There are no two ways about it: maintaining a productive sugarbush requires a lot of cold, gritty, manual labor. We use tracked vehicles to get into the woods, but each tap must be placed by hand – in our case all 81,000 of them – every season. It’s incredibly rewarding to be in the forest, working in teams and using hand tools in much the same way as sugarmakers have for hundreds of years. Proper preparation in the woods ensures the sap flows into the sugarhouse efficiently and in large volume.
Every winter sugarmakers tap their maple trees by drilling a small hole in the trunk and inserting a spout. With 81,000 taps to put in, we start the process in mid-January so we are ready for the first thaw. Tapping all our trees in time is a battle against the elements. January, more often than not, sees deep snow and extreme cold. The crew uses four wheelers via the logging roads to haul equipment up to a starting point but the majority of the work is done on foot through the forest. Some of our sugarbush is extremely steep. Any member of the crew, no matter how fit, will attest that trudging up and down the pitch through waist-high snow with 20 lbs on your back makes for an exhausting day. We try not to tap when the temperature goes below 0°F, mostly because it is hard on the equipment and morale. Working in the snow and cold, however, is part of the job and it is an understatement to say that the crew consists of some very hardy people.
When spring finally arrives and the temperature rises above freezing during the day, the sap starts to run. At this point, it is all systems go. The sap comes out as a slow drip from the tap and flows into tubing that is connected to a network which runs throughout the forest. The network starts as small lines, draining into larger lines and ultimately ending in huge tanks at the sugarhouse. The entire network is on a vacuum system to keep the sap flowing.
Each year is a guessing game as to how long the sap will run. It may go on and off for ten weeks or it could run for just a few days before the weather warms up too much and the season comes to an abrupt end. Regardless it is a very short period to make a year’s worth of syrup, therefore when it does start to run we work round the clock to make the most of the season.
There is no syrup without the sap so our efforts are concentrated on making sure the vacuum and tubing network is working efficiently. Holes in the tubing from fallen branches and nibbly squirrels reduce the pressure. Consequently, every day the crew walks the lines looking for problems. We have over 600 miles of tubing throughout our woods which means a lot of walking (or snowshoeing, depending upon the condition of the snow.)
Once the sap comes into the Sugarhouse, it’s all about the pipes, gauges and heat.
From the tank room, the sap is filtered through a reverse osmosis machine. The RO, as it is known, is the same technology used to supply communities with clean drinking water. For us, it removes up to 90% of the water from the sap before we boil it. This is the revolutionary bit of kit that has transformed modern sugarmaking over the last several decades. Without it, we would need to use eight times as much fuel.
After being concentrated, the sap is then sent back to the tank room and from there to the evaporator where it is boiled down to syrup. The boiling process is intense and the hours long. If the weather is perfect and the sap is flowing, a run can last for up 20 hours and require constant fiddling with the equipment. When we have roughly six weeks to make a year’s worth of product, there is no stopping and starting mid-run to catch some sleep. It’s an art in endurance and on-the-job problem-solving.
At Runamok, we use steam to boil the sap because it gives us precision control over the process and we find it results in the best flavor. The 400 horse power steam boiler produces roughly 13,000,000 BTU/hour creating a roiling but controlled boil in the steam pan. Billows of steam exit through the stack creating a heavenly smell of maple syrup throughout the farm.
The last step of the process is to send the finished syrup through a filter press, creating a clear, amber liquid. The color of maple syrup is lightest at the beginning of the year and continues to darken over the course of the season. The taste also changes as the winter recedes and the temperatures warm. We taste the syrup each run to determine the peak of flavor for our Sugarmaker’s Cut. We never know when that peak will come but it is a pleasure tasting maple syrup almost daily, looking for it.