The first step is to identify the Maple trees to be tapped. Most members of the Maple family produce maple syrup. The favorite of sugarmakers is the Sugar Maple tree, also known as the Hard Maple tree. The reason for it being a favorite choice is that this species yields about 1 gallon of syrup for each 40 gallons of sap collected. The Red Maple tree, also known as the Soft Maple tree, is quite plentiful in many areas and produces quality maple syrup. However, the Red Maple tree yields 1 gallon of syrup for about 60 gallons of sap collected. This translates into 50% more water to be boiled away by the sugarmaker.
Each spring beginning in late January, sugarmakers closely watch the weather conditions in anticipation of the start of maple syrup season. Freezing nights followed by daily temperatures of 32F+ cause sap to flow in the maple trees. These oscillating temperatures are needed to maintain a good sap flow. Temperatures that remain warm cause the trees buds to open, which in turn causes the sap to become off-flavored. This change marks the end of the syrup season for another year. The season typically lasts for approximately six weeks. If the sugarmakers tap too early or too late, it results in reduced maple syrup production. The sugarmaker must rely upon their experience and weather forecasts to choose the optimum time to tap trees.
Once the sugarmakers have determined that it is time to start tapping, they begin by drilling a 5/16" hole about 2" deep into the tree. A plastic tap (spout) is then inserted into the hole. Trees bigger than 12" in diameter receive one tap while those 24" in diameter might get two taps. Much larger tree might receive 3 or 4 taps. Tapping trees with this conservative plan assures that the tree is not harmed by the loss of the sap. After the season is over and the taps have been removed, the tree will seal up the hole on its own and will be healed & closed within 12 to 18 months. New holes are drilled in the tree at different locations each year.
After the Maple trees have been tapped, the taps are connected together using plastic tubing. The tubing then gets interconnected using increasing sizes of tubing. The tubing is continually run downhill until it reaches the sugarhouse. A vacuum pump is connected to the system to aid in the flow of the sap toward the sugarhouse. Once the sap reaches the sugarhouse, it is filtered and put into storage tanks awaiting the boiling process. The sap at this stage is approximately 1.5% to 2% sugar.
The gathered sap is sent through a Reverse Osmosis (RO) Filter. The RO system pumps the sap at very high pressure into a membrane style filter. The high pressure forces water to pass through the membrane and exit the system. Approximately 2/3 of the water can be removed from the sap during this process. This dramatically reduces the amount of boiling that still needs to be done. Reduced boiling translates into reduced energy costs for the sugarmaker. The sap exiting the RO is between 10% and 12% sugar.
After leaving the RO machine, the sap enters the evaporator. The evaporator is a stainless steel box with maze-like partitions inside. The evaporator sits on top of a firebox known as the arch. The arch can be fueled with wood, fuel oil, or even natural gas. In the evaporator, the sap is boiled to remove water until it reaches 67% sugar. At this point it is maple syrup and it is drawn off the evaporator into a holding tank.
Maple Syrup that has been drawn off the evaporator is sent through a bank of filters into a device known as a filter press. Filtering removes fine particles called sugarsand or nitter from the syrup. These particles are a natural part of the syrup and are a result of nutrients from the trees coming undissolved. These particles are not harmful, but removing them produces a crystal clear maple syrup.
The syrup is reheated to 145F or higher for packaging into their retail containers. The high temperatures ensure a sterile container. The Maple Syrup does not contain enough moisture at this point to mold or spoil. It has an indefinite shelf life until opened. After opening, it is recommended that pure Maple Syrup be refrigerated until it is used up. Remaining in the refrigerator for many months may cause sugar crystals to form in the bottom of the container. This does not harm the Maple Syrup and is actually an indication of quality Maple Syrup that is extra thick due to a high sugar concentration.
At bottling, most Maple Syrup is graded by color. The possible grades are A Light Amber, A Medium Amber, A Dark Amber, Grade B or Grade A Extra Dark, Commercial Grade. Each grade is darker then the grade before it. In general, the color is an indication of the strength of the maple flavor found in the syrup. Traditionally, the darker the syrup, the stronger the flavor. However, the use of air injectors on the evaporator to speed the boiling process results in lighter syrups with the same rich maple flavor. Customers are encourage to discuss the type of flavor that they desire with the sugarmaker. They can select the perfect, pure Maple Syrup to meet your needs.