Tapping maple trees in the first step in the process of making maple syrup. Tapping has to happen at that just-right Goldilocks time between winter and spring, when everything starts melting and temperatures aren’t extremely cold but also not too hot, so the sap will flow. Maple sap is at its peak when frigid nights yield to sunny, above-freezing days over the course of several days. Sap is then boiled down — using a large pot over a hot stovetop at home, or state-of-the-art equipment in sugar houses for larger operations — until the water evaporates, sugar concentrates and caramelizes into the amber ambrosia: maple syrup.
Maple syrup has long been important to New England. The Native Americans of the Northeast started preparing maple syrup by dropping red hot stones into vats of sap. They used the sweet syrup as an all-purpose seasoning and preservative. European settlers soon got wise to the technique, but had the advantage of iron kettles for boiling. Maple syrup was much cheaper and easier to get than imported cane sugar (and, in my non-historical opinion, more delicious).
Though Vermont is often considered New England’s maple syrup powerhouse, Maine has a long history and tradition of making maple syrup. In fact, the Maine Maple Producers Association maintains the most stringent regulations for the production and grading of maple syrup. Maine state law dictates that all syrup made and sold in the state must be U.S. Grade A, guaranteeing a consistency of flavor and quality. Maine makes more than 575,000 gallons of syrup every year, generating more than $27 million for the economy and supporting more than 560 jobs.
The video for this story was filmed last week before Maine had its first confirmed case of coronavirus. Maybe it will inspire you to tap maple trees in your own backyard (outdoor activities are still sanctioned, after all, even if gatherings over ten people are discouraged). Or, maybe it will just provide you with a moment of laughter and learning as we wait for life as we knew it to start up again.
Learning to try
In order to find an expert maple tree tapping mentor, I reached out to Kathryn Hopkins, Maine’s maple syrup master, and asked her if there was anyone near Bangor who could show me the ropes. She recommended Len Price, the owner of Nutkin Knoll Farm in Newburgh.
Len happily took me up on the offer. Of course, not knowing the first thing about maple syrup season, I called him in January, so we set a date on the calendar weeks later in March, at the beginning of maple sugaring season.
When the day finally arrived, Len greeted my photographer, Linda O’Kresik, and me when we pulled up to his driveway. He explained to us that Nutkin Knoll was named after the Beatrix Potter’s character Squirrel Nutkin, the mischievous dancing and riddling rodent, which his son adored growing up. Over the years, he said people from far and wide have sent his family Squirrel Nutkin paraphernalia after coming to his farm.
Len and his family have owned their farm in Newburgh for decades, and have been tapping maple trees almost as long, though their operation has grown considerably since they first started. As a former science teacher, Len loves teaching curious kids about the processes behind harvesting the raw materials and making maple syrup, which he usually gets to on Maine Maple Sunday. Unfortunately, since the taping of this, the Maine Maple Producers Association said earlier this week that the 37th annual Maine Maple Sunday has been postponed as a precaution against COVID-19.
Donning his science teacher hat, Len gave me a brief science lesson about maple tree tapping in his sugar shack, where he normally boils down the sap to make syrup. He showed me how tapping a tree causes scarring, but how smaller taps can reduce the damage to trees over time. He also showed me how much water is removed from maple sap over the process of turning it into syrup — maple sap is only about two percent sugar, so it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
Len also showed me the different colors of syrup, from a light, golden syrup you could look through like glass to a rich amber syrup that was nearly opaque. Apparently, these different colors can depend on the soil, terrain, weather and timing of harvest — sort of like grapes for wine — though, he admitted, the exact formula for maple syrup color is still something of a mystery.
After our impromptu class, we picked up a pair of buckets (I gravitated towards the vintage-looking white wooden bucket, though it was a little dusty); the metal taps known as “spiles” that we would hammer into the tree to get the sap; and a hand auger with a small bit to drill the hole into the tree.
Then, we took a bucolic walk through Nutkin Knoll and headed towards the maple tree grove.
A trying experience
Of course, Len doesn’t hand tap all of his maple trees. He has nearly 2,000 trees that he produces maple syrup with every year, and hauling all that sap up and down the hills of his property would make the task near impossible. Instead, he uses a combination of sturdy plastic tubes, gravity and vacuums to gather sap from all his trees into a tank at the bottom of his grove.
I knew this, and still, I was blown away by the intricate network of tubes that Len had set up in his sugarbush when I saw it in person. He is a relatively small sugaring operation, and still, the set up looked like something out of science fiction.
Len said that school groups will often come to his farm on field trips. As someone from away who took field trips to museums and colonial reenactment centers, I was suddenly very jealous, much like I was when I made butter for the first time.
Len showed me the tank where sap gathers from the network of maple trees. I was surprised that the sap was clear. Even though I knew the sap still had to be caramelized, for some reason, I still had a mental image in my head of delicious amber syrup flowing straight from the trees.
We set off to find a tree that would be good to tap. It had been cold for the past few days, so Len we should hike up a hill on his property to get to a section of his forest he said is usually warmer than the rest of the forest. I was skeptical — in my experience, the higher you go, the colder you tend to be — but he was right. I guess there is something to knowing the microclimates of your land.
After Len picked a big, relatively unscarred tree with a sunny south facing side, we checked for spots where the trees had been tapped previously to make sure we weren’t trying to extract sap from an empty artery.
Then, Len demonstrated how to drill a hole in the tree with the hand auger by steadying it on my hip or stomach and cranking in with a simple push-pull motion using both hands. After giving it a shot on my hip, I ultimately chose the stomach method (I’m not too proud to admit that there is a little more cushioning there). Using the hand auger was a little like patting my cushioned belly and rubbing my head at the same time, but eventually, I got the hang of it. It reminded me of using the auger to drill a hole for ice fishing — only, horizontal.
Then, I hammered the spire gently into the tree. Len said the sound of hammering would change when I got to the depth I needed. I listened: tap, tap, tap…then, thunk!
Tragically, though, the sap wasn’t flowing. Len and I hung one of the buckets on the spire, put a cover on top to prevent debris from falling in and went off to try another tree. We crouched under lines exploring the forest until we found a red maple tree that Len liked.
I used all the skills I had just learned, even more confidently this time. Despite our best efforts though, we still had no luck.
It was still too cold, Len explained, but maybe it would warm up later in the day. He proposed we wait a while until the trees had a chance to sit in the sun — but then, suddenly, Linda received an urgent text message to return to the newsroom right away. Maine had just announced its first positive test for the coronavirus and she was needed to cover the breaking news.
Like with many things lately, it seems, our maple tapping adventure was cut short. Len and I bumped elbows and I thanked him. He joked that I was ready to be hired out for my maple tapping skills. I laughed, and promised I would be back soon. Maple sugaring season has just begun, after all.
My tried-and-true takeaways
Tapping maple trees is fun and easy with a few specialized tools. Though the tubing operations are impressive and worth seeing, you don’t necessarily need a set up like Len’s in order to get a little bit of sap for your family to experiment with. Even though I wasn’t successful this time around, I am confident that I will be next time, when conditions are warmer.
If you have maple trees in your yard, tapping maple trees for sap — and preparing maple syrup as well — may be a great way to pass the time and bond as a family over the next few weeks of social distancing and self-isolation. If you don’t, though, I hope you enjoyed this column as a way to vicariously experience the weird and wonderful process of tapping maple trees. We will all get together soon enough to celebrate this hallowed Maine tradition. Trust me, I’ll be there.