Posts Tagged ‘maple’

Maple Syrup Season

McAllister's Sugar Shack and Farm Stand, Waterford, Maine

McAllister’s Sugar Shack and Farm Stand, Waterford, Maine

Because Maine’s famous Maple Syrup Sunday falls the day before Pesach this year, I will already be back in my hometown.  On Maple Syrup Sunday, sugar shacks throughout Maine open their doors to the public for tours of their farms and syrup-making operations.  Besides free tastings (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried boiling maple syrup ladled on snow), they often have pancake breakfasts (not kosher) whose proceeds go towards local charities.

But the sugaring season started about a week ago, and it’s already possible to buy freshly made syrup from sugar shacks and farm stands, albeit without the bells and whistles associated with Maple Syrup Sunday.   Yesterday  was such a beautiful sunny day, I decided to visit 3 different sugar shacks and purchase syrup from each, since in any case the sugaring season is short and ideal weather conditions (cold nights and warm days) will not last forever!

You may be wondering, “Why go to more than one sugar shack?  Doesn’t all maple syrup taste the same?” but like wine, maple syrup varies in taste, quality and grade based on the location of the trees, weather, and technique.  Early in the season, the sap is lighter in color, with a more delicate, mild flavor (“Grade A Fancy: Light Amber).  A couple of weeks later, the sap’s color changes from light to medium amber, and is more viscous (Grade A: Medium Amber).  Towards the end of the season (2 – 6 weeks long, depending on weather conditions), the syrup is Grade B: Dark Amber with richer, more flavorful body – – a bit too strong for pancakes but suitable for use in baking.  Once the days warm up sufficiently for buds to appear on the maple trees, the season comes to an abrupt halt, as the formation of buds alters the quality of the sap dramatically.  Not only is the flow of sap greatly reduced, but it becomes bitter instead of sweet.

When I went to McAllister’s sugar shack in Waterford ME, I was pleasantly surprised by how light-colored the syrup was.  But unfortunately the price was prohibitive  – – $80 a gallon! – – so I settled for a quart for $20.  The proprietors – – like most sugar shacks, a family business and extension of their farm – – had been feeding the wood-fired stove and tending the evaporator for hours.  Steam rose in great billowy clouds to the top of the pine board interior of their large cabin-sized shack, perfuming the air with the scent of sweet maple.

Steam rises to the ceiling  from the evaporator in Mcallister's Sugar Shack

Steam rises to the ceiling from the evaporator in McAllister’s Sugar Shack (click to enlarge)

One of the men adds logs and stokes the fire that heats and boils the sap in the evaporator, eventually, turning it into syrup.

One of the men adds logs and stokes the fire that heats and boils the sap in the evaporator, eventually turning it into syrup. (click to enlarge)

The other two shacks I visited were not nearly as appealing.  One fellow’s trees had already budded, and his syrup was thick and dark as molasses.  It was fine for use in baking, but not so tasty for use on pancakes.  The other was producing the medium amber syrup, which is the most common grade available, but it could not compare to the syrup from McAllister’s shack.

When I returned from my syrup shopping excursion, my husband and I went on a hike through the woods on a snowmobile trail.  Although we heard several snowmobiles in the distance (they are really just glorified motorcycles on skis), none came our way.  The snow is melting quickly now with only about 4 slushy inches left on the ground – – we were glad we had carried our hiking poles to keep from slipping and sliding.  Although there are still ice fisherman out on the lakes, I keep wondering when I am going to hear about the inevitable shack that plunges into the water because its owner waited a little too long before spring melt to remove it.  Spring mud season is coming!  My Muck Boots stand at attention by the front door.

Muck Boots are de rigueur in Maine during mud season.  They are worn by farmers, woodsmen, and homemakers alike.  They are made of heavy rubber and neoprene and are completely waterproof (and are quite comfortable).  They are worth every penny - - you just hose them off when they get covered in mud and they are as good as new.

Muck Boots are de rigueur in Maine during mud season. They are worn by farmers, woodsmen, and homemakers alike. They are made of heavy rubber and neoprene and are completely waterproof (and are quite comfortable). They are worth every penny – – you just hose them off when they get covered in mud and they are as good as new. They also keep your feet nice and warm in cold weather.  They can take all kinds of abuse and seem to last forever.

Liquid Gold (part 2)

It’s Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!

Quebec, Canada is the world’s largest producer (80%) of maple syrup, followed by (in order) Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.  For most Maine farms, maple syrup production is a sideline, not a mainstay.  Balsam Ridge Farm’s main income is derived from its Xmas tree farm.

Evergreen seedlings. This is one small section of Balsam Ridge’s tree farm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Balsam Ridge’s venture into maple syrup production started out as a hobby, and kept expanding  to the medium-scale operation it is today.

Today Balsam Ridge taps 572 trees.  Although it still requires them to check the tap lines daily, their collection method is quite a bit more efficient than at Thunder Hill.  After the tap is inserted into the tree, it’s connected to gravity-fed, vacuum-sealed  PVC tubing which connects to a larger pipeline that snakes through the woods, down the hill into a pump, which in turn feeds it through more pipework right into the sugar house. There are two different tap lines serving two different areas of their woods; each tapline is about 1000′ long!   The Alaska pipeline might have “black gold” but Balsam Ridge’s pipeline contains “liquid gold” – many gallons of maple sap, collected drip by drip.  The owner of Balsam Ridge, Dewey Lloy, took us into his woods to demonstrate how taps are drilled,  inserted and connected to the pipeline.

Dewey Lloy, owner of Balsam Ridge, is equipped with all the tools he needs to tap maple sap: drill, hammer, spigot, pvc tubing, and a special tool to cut, separate and hold the tubing.

Owner Dewey Lloy, grasping a new spigot and tubing, shows how he will join it to the existing tubing network

Using a special tool, he cuts an opening into the tubing network to allow insertion of new tubing from a new tap. The tool also joins, clamps and seals the new tubing in place.

Now that the new tubing is secured to a main line, he can insert the tap

Drilling the new tap line, Mr. Lloy is careful to avoid areas of the tree that were tapped in years past.

Gently hammering the tap into the drilled hole

Now the new tap is connected to the tap line and will join the extensive tubing network to a central collection area

Note the various taps and tubing on multiple trees snaking their way through the woods to a central collection area. The taps and tubes will be removed when the 3-to-8-week sugaring season is over. (click to enlarge)

At the bottom of the hill, the gravity-fed taplines, filled with sap, reach a central collection area. This is then pumped to the main sugar house.

A close-up of the central collection tanks and pump that takes the sap to the sugar house

Another view of the collection center and pump

The sap at the bottom of the hill is pumped to this vat just outside the sugar house.  From here it travels inside the sugar house to the evaporators.

The Balsam Ridge sugar house.  The dense steam is from the sap boiling in the evaporators inside. At the tables on the right, guests enjoy a pancake breakfast with lots of – – you guessed it – – maple syrup. By the end of Maple Syrup Sunday, Balsam Ridge will serve thousands of pancakes to the public. (click to enlarge)

Inside the sugar house, the evaporator does its job, but on a large scale.  To increase efficiency so less sap will be lost to evaporation, they use reverse osmosis. The evaporator itself is oil-fired, which means the firebox doesn’t have to be continually stoked or watched, nor do they have to spend time cutting, hauling and stacking wood over the summer months.

Unfortunately I don’t quite remember if this is the huge holding tank for the evaporator or part of the oil-burning furnace

Lower half of chimney, which allows hot air and steam to escape

the chimney goes up, up, and out through the apex of the roof of the sugar house

part of the evaporator

Looking down into the evaporator, you see the three stages of boiling sap. The rightmost channel is sap that just started boiling, and still retains its clear color; the light amber color in the middle means the sap is a bit more cooked and starting to thicken; the leftmost channel is sap that has boiled the longest and is now a deep color, and just about the right consistency for maple syrup

Once the sap in the final channel reaches the proper temperature, color and consistency, it goes into this small holding tank to cool slightly, and await filtering

The syrup is filtered in small amounts from any small tree matter and to ensure a clean, clear syrup

I forgot what this machine does, but it has something to do with condensation and reverse osmosis!

A small amount of syrup is poured out into a bucket, to see if it is truly ready for grading and bottling

A small sampling of syrup is put into a clear glass bottle for grading for color and quality

Dewey Lloy, the owner of Balsam Ridge Farm, checks the sample bottle from the latest batch by comparing against other already-graded samples to get an idea of how to rate its quality and color. This batch was rated Grade A, Dark Amber.

The final step: bottling the still-warm syrup, sealing, and labeling. Then it’s off to the Balsam Ridge retail shop next door.

The increased efficiency of their evaporator means that they get a 4:1 ratio out of their sap-to-syrup production (for every 4 gallons of sap, they get 1 gallon of syrup.  From their 572 trees, they will get 150 gallons of syrup this year.  By contrast, the smaller and less sophisticated evaporator at Thunder Hill produced 1 gallon of syrup for every 10 gallons of sap, for a total output this season of only 35 gallons of syrup from 350 trees).

The Mr. Lloy said that his evaporator’s efficiency and size is only in the medium range.  On full-fledged sugar farms, the evaporators are much more complex, with many more bells and whistles, and super efficient, boosting production significantly.  The equipment costs are in the many tens of thousands of dollars.

Due to the increased efficiency and steady temperature of Balsam Ridge’s evaporator, they do not need to add fat to the fire to keep it from foaming or boiling over.  Therefore their maple syrup is both kosher and pareve.  They also whip  their maple creme on a dedicated machine, so that too is kosher and pareve.

Besides their retail store which sells their syrup (choice of light, medium or dark amber, all grade A) and maple creme, on Maple Syrup Sunday they make thousands of pancakes throughout the day so people can sample their syrup in a meaningful way (the pancakes are not kosher).

So is maple sugar always kosher?   My conclusion is that unless there is a hechsher (rabbinical certification) on the syrup you buy from a store, the only way to be sure it’s 100 % pure maple syrup with no additives is to visit a sugar house personally to observe production (the FDA does not require listing additional ingredients if the amount added is less than 2%).  In the case of smaller sugar houses, having a mashgiach to certify their product as kosher as a way of increasing marketability isn’t really practical, since their supply is in any case so limited and is usually sold out within days, and is barely profitable as it is.  Because production methods vary from sugar shack to sugar shack, unless you buy syrup with a hechsher or rely on the more lenient batul ba’shishim l’hatchila precept that allows for the addition of a small amount of additive, the only way to assure that syrup is 100% kosher and pareve is to personally visit a sugar shack on Maine Syrup Sunday on the fourth weekend of March.

I hope to see you next year!

(If anyone wants me to supervise, check out my “Bait Mooser” hechsher!)

The Moose-K


If Mainers were pagans, the preferred god of worship would certainly be the tree.  Here in the White Mountains, people live and breathe wood, be it pine, maple, oak, beech, birch, ash, hickory or larch.

This view was taken 10 minutes' drive from our home

It seems like everyone is in some way connected to wood:  foresters, woodsmen (loggers and sawyers), builders, carpenters, cabinet makers, fuel sellers (cordwood and pellets), landscapers (mulch), chimney sweepers, paper mill workers and artisans.    Property taxes are reduced significantly if one owns 10 acres or more under the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law, if one designates part of one’s land as forestland, used for growth of trees to be eventually harvested for commercial use and then replanted.

On a sunny day our solar panels generate 1200-1400 watts of electricity, usually adequate for our needs

I admit to feeling sad when we had to chop down so many trees (75 – 100) to prepare our building site.  And when we decided to use solar to power our home, it meant another 50 – 75 trees had to go:  their shadows were preventing the solar collector panels from doing their job.  But Mainers have no room for sentimentality, only sustainability.  Indeed, our downed trees provide a crucial resource that is the key to winter survival:  heat.

Make no mistake, a broken heating system in one’s house is treated like a 911 call by one’s heating contractor, because without heat, pipes freeze and burst, causing horrific flooding, damage and mold, not to mention the actual possibility of freezing to death in one’s own abode.  Heating contractors work under deplorable winter conditions, sometimes 25 degrees below zero, to restore heat to afflicted homes.  Summer homes, or “camps” as they are called locally, are big business for heating contractors who make part of their living shutting down seasonal homes for the winter (turning off water, draining pipes with air compressors and flushing them with antifreeze) and opening them up again in late spring.

Nearly everyone has at least two ways to heat their home, and most homeowners have backups to their backup systems, whether it’s wood, oil, propane, kerosene, or electricity.  But for economic and practical reasons, wood as a heat source is king.

We furnished our house cheaply (thank you craigslist) but we spared no expense on our soapstone woodstove.  The soapstone stays warm and radiates heat long after the last embers have cooled.  It is an airtight, high-efficiency stove that qualified for a 30% tax credit, and so far it seems well worth the cost.  It weighs 525 lbs and took three strong, struggling men to bring it into the house.

The woodsplitter in front of the woodpile next to the shed

Once all that wood was cut into logs and split, it had to be stored.

Splitting the wood

the massive and powerful gasoline-powered splitter, up close

I spent about 4 days stacking it into the woodshed.  It’s heavy, tedious work, but I kind of enjoyed it.  I have always admired a neatly-stacked woodpile, and there are many ways to stack and store the wood to maximize ventilation (good airflow so the wood can dry out) and weather protection (from snow, rain, animals and insects).  Besides the esoteric beauty of the pile’s pattern and design, and developing a healthy pair of biceps, stacking wood gave me a chance to think about all sorts of things (or not!) without distraction.  By the fourth day of this focused toil, I was convinced that we could lessen the affects of juvenile ADD by having schoolchildren stack wood for a couple of hours every day!

the now-split wood in front of our 12' x 16' woodshed (note the mezuzah!) Now it must be stacked, a log at a time, inside the shed.

At this point our woodshed is only 1/3 full; the wood is piled 6' high. Our Standard Poodle is wearing a blaze-orange bandana in case he is mistaken for a bear during hunting season - a genuine concern!