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Saturday, February 9, 2008

MAPLE SYRUP SEASON

If you should one day happen to receive a jar of Maple Syrup harvested from the sugars of Howell Living History Farm (and you're a hypochondriac), you may ask yourself, "I wonder if the equipment used to boil down all this syrup was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected beforehand?"

Rest easy. I spent several hours yesterday scrubbing down the metal and aluminum parts of the evaporator in which every 40 gallons of sap will burn to a single gallon of syrup. I used a mixture of warm water and white vinegar, and those scruffy, scratchy green pads I associate with doing dishes in the kitchen sink. During most of my labors I was all alone in an old barn, just me and the metal and my thoughts. It was very Zen.

Jim, one of the expert farmers around here, explained to me there's a window of about 8 to 10 weeks -- starting about now -- in which the trees can be harvested for sap. It depends on the weather. I'm not certain I understand all this precisely, but here's what I think I know:

Sugar-laced sap will start pumping up from the roots of the maple trees to the limbs and branches and finally the new buds at the first signs of spring warmth and sunshine. But if the sap were to stay in the new buds all night when the temperature drops back below 32 degrees, the buds will freeze and burst. So on cold nights trees pump their sap back down their trunks. It's this pumping -- up during the day's warmth and down during the night's cool -- that enables farmers to siphon the sap from the outer layers of the tree for use in making syrup.

And what can happen during an unseasonably warm winter such as the one we are now experiencing in New Jersey?

If spring comes early and fast and the temperatures rise and stay high even at night, the trees will pump all their sap from roots to bud early on. The buds will hold the sap and mature quickly. At that point, the trees will shut down their sap pumps, and the year's tapping will be over prematurely, resulting in a poor harvest and less syrup.

In the next few days, however, according to weather.com, the temperature is supposed to drop back down again, to the lows 20s at night, and then up to the 40s during the days. Could be good news for all the syrupheads out there.

5 comments:

Chris said...

Unseasonably warm winters seem to be the root of all evil -- with the potential to cause anything from syrup shortages to low snowpack levels out here in the West (resulting in water shortages later in the year). I guess we'd better enjoy it while it lasts.

Dani said...

Why do we only make syrup from sugar maples? I would like some birch syrup.

Jared Flesher said...

The reason you see Maple Syrup and not Birch Syrup when you go to the grocery store is because Sugar Maple sap has the highest concentration of sugar in it, meaning you need a mere 40 gallons of it to burn down to a gallon of syrup. But I asked Farmer Jim and he said you can make syrup out of all kinds of sap if you're willing to deal with ratios of 80 gallons to 1 or worse. (Meaning, among other economic calucations, you would need to use twice as many sap pails, haul twice as much weight to the sugar shack, and use twice as much firewood to produce every gallon.) Jim said he's tried several different varities of syrup in his day (he mentioned hickory as one) and that they each have very distinct tastes.

Dani said...

Thanks for doing that bit of research. Now I *really* want to know what birch syrup tastes like.

Anonymous said...

Next time I pour some pure maple syrup on my pancakes, I will be sure to appreciate every drop.

I bet the price of a barrel of pure maple syrup is much higher than a barrel of crude oil these days, and much deservedly so!

For Dani, who would like some birch syrup; I think birch beer is made from birch trees by boiling the twigs.