On a mild Sunday afternoon in March, the air outside Ben’s Sugar Shack in Temple, New Hampshire, carries the late-winter fragrance of burning wood and wet earth. Visitors arrive by car, glancing around at the lean Granite State landscape. Once they head inside the weathered pine building, though, the air is so humid it’s almost tropical–steamy and dense with the scent of browned sugar.
There’s no mistaking sugar season in New England. It’s winter’s last great hurrah, spring’s first greeting. As soon as the days hit 40 degrees while the nights still dip below freezing, the bare sugar maples come to life. This species, distinguished by the relatively high sucrose level of its sap, even has “sugar” in its botanical name, Acer saccharum. The freeze/thaw/freeze temperature cycle of late winter causes that watery sap to flow, creating pressure within the tree. When someone bores into the bark, the sap runs out. With buckets and tubing, wood fires and state-of-the-art equipment, maple producers around New England are in a mad dash to boil off as much sap as the season will allow, producing our own kind of liquid gold.
At its core, the process is quite simple: reducing the sap by evaporation and caramelizing the sugar. But those classic metal sap buckets are almost a thing of the past. Many of today’s producers tap their trees with brightly colored poly plastic tubing that crisscrosses the bush, using vacuum pumps to draw the sap down to holding tanks. Then reverse osmosis removes about 70 percent of the water from the sap before it ever sees an evaporating pan, cutting back on fuel costs and reducing the carbon footprint of each shack. It’s not as picturesque as the old way, but the increased efficiency has given this flannel-and-workboots industry a boost. In 2011, New Hampshire’s production reached an all-time high of 125,000 gallons, and while favorable weather was the biggest factor in that record yield, technology let producers make syrup more efficiently and affordably.
“A lot of [the ingenuity comes from] sugarmen playing around in the backyard to find something that works,” says Ben Fisk, 24, who’s been making syrup for 19 years–since he was a kid–and is himself a fifth-generation sugarman. When Fisk’s grandparents tapped the maples, they mostly used metal buckets to catch the sap. Ben has always used tubing for the most part–about 90 percent of the maple syrup produced in New Hampshire is collected this way–and even that newer technology has improved in the last few years. Fisk now knows the ideal number of trees to pair with each line (two or three) for maximum output, and he has access to smaller “micro-spouts” that are gentler to the bark and let the tree heal faster at the end of the season.
He, too, uses reverse osmosis to squeeze water out of his sap, bringing the sugar content from 2 percent to 10 percent before it ever sees the evaporator. That way, Fisk needs just 12 gallons of reduced sap to create a gallon of syrup, compared with the 43 gallons required using the old methods. That means less time in the evaporator and less fuel burned.
But it’s not all about innovation and technology. The best sugar makers know how to read their woods and the lay of the land. They can tell by sight and smell when the sap is just right. For Fisk, maple culture was always all around. On a kindergarten field trip, he fell in love with “sugar on snow.” By his sixth birthday, his father had built a makeshift evaporator so that his son could stoke a little fire to boil his own. “He was pretty determined, sitting by that barrel,” recalls Wendell Fisk. At 14, Ben and his dad constructed a larger shack, which now holds his 4-by-12-foot wood-fueled evaporator. On a good day he can produce 600 gallons of syrup.
But in the end, Fisk knows that the best reverse-osmosis machine and the largest evaporator can’t trump unpredictable weather. Last year, a mild spring caused a short sugaring season, cutting production nearly in half. And global warming threatens the very existence of New England’s sugarbush landscape; warmer temperatures could push the maple forest farther north into Quebec, which already accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s maple-syrup supply.
But when asked about last year’s anemic season, Fisk shrugs, unruffled. “It’s all about Mother Nature,” he says, firm in his faith that cycles come and go. There’s always next spring. Meanwhile, enjoy these recipes for maple-rich meals from dawn till dusk, breakfast through dessert.