Sweet start

Lifestyle, Outdoor

As sugaring season begins, maple syrup producers prepare
for the sweetest sign of spring 

By Larry Clow, photos by Chloe Kanner

Maple syrup is simple and sweet, an unpretentious, one-ingredient confection. Its folksy image isn’t artifice — the way syrup is made now is the way it’s been made for centuries. The tools might be a little fancier and the operations might be a little bigger, but it’s still largely the same.

The amber elixir may be the most quintessential New England product — underneath its deceptively uncomplicated exterior is a wealth of complex processes. The Sound got an up-close look at the start of sugaring season on a recent Saturday when we followed Josh Bouchard of Spring Harvest Maple Farm in Barrington as he tapped his trees.

What does it take to set up a sugaring operation? For a small-scale producer like Bouchard — he has 900 taps — it requires some engineering know-how, a working knowledge of physics and forestry, a little chemistry and culinary flair, a few marketing skills, a network of friends and neighbors, and old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.

Bottles of NH maple syrup

“There’s a lot of science involved in sugaring,” he said. “I’m interested in farming, but I live on a one-acre lot. (Maple sugaring) keeps me outside, and it’s something I can do where I live.”

Bouchard is 35. A civil engineer by day, he runs his maple syrup operation on nights and weekends. He became interested in sugaring when he was in high school — as a student at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, he worked in the school’s sugar house and tapped trees. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, he experimented with making his own syrup, and, in 2009, Bouchard decided to go all in. He tapped 300 trees and thought he’d make some 20 or 30 gallons of syrup. Instead, he made about 80 gallons.

“It blew me away. We were busy and we sold a lot of syrup and it was really nice. So I just kept going.”

Those 300 taps soon became 900 taps, supplemented with 700 taps worth of sap Bouchard buys from friends and other folks who tap their trees but aren’t otherwise in the syrup game. It’s a small operation, he said — some New Hampshire producers have thousands of taps. But it’s enough to keep him busy.

Sweet heart
Bouchard runs a sugarhouse behind his house in Barrington, but the heart of his efforts is in the woods. On a side road just off Route 125, Bouchard oversees the taps on 900 trees spread over 15 acres, going down into dips and up steep hills. His trees run between two properties, and Bouchard has become friends with both property owners. The taps are hooked up to a tubing system made up of three tubes — one for sap, one for a vacuum, and one back-up line — that connect to a wooden box housing a pump, water tank, and vacuum. The syrup flows from the taps to the pump and into a silver tank.

Bouchard can normally tap his trees in two days, but the deep snow has made it more difficult this year. He started tapping on Feb. 28, but spent much of that first weekend digging out his lines. Dressed in snow pants and snowshoes, and armed with a bright orange hammer, cordless drill, and a plastic bag full of spouts, he goes from tree to tree, finds a new spot for a tap, drills a one-inch hole, and hooks a tap up to the tubing lines.

Setting up a system like Bouchard’s requires some engineering know-how, along with some forestry knowledge to give the trees enough room and remove maples that are too close to one another. In the sugarhouse, Bouchard uses a reverse osmosis machine to remove about 75 percent of the water from the sap, which reduces the amount of wood needed to fuel the evaporator.

For sap to flow, you need “freezing nights and warm days,” Bouchard said. Sap flows in relation to atmospheric pressure. As long as the pressure in the tree is greater than the barometric pressure outside, the sap will run. The vacuum system helps speed up the natural flow, drawing sap out from trees that might be yielding low amounts of sap.

Maple syrup season has begun in NH. Josh Bouchard of Spring Harvest Maple Farm in Barrington, NH taps a tree.Josh  Bouchard taps a maple tree at Spring Harvest Maple Farm in Barrington.

On an average day, each tap produces a gallon of sap, which flows into a collection tank. From there, it’s transferred to a tank on the back of Bouchard’s red pickup truck to his sugar house a few miles away, where it’s pumped into the evaporator, boiled, and transformed into syrup.

That’s where chemistry comes in. Sap is 2 percent sugar and 98 percent water. The sugaring process involves removing the water and caramelizing the sugar. Syrup is 67 percent sugar and 33 percent water — boiling the sap removes the water and caramelizes the sugar.

The amount of sap it takes to make a gallon of syrup varies depending on when it’s collected. At the beginning of the season, it takes about 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. By the end of the season, that number goes up to about 75 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup.

And then there’s the marketing and business end of sugaring, because not even syrup can sell itself.

But, for Bouchard and the hundreds of other maple syrup producers in New Hampshire, that’s the beauty of syrup. It can be as complex as an expansive tubing system, or it can be as simple as drilling a hole and hanging a bucket from a tree. “You can determine how complex you want to make it,” Bouchard said. “You still make syrup in the end.”

Making the grade
Though you may have been too focused on your pancakes and waffles to notice, every bottle of pure maple syrup produced in the U.S. and Canada carries a grade. That’s how syrup producers classify their products — the grade lets consumers know the color and flavor of syrup they’re using. But, until 2013, each syrup-producing state used its own grading system. So did Canada. That’s why a light amber syrup in New Hampshire might have been called “fancy” in Vermont.

In 2013, the International Maple Syrup Institute, a Canadian-based nonprofit that promotes maple syrup production and sets industry standards, adopted new standardized grades for syrup. Vermont implemented them in 2014, and consumers will see them in Maine, New Hampshire, and New York beginning this year. Canada adopted the new grades in 2014, but maple grading laws vary by province — Quebec and Ontario, for example, have not adopted the grades.

Grade A Golden: A lighter-colored syrup that is sweeter, but with a more subtle maple flavor. (Formerly known as: Grade A Light Amber)

Grade A Amber: Darker and more maple-y than golden syrup. A classic variety found on most breakfast tables. (Formerly known as: Grade A Medium Amber)

Grade A Dark: This grade has a “robust” maple flavor. (Formerly known as: Grade A Dark Amber)

Grade A Very Dark: The strongest of the syrups. Darker than a dark forest on a moonless night. Recommended for cooking, though those with hearty palates may enjoy it on pancakes. (Formerly known as: Grade B)

Sweet statistics
3,167,000: Total gallons of maple syrup produced in the U.S. in 2014