CANAAN, Maine — With tapped maple trees and roadside sap houses so common in Maine this time of year, one might arrive at the notion that making perfect maple syrup is easy.
You just boil it down, right?
Even when everything is done correctly, producing top-quality, Grade A, light-amber syrup is a bit hit-or-miss, said Ethan Robertson, who ought to know. He has been making syrup all his life, as did his father and grandfather.
“It’s easy to make syrup, but it’s hard to make good syrup,” he said on Maine Maple Sunday, the annual celebration of Maine’s maple syrup industry. “It’s all about the taste and color.”
Good sap starts with the weather, namely warm days and cold nights, and not just during sugaring season. The reasons different trees produce different tastes — and why the taste changes in the course of a season — are a bit of a mystery. Some producers have even tried to genetically engineer the perfect maple trees.
Once the sap drips from the trees — 40 gallons of it produces about a gallon of syrup — the process becomes a race against time. Ideally, said Robertson, it should be boiled the same day it is collected. Even that, which seems as simple as bringing the liquid to its boiling point, has its secrets.
“You need a good, hot fire,” he said. “You want to boil it down quickly. I think it tastes better that way, but everyone’s preference is different.”
The heat is precious, but the smoke is not. Some operations, particularly at-home hobbyists, don’t use stovepipes that are tall enough, and the smoke drifts back down and flavors the syrup. In a shed on the Robertsons’ 80 acres, the stovepipe rises a good 15 feet through the roof, and the wood that goes into the firebox under-neath is mostly hot-burning pine.
Once the sap is syrup, it takes an expert touch to filter it correctly, in Robertson’s case through three layers of special paper and a layer of felt. Watching the flow from the spigot out of the filter is the moment of truth. Is it Grade A light amber or some lesser variety?
Not that there’s anything wrong with darker, thicker syrup. Some people prefer a smoky, caramel taste, and plenty of that variety was flowing over ice cream, drenching homemade doughnuts and flavoring soda Sunday as dozens of people filed through the door for Maine Maple Sunday.
One of them was Liz Morse of Cape Elizabeth, who was on a tour of sugarhouses Sunday with her husband and their friends. The road trip has become a sweet tradition, she said.
“I’m buying some for my kids, who live out of state,” she said.
Emilee Robertson left the syrup talk to her husband, but not before ensuring that every guest was offered a sweet treat. Visitors showed their approval by walking out with jugs of syrup, Grade A and B. The Robertsons hoped to produce 40 gallons this year, but warm weather has slowed the sap’s fickle trickle, and they’ll be grateful for 30 gallons.
In southern New Hampshire, where Robertson’s father is making syrup as he has every year for decades, it has been the worst sugaring season in decades. Still, father and son have been in constant contact.
“I have to admit that I’ve talked to him more during the season than I do most other times,” said Robertson. “We’re comparing notes almost every day.”
Robertson, an insurance salesman by day, intends to keep his operation small with the annual goal of breaking even financially. Next year he’ll increase the number of trees he taps throughout the Canaan area to about 200, but he hopes the operation will be more centralized in the future. This year, he planted maple trees on his own property, perhaps for his two sons, one whose birth is due in about a month.
“Maybe in 30 years, they’ll be doing this, too,” he said.
On Maine Maple Sunday, syrup makers around the state welcome the public to view the syrup-making process and taste samples. Maine is the No. 2 syrup producer in the country, behind Vermont.
The event always falls on the fourth Sunday in March, but a number of sugarhouses were open Saturday as well.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.