Maple Sugaring – A Rite of Spring

IMG_4657Spring is here with the calls of red-winged blackbirds, muddy roads and buckets hung on maple trees, which are tapped to collect their sweet sap. Although this winter was very mild, generally New Englanders wait a long time for spring to arrive. A blogging friend from California once commented, “I like the Northeast very much, but I’m astonished that people can maintain such patience and appreciation in living where winter has been so long and harsh.” I had to laugh because I myself often wonder about the state of my sanity living in this climate! Yes, we are a bit crazy to deal with the cold and shoveling lots of snow, but we are rewarded come summer when most of the U.S. is sweltering, we live comfortably with temperatures in the upper 70s and 80s F (20-30 C). We have only a few hot days in the 90s F (35 C), but most days are tolerable and not too humid.

It is the long deprivation we endure in winter that heightens our appreciation when the warmer weather finally does arrive. Walking about this past week, I was quite ecstatic! Like Maria singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!”

When I drive past a local sugarhouse and see steam billowing out of the roof vent, I’m pleased to note another official sign of spring.

The Boyden's Sugarhouse Boiling Maple Sap

Boyden Bros. Sugarhouse boiling maple sap.

I published about the process of maple sugaring a couple of years ago, but thought I’d post again detailing this ancient practice that white settlers learned from the native Americans.

Howard and Jeanne Boyden, along with their two sons and an army of helpers, have been collecting and boiling sap to make maple products for most of their lives, as have several generations of Boydens before them. (Howard’s ancestors were among the founding fathers of this town back in 1767.) They are also some of the nicest folks you could ever hope to meet.

The process of turning maple sap, which comes out of the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) at 98% water and 2% sugar, into maple syrup which is 33% water and 67% sugar, is a lengthy one. It requires a lot of work and sometimes very long days. The season in which sap flows at its tastiest is short, occurring at the end of the winter when the weather turns to spring.

Maple Buckets and Mud Season

Maple buckets line a road during Mud Season.

Sap is Running!

Sap is running! Drip, drip, drip!

Trees are tapped with special spigots that drip sap into buckets or through a series of tubing that empty into holding tanks. Here’s where the army of helpers come in, driving pickup trucks with larger tanks strapped on, they empty the buckets and siphon out the holding tanks, then transport the sap to the sugarhouse. On days the sap is really running, they may make several trips a day.

Using a specially-designed evaporator, the sap is boiled through a series of channels until it reaches 219.5 degrees F (104.1 C), the right consistency for maple syrup. It takes roughly forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Howard tending the evaporator - the humid air smells sweet!

Howard tending the evaporator – the humid air smells sweet!

Adding wood to the fire.

Batch adding wood to the blazing fire beneath the evaporator.

The syrup is then put through a filter and bottled.

Freshly made syrup goes into the filter press.

Freshly made syrup goes into the filter press.

Jeanne changes the filters periodically through the day.

Jeanne changes the filters periodically throughout the day.

Jeanne adjusting newly changed filters.

Jeanne adjusting newly changed filters.

The syrup is graded by its translucence. There are two grades, A and B. Grade A, which is divided into three categories – Light, Medium and Dark Amber – is considered the finest, what we put on pancakes, for instance. While B, darker with a heavy maple flavor, is used for cooking and baking. The first run of the season is very light and each run becomes darker.

Each daily run is graded.

Each daily run is graded.

Weather, particularly temperature, affects the run and length of the season. If the temperature does not rise above freezing, the sap doesn’t flow. So the gaps in dates you see above may indicate cold periods. Best flow is achieved when the temperature rises into the 40s F (5 C) during the day and below freezing at night.

This year, the syrup season started in mid-February, nearly a month earlier than the past two years and is now over due to warm temperatures in 50s and 60s F (10-15 C). Every year is different, but the trend seems to be shorter winters and therefore earlier sugaring seasons. Maple trees need long, cold winters and many farmers fear that climate change will affect the health and vigor of their sugar groves and end sugaring in this region. The threat makes me appreciate the gifts we enjoy today all the more.

The delicious finished product!

The delicious finished product!

The Boydens also make maple cream, which is made by further boiling and whipping the syrup (OMG, if you’ve never tried maple cream, you are seriously missing out on one of the world’s most amazing treats!) as well as candies shaped like maple leaves and hearts. At Christmastime, they offer ones shaped like little conifers and stars. Their prices are very reasonable, given all the work that is involved, and they accept mail orders. They may be reached at and are a CISA member.

For more information about maple sugaring in Massachusetts, visit the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.

For a brief history of maple sugaring, originally introduced by the Native Americans to European settlers, read here.

Related article (in depth explanation of current sugaring technology): Sugaring 2013 – The New Evaporator

About Eliza Waters

Gardener, writer, photographer, naturalist
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113 Responses to Maple Sugaring – A Rite of Spring

  1. Celia says:

    This is so interesting! Now I’m craving waffles and maples syrup… 😛

  2. This is so-so-so interesting! Thank you for sharing it. And I love Howard’s “sweet” smile! 🙂

  3. Fantastic to see how the syrup is made, your photo reportage is wonderful. But what a lot of work!!! And now I really yearn for pancakes with maple syrup… 🙂

  4. Kathy Sturr says:

    So wonderful to hear that Spring has arrived! Don’t think I didn’t notice your new header with the Maple sap buckets last week because I sure did! I have the most incredible neighbor who gives me homemade maple syrup. I will never eat Aunt Jemima’s again ha ha. I love that you shared this story. It is such an art I feel. AND I’ve read that you can collect sap from other trees as well not just the Sugar Maples which I found so interesting.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Kathy. How lucky for you that you are gifted homemade syrup! The distillation process puts it up there with fine whiskey. 🙂 I’ve heard of tapping birch trees (black is yummy) for birch beer.

  5. Laurie Graves says:

    What a great post! And your observations about Northern New England—the people and the weather—are spot on.

  6. BeeHappee says:

    Eliza, thank you for sharing! Beautiful photos and interesting story.

  7. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says:

    Thanks Eliza! My husband, Bill used to make syrup when he was a kid. His mom had a wood cook stove, so it stayed on the back burner for a long time, cooking down. Then in college, he worked on a sugar farm in NH, where they used horse drawn sleighs. I love maple syrup. It is the only sweetener I really ever use. I love the flavor. Great post!!

  8. AmyRose🌹 says:

    I have a new respect for maple syrup. Wow! I did not realize how complicated the process is from tree to bottle. Thank you, Eliza! ❤

  9. MK says:

    An insider’s view of local arts & history is so appreciated. I think I’ll go try a bit of maple syrup in my cup of tea. Mmmmm.

  10. Jim Ruebush says:

    Good stuff. It is a very busy time of year. The trees won’t wait for you.
    There was an episode of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe about making maple syrup. He got involved in cleaning the soot out of the cooker. Here is a link to a short clip about it.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Entertaining clips, thanks. 🙂 Burning wood can be dangerous. Last year a spark ignited their woodpile and took out the evaporator shed before the fire was put out by the volunteer fire department (of which Howard is a member – his quick thinking with a garden hose held it at bay until the FD arrived). A work bee (24 guys showed up) a few days later had them operational to finish out the season. I love the spirit of small towns!

  11. Archita says:

    What a great post! Thank you for the narratography of such a beautiful process!

  12. cindy knoke says:

    Fascinating to me as I have never seen this!

  13. It’s one of New England’s ‘perfect’ times of the year. I love this process and applaud all the hard working folks who do it so I can enjoy pancakes with delicious pure maple syrup on them. 🙂

  14. I so enjoyed reading your article and the accompanying images. The signs of spring you describe are ones we share here in Eastern Ontario.

  15. Ann @Ann Edwards Photography says:

    fascinating! I love maple syrup but have never given a thought to how it is produced – love those galvanised buckets hanging on the trees. Maple cream sounds divine too.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Ann. More farmers are switching to plastic tubing and collection reservoirs for ease of collection, which I understand, but I will miss the iconic sap buckets.

  16. Thanks for the informative article Eliza. I think I’ll go and make some French Toast with my Maple Grove Farms Organic 100% Pure Maple Syrup!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Glad you liked the post, Mike.
      Just an insider tip – there is little difference between ‘organic’ and reg. maple syrup, except the price. Certification makes the price 50% higher, but the wild forests aren’t sprayed, at least not around here. If you order online, I can wholeheartedly endorse Boyden syrup and you will get a better product for your money. (And no, I’m not on commission. ;-D )

  17. neihtn2012 says:

    How do the farmers keep animals, like deer, from eating the sap? I used to have three sugar maple trees but the deer killed two of them by chewing their bark off. The remaining one is surrounded by a fence and has survived so far.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      There are more woods then deer here (at least at this point in time) so what they browse isn’t a problem. The buckets are covered and so are the reservoirs, though I’ve never heard of deer going after the sap.
      Deer are a real problem in the suburbs, where there isn’t enough food for them or predators to keep their numbers in check. My in-laws lived in NJ and what a pain those bold deer could be!

  18. Maria F. says:

    These are marvelous documentary images. How fascinating that the syrup is graded by its translucence!

  19. Nick Verron says:

    I’ve never tried maple cream and we don’t seem to be blessed with it here in the UK 🙂

  20. Gracefully Global says:

    Wow! Now I’ll really appreciate the maple syrup when I eat it…I can’t believe how much sap it takes to make a just a gallon of maple syrup!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Pretty amazing process, isn’t it?

      • Gracefully Global says:

        Yes! So glad to know the process behind it…I’ll think of it every time I eat pancakes. But I really want to try that cream…;)

      • Eliza Waters says:

        They do mail order… 🙂

      • Gracefully Global says:

        Ha! Awesome! I wonder how much it would cost to go to Italy…

      • Eliza Waters says:

        Shipping costs more than the product. You have to have someone carry it over in their luggage!

      • Gracefully Global says:

        I’ll figure something out. 🙂 I also have a friend that is a huge fan of maple syrup so it might be a good present idea!

      • Eliza Waters says:

        So you’re in Italy indefinitely now as opposed to S.D?

      • Gracefully Global says:

        Good question! We’ll see. I’m doing a new job here, supporting American students touring Italy. But it isn’t a year round job, so I’m not entirely sure what the future holds…

      • Eliza Waters says:

        I love the fact that you have the freedom to just float – a dream for so many and you are living it. 🙂 I’m sure there are ups and downs, but you’re making it work!

      • Gracefully Global says:

        Well said! There are definitely ups and downs, but this time around in Europe I’m trying to focus on one day at a time, which seems to be the whole point of living a life like this. Thanks for your good thoughts, it is helpful! 🙂

  21. Robin says:

    Oh my goodness, that’s one of the things I miss about northeast Ohio. The sugar maples and all those buckets hanging on the trees in February or March. It’s such a fascinating process. I often wonder about how people discovered these things (coffee is another good example, or olives) that require so much processing to come up with the finished and edible product.

    Great post, Eliza, and very informative. Hopefully we’ll get back to Ohio soon so I can pick up some maple syrup from our local guy. 🙂

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Robin. Maple syrup is not as expensive as honey these days, so we’ve switched over to maple as our sweetener. Both feel luxurious all the same! A gift from nature.

  22. Anca Tîrcă says:

    Great post, very interesting insight!

  23. I had no idea, fascinating.

  24. Murtagh's Meadow says:

    It is fascinating. A wonderfully informative post Eliza. Thank you.

  25. arlingwoman says:

    Oh, the scent from the sugar house!!!! Yum. There’s a reason the stuff costs so much. It’s a lot of work. I like the Grade B stuff myself. It’s fabulous on granola.

  26. I always marvel at the patience of people in such a task…I do not think I have ever tasted maple cream! Will keep it in mind! Great piece of writing, Eliza!

  27. Such an interesting process Eliza. No wonder it tastes so delicious. Love all the pictures too.

  28. Widdershins says:

    The agricultural map of the world is going to look significantly different in a hundred years, even fifty … love fresh-off-the-farm maple syrup! 😀

  29. Pauline says:

    Many thanks for such an interesting post. Love maple syrup and I now know all the work that goes into making it!

  30. Very interesting Eliza – thanks for the insight. Like rubber harvesting but New England. D

  31. Lots of atmospheric pictures here, Eliza, and descriptive, flowing, prose

  32. Cathy says:

    This is really interesting Eliza. I love maple syrup, and now I can’t get pancakes out my head…. maybe for lunch tomorrow. 😉 I had never really given it much thought, but the process of collecting the sap must be quite tricky, what with weather playing a role. I now understand why good quality maple syrup is so expensive!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      It’s true, once you know the process, you think, “What a bargain!” I expect that having to paying shipping costs to Europe, it must be quite dear. Unless are there maple syrup producers in northern Europe?

  33. Brian Skeys says:

    An interesting and informative post and pictures Eliza. What a lot of work goes in to produce the syrup. I have never seen Maple Syrup Cream over here in the UK.

  34. This is a beautiful post! I love the changing of the seasons! As much as I love Winter, it’s also always lovely when Spring returns and all the flowers begin to blossom and the weather is warm again. I never realized exactly how maple sap is collected and syrup made. It seems so interesting!  
    Our summers here in Philadelphia tend to get scorching hot with heatwave after heatwave sometimes. I love living in a place with much diversity of the seasons. I would love Summer more though if there were less scorching days, like where you live. What a beautiful place you live, in all the seasons!
    I love all your photos here! One of my favorite ones is the one with the sap dripping! I have always loved photography of dripping water and moisture on things.
    I also love those photos with the steam and can almost smell and taste the sweetness!
    Thank you for sharing so much about maple sugaring; it’s so fun reading about it! 

  35. Reblogged this on A Dose of Inspiration and commented:
    Beautiful celebration of Spring!! And fascinating information about maple sugaring. ❤ 😀

  36. I just saw something today about the sugaring in Wisconsin – this post was quite timely for me! The other article was discussing the short season here, as apparently Mother Nature has not been cooperative.

  37. I love maple syrup too but to see the process makes it really a treat!

  38. pagedogs says:

    Your photos are wonderful. I could almost smell the wood smoke and sweet syrupy smell. If I had to choose a last meal, I think it would be blueberry pancakes and bacon with heaps of maple syrup over both. Divine.

  39. Robbie says:

    Eliza, you always do such a great job on stories about people and your unique paradise-make me want to pack up and move right today! I agree-“the hills do come alive” with spring-maria is so right!!! You always do a great job capturing the personalities of the people in their work! I love my maple syrup. I made some cornbread with 100%maple syrup in them yesterday:-) yum!

  40. Kris P says:

    Maple sugar production has always fascinated me so thanks for providing an inside look at the process. I admit to a bit of a maple sugar addiction – I consumed an entire box of maple sugar candy received as a Christmas gift in a little over one week.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Wow, you were able to spread it out over a whole week? ;-D It takes great restraint to eat just one at a time. When they are freshly made, the inside is almost gooey-tender and I want to eat more, just to get that melt in my mouth! I bought a large bag yesterday and it is half gone, but I do have two guys helping me. 🙂 I have to limit myself to buying it only a couple times a year.

  41. BunKaryudo says:

    Oh, that’s what the buckets are for. I thought the trees were dropping litter. 🙂

  42. Heather says:

    How did we ever get so that “maple” syrup on pancakes was awful corn syrup? Once you’ve had good fresh maple syrup, there is no going back! I’m a fan of Grade B, personally 🙂

  43. Very informative post! As a boy Dad used to hang out in a sugar shack in western NY. I’ll have to forward this link to him!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      It does seem like an attractor to male adolescents around here! Ride around in a truck collecting sap and hang with the adult men as the sap boils. Rite of passage. Kind of sweet in a way, handing down of skills and all that.

  44. Hemangini says:

    I always thought how Maple syrup comes to be and reading this post gave me a full idea of what is like.. Being an Indian who has never had maple syrup all I can say is, I am tempted every time. I must someday. 🙂 This was the most amazing post on Maple sugaring I have read. Thanks 🙂

  45. Dymoon says:

    heading for the maple syrup now…. thanks for the great post

  46. Kaito Ridge says:

    Eliza, thank you for sharing this story! As we roll into autumn here in Connecticut, the changing leaves tells me sugaring season will be here soon.

    Did you know you can tap your own maple trees at home? Making your own syrup is simple, and a great way to connect with nature. Stop over and check out our blog about DIY maple sugaring if you have a chance!

  47. Very interesting story, Eliza 🙂
    Thank you for the link.

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