With Maine Maple Sunday just around the corner on March 25, dozens of sugarhouses throughout the state are preparing to open their doors to the public and share their love of everything maple, from syrup to some truly inventive maple-based products.
Maple syrup is certainly the product of the day, but many producers don’t stop there. To diversify their offerings and stretch their sap supply, sugarhouses offer a variety of value-added maple products, from cotton candy to barbeque sauce, and the selection is only growing.
“We try to make quite a few different things to accommodate different tastes,” Lyle Merrifield, owner of Merrifield Farm in Gorham, said. “For smaller producers, it certainly makes for good use of our syrup.”
Merrifield is serving as president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, which organizes Maine Maple Sunday each year and releases an online map of all the participating locations. This year nearly 100 producers have signed up for the statewide event.
Like many of his fellow maple producers, Merrifield opens Saturday and Sunday of Maple Weekend, which this year is March 24 and 25. The value-added products he’ll offer include maple cream and butter, maple ice cream and — an all-time favorite among young customers — maple cotton candy.
In addition, the farm’s syrup is used to make a seasonal beer. Brewed by Lone Pine Brewing Company in Portland, the Maple Sunday Breakfast Brown Ale is in its third year of production, and in response to demand, the brewery created a bigger batch of it than ever before.
“We used tons of syrup to make sure we maintained a lot of that flavor,” Lone Pine Brewing Company co-owner Tom Madden said. “We added lactose to keep the sweetness up, and we built the malt bill around the flavor profile of syrup so the flavors meld together.”
In the first year of producing the maple ale, the brewery made 155 gallons and sold out in one day. For the second year, they doubled the batch. And this year, they made six times as much, producing 1,890 gallons of the maple ale to be distributed to stores throughout Maine for the entire month of March. In the Bangor area, these stores include area Hannaford supermarkets, Damon’s Beverage in Bangor and Stomper’s Wine and Beverage in Holden.
“Our mission is to put it in the hands of everybody,” Madden said. “In the beginning, the beer was a way for us to be a part of this Maine tradition. Now, hopefully, we can use it as a platform to promote the event as well.”
Meeting the maple demand
Maple whoopie pies, maple-coated peanuts and maple candies will be among the offerings at Dunn Family Maple in Buxton on Maine Maple Weekend. And new this year, the sugarhouse is offering maple jelly — just one more product for their customers to enjoy.
For the Dunns, creating value-added products is a way to reach new customers and meet what they’ve experienced as an increasing demand for everything maple.
“The big thing that we push on our side of it is that [maple syrup is] a healthy sweetener,” Scott Dunn said.
Multiple studies show that maple syrup contains a variety of antioxidants, compounds thought to have multiple health benefits. Dunn thinks that may be one reason that he’s seeing an increase in demand.
Another aspect of maple that makes it a popular ingredient is the nostalgia and sense of place it evokes, according to Dana Masters, who uses Maine maple sugar and syrup to produce a number of culinary products for his business Beast Feast Maine Inc.
“It’s a very popular sugar,” Masters said. “The flavor is definitely New England, and it goes really well with my products.”
With maple sugar from Kinney’s Sugarhouse in Knox, Masters creates a maple chipotle spice rub that’s great for mixing with ground meat or sprinkling onto popcorn. He also makes a maple bourbon spice rub and two varieties of maple barbeque sauces.
Another small Maine business that embraces maple is Captain Mowatt’s, a family-run business from Portland that’s known for its unique hot sauces. Sourcing maple syrup from a number of sugarhouses throughout Maine, the company uses it as a key ingredient in its spicy “Crapple” finishing sauce, which also includes apples and cranberries.
Ever experimenting with Maine-made ingredients, the company’s owner, Dan Stevens, remembers the sauce’s debut at the Bangor Flower Show over 10 years ago.
“I was a little concerned because it’s on the milder side, and people step up to a hot sauce booth with certain expectations, but it went well, and it has sold well ever since,” Dan Stevens said.
Other inventive value-added products made in Maine include maple salsa made by Todd’s Salsa in Bangor, a sparkling maple wine made by Tree Spirits Winery in Oakland and Maple Pepper seasonings, produced in Newcastle.
Gearing up for Maple Sunday
In Maine, maple sugaring season is short and sweet. Traditionally, it begins in mid- to late February, when producers tap their trees. Then they wait for the sap to flow, and this depends on temperature. In general, sap flows best when the trees freeze at night and thaw during the day. And this year, the cold temperatures in early March have put Maine sugarhouses behind.
“The season this year hasn’t done a lot for us yet,” Merrifield said. “We anticipate sap flow by the end of the week, but it’s just been too cold. Most people in the southern part of the state are about three weeks behind.”
Nevertheless, Merrifield is optimistic. Looking at the forecast for warmer weather in the week ahead, he thinks sap will start flowing soon enough. And if it doesn’t, most sugarhouses have plenty of surplus maple syrup and products from last year to supply customers on Maine Maple Sunday, he said.
“For our sugaring business, Maine Maple Sunday is huge,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to put a percentage on it, but the biggest part of our mapling business is done in those two days.”
To learn more about Maine Maple Sunday, visit mainemapleproducers.com, where a map of participating locations is available.