened during this pandemic, supplies were sold out. She went on Nextdoor and, from a Bolton resident, acquired a sap bucket that was once owned by his Quebecois grandfather who had been a sugarmaker.

Their trees yielded about four gallons of sap by the weekend of March 13-14. On a recent Sunday at about 2 p.m., they began boiling the sap in a lobster pot on the outdoor grill burner, without stirring, and adding two inches of sap at a time as the water boiled away. A few hours later, the weather turned cold and windy, so they finished boiling it in the kitchen, tasting periodically and determining by taste that it was done by around 6 p.m. They concluded that syrup from red maples had a somewhat different taste than syrup from sugar maples but was just as sweet. The yield was enough for a week of pancake breakfasts for the family of four.

Jim Burns: A maple syrup maker’s journal

Sunday, Feb. 28

Six a.m. It’s 28 degrees Fahrenheit, overcast with a weak sun, snow on the ground insulating the tree roots. By noon it is 43 degrees—perfect weather for the sap to flow.

Head out to Maple Lane in Shaker Village, to tap trees at the edge of the field. Use a 5/16 inch bit in the yellow battery-operated drill. Don’t drill near last year’s tap, though. Insert a little spout called a spile into the wound. The sap bursts out and flows immediately. Hang a white plastic bucket on the spile, place a little metal roof over the bucket to keep out snow and rain, and then listen to the sound of drip, drip, drip. A beautiful maple day.

Monday, March 1

Intermittently sunny and cloudy, in the 40s during the day, 30s at night.

Warmer temperatures, above freezing, cause pressure to develop in the tree. When the trees’ internal pressure is greater than the outside atmospheric pressure, the sap will flow out of the spile. When the temperatures drop to freezing, the tree’s internal pressures drop and a suction is created that causes the tree to absorb water through its roots. This process continues throughout the 4-6 week sugaring season until temperatures remain warm and the trees bud out.

Tuesday, Wednesday, March 2 and 3

Freezing temperatures days and nights, windy all day Tuesday. If these freezing temperatures continue, the run of sap will be halted.

Thursday, March 4

Freezing temperatures.Throw out the ice in the buckets. It is the water in the sap that freezes.

Friday, March 5

The contents of the buckets and the shiny stainless steel tanks are frozen. No sound of dripping into the buckets or the resonant stainless steel tanks.

Saturday, March 6

Sunny, freezing temperatures. A single-file line of small paw prints is visible in the snow, the signature of a fox.

The water in the buckets and collection tanks is frozen. Break up the ice in a tank and try pumping out the fluid under the ice. Pump isn’t working correctly. Water spews out of the pump. Scoop out the unfrozen liquid with a bucket and dump it into the big blue collection barrels in the van. Go home, fix the loose fasteners on the pump, and go out again to collect sap from other tanks, except for the one that is inaccessible because of ice on Maple Lane.

Sunday, March 7

Sunny and cold. Approximately 270 gallons of fluid collected this week. Run fluid through a reverse osmosis machine to separate water and concentrate the sap. Fire up the evaporator. Boil about 150 gallons of sap in the afternoon for about 1¾ hours.

Amount of product today: a half gallon of maple syrup.

Editor’s Note: Jim Burns, a local producer of maple syrup, let the author accompany him to observe tree-tapping and sap collection and answered many questions while tromping through the snow. Burns sells his syrup at Westward Orchards—the store reopens June 1. Syrup can also be ordered directly by calling 978-501-9205 or emailing fasteners.

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