MORRILL, Maine — As soon as visitors to Simmons & Daughters Sugar House pushed open the pine door on Sunday, they were caught up in billows of steamy, sweet-smelling maple syrup vapor that rose up from the giant wood-burning stove.
It was Maine Maple Sunday, and although the unusual March warm snap has curtailed syrup production across the region, the annual celebration was as delicious as the rich amber syrup that one of the Simmons daughters ladled over paper cups of vanilla ice cream.
“We’re happy,” Chris Simmons, the father and an owner of the enterprise, said as he greeted neighbors and newcomers who came in from the rain to the warm sugarhouse. “A lot of people are coming, despite the weather. We’re pretty excited about the turnout.”
The sugarhouse was one of 125 open around the state on the last Sunday in March which welcomed visitors to participate in syrup and candy sampling, demonstrations of making syrup, sugarbush tours and a variety of other activities, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.
A steady stream of visitors to the Simmons’ sugarhouse sampled syrup, breathed the perfumed air and watched as a young man slid long pieces of firewood into the red-hot stove.
It was Stephen Combes’ first time in a sugarhouse. The New Orleans native recently moved to Hallowell, and carried a glass jar of syrup under his arm.
“It’s really neat to see the process of how they do it,” he said.
Megan Saunders, originally of Napa Valley, Calif., but now living in Augusta, also had her first syrup-making experience.
“It’s awesome. It’s very modern, compared to what I was thinking,” she said.
While Saunders said she had imagined people hauling buckets of sap from the woods to a fireplace, the actual syrup-making process had a timeless feel.
Gallons of filtered sap flowed through pipes from a tank in the sugarhouse loft to the wood-burning evaporator. There, the clear, thin sap gradually became darker and thicker as it progressed through channels to a spigot on the far end where it emerged as syrup.
Simmons said that the warm snap has cut sap production to about half of what’s normal. This year, there are 700 taps placed in trees around the family farm, but the expectation is that they will generate much less syrup than last spring’s 150 gallons.
Other sugar makers, he said, have called the spring of 2012 the “worst of the worst,” when it comes to maple syrup.
“Last year was the best of the best,” he said.
Last year, Maine trees sported 1.47 million taps and produced 360,000 gallons of maple syrup, a 14 percent increase from 2010, according to a press release from the state. The latest yearly figures show that Maine generated nearly $13 million in revenue from the maple industry, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.
Maine was the third-largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S. in 2011, behind Vermont and New York.
But David Simmons, Chris Simmons’ own father and a longtime dairy farmer, said that the maple trees already have started to blossom after the unseasonable weather, which means the sap has stopped flowing.
“It just warmed up too fast,” he said. “It’s been cut short, I’ll tell you, by the weather.”
He said that it would stand to reason if maple syrup prices rise this year because the supply has significantly diminished.
Frank Walsh was another family member and commercial syrup maker from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He said that his season also was “very poor,” lasting perhaps three weeks instead of the usual four to six.
“Very bad for business,” he said succinctly.
But the short season did not diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the maple syrup.
Will and Charlene Childs of Carmel said that they had stopped in to check out Maine Maple Sunday, and liked what they found.
“It’s delicious,” Will Childs said around a bite of syrup-soaked ice cream. “It’s fantastic. It’s really fun, and it’s great to be out. It’s a beautiful part of the state.”