Experience maple sugar time in NH
Find out what’s on tap in March for sticky sweet family fun
This time of year, the telltale signs of maple sugaring season can be found almost anywhere you look in New Hampshire — from buckets and blue tubing on maple trees to sweet steamy smoke rising from sugarhouses. Close to 150,000 gallons of maple syrup are produced in the state each year, making the sweetener one of the New Hampshire’s prime agricultural exports.
Want to learn more about how your family’s favorite pancake topper makes its way from a tree to your table? Here are some maple-sugaring basics and a roundup of maple syrup-related events taking place this month.
A sweet history
Native Americans living in southeastern Canada and New England centuries ago were the first to discover that sap in maple trees could be boiled down into a sweet syrup and sugar. The syrup-making process they invented involved collecting sap in pots and boiling for hours over an open fire with fire-heated rocks placed in with the sap to help with evaporation.
French explorer Jacques Cartier first made note of maple sugar in 1540, and as European Colonial settlers began settling in the region in the 1600s, they became hooked. Maple sugar was an important bartering tool for Native Americans and an important form of income for the early colonists.
Over 400 years later, maple sugar is still a vital part of New Hampshire’s economy, and the process of making maple syrup and maple sugar is essentially the same. As trees begin to wake from their winter slumber, usually in mid-February, sap (aka, the fluid inside a tree that transports nutrients) begins to trickle. Drilling a small hole in the side of a sugar maple tree taps into this flow. As the temperatures warm in late February and March, the trickle turns into a steady “run” of sap. It’s collected by placing buckets at the tap holes or by rigging a stand of maple trees — called a sugar bush — with plastic tubing connected to a central tank.
The sap is poured into an evaporator, which looks like an open tank sitting on top of a firebox, where either oil or wood creates an intense fire. As the water in the sap evaporates, a thick amber liquid is formed. This is maple syrup. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
Continuing to boil the syrup causes it to crystallize into maple sugar. For many small maple producers, the evaporation process takes place in a separate building called a sugar house or sugar shack. You can usually smell a sugar house from yards away because of the sweet, steamy smoke released during the evaporation process.
Maple-sugaring season lasts until mid-April with the arrival of warm spring nights and bud development in the trees. As trees cycle into a time of rapid growth, the drilled tap holes heal over. One telltale sign that it’s time to take down the buckets? Old-timers call the last trickling of sap “frog run” because it coincides with the chirping of the spring peepers.
Want to learn more? And do some taste-testing? Maple events taking place include:
Charmingfare Farm’s Maple Express: In Candia, the Charmingfare Farm offers a 20-minute draft horse-driven wagon ride deep into the sugar bush to visit an authentic sugar shack. There, a professional sugar maker will teach kids and adults everything they need to know about tapping maple and all the equipment involved in sugar-making. The end of the trip includes a buttery silver dollar pancake topped with freshly made syrup. www.visitthefarm.com
Maple Sugar Madness: From tapping a tree to tasting delicious maple syrup, Prescott Farm in Laconia’s maple-sugaring program provides hands-on participation in every step of the syrup-making process. Environmental educators will help families build tree identification skills, learn the history of maple sugaring including Native American legends, and discover the math and chemical/physical science in the boiling process. Maple Sugar Madness takes place Saturdays, March 5, 12, 19 and 26; 10 a.m., noon or 2 p.m. http://prescottfarm.org
Maple Experience: At The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests invites participants to learn how to identify sugar maple trees, get hands-on practice with tapping and collecting syrup, and see the process of turning sap into syrup up close. Plus, there will lots of pancakes and syrup! www.therocks.org
Annual Maple Weekend: Sugar makers throughout New Hampshire invite visitors to stop by to learn more about the centuries-old craft of maple sugaring. Many sugar houses offer free samples of fresh syrup, as well as samples of maple candies and confections, coffee and doughnuts. Some locations even have pancake breakfasts, petting farms or horse-drawn rides. www.nhmapleproducers.com
Jacqueline Tourville is a longtime contributor to PNH.