Sugaring: The Sweetest Science
Maple Weekend begins Saturday in New Hampshire, and that means Sugar Houses in the state are open to the public with boiling sap and sweet syrup to sample. And syrup producers around the state say they are hoping for a strong season this year.
Paul Weeks would rather be in his sugar orchard checking sap lines for leaks or adjusting the boil on his evaporator. But today’s bitter chill has given him an unwanted break.
"Sitting in the cold waiting for the sap to run. We’re not gonna get any sap until next week if we’re lucky. It’s supposed to be cold right thru to Monday, Tuesday."
Weeks waits for the sap in his Sugar House in West Campton with his friend and fellow maple syrup maker Bill Cheney.
"What? Saturday Sunday, Monday Tuesday Wednesday. Yeah – five days in a row of pretty good sap runs. So it’s starting out like a regular season. Light syrup turning to medium."
Even though the weather has been promising, the ghost of last year presides.
Weeks: I think everybody this year is gun-shy after what happened last year when we had 70 degree weather in the middle of March.
Cheney: Season ended last year about this time.
In Rumney, last year’s heat wave still makes Maggie Brox shiver:
"Last year was awful. It went for eight or nine days and then we had that five days of 80 degrees and that just killed it. Everybody else was loving the warm weather and we were like, “Nooo!” I was the only one depressed about 80 degrees in March! People were like, what’s wrong with her? (laughs).
Brox and her son Nate run a Sugar House on Stinson Mountain.
"And then this building always heaves…My dad said he built this whole thing and I think every cut he made was with a chainsaw (laughs). So it’s kind of seen better days."
The stove pipe and tea-stained wood are deceptive. Like a DeLorean in an abandoned barn, the old crooked shack hides a gleamingly modern machine.
"Oh a lot of it’s science and a lot of it is intuition. Sometimes when you’re running around up here it’s like you’re running a submarine, constantly checking temperatures, pressures, switching valves, draining tanks, you know, trying to keep the whole thing running as smoothly as possible."
Only one thing happens throughout the entire syrup-making process – water is removed. To that end, the introduction of the Reverse Osmosis machine in 1971 – which mechanically separates pure water from sap - has been revolutionary.
In his Sugar House in Woodstock, Jim Fadden says the RO, as everyone calls it, makes him four times more productive than his father.
"My father comes around and sees this when I’m doing it and he thinks I’m cheatin cause we’re not working hard enough."
Like a lot of the syrup makers, Fadden is part scientist, part fortune teller. He reaches for a hydrometer as readily as an old wives tale.
"And I like a nice blue sky. Wind from the west, sap runs best. Wind from the east, sap runs least. Old proverb. You get an east or a north wind and the trees will stop drippin. I have no idea why, but it’s just one of those things. West wind, nice blue sky, low barometric pressure, sap runs to beat the band."
Fadden’s great-great grandfather founded the family sugar orchard in the early 1800s. His grandfather opened Fadden’s General Store in 1896.
"I don’t know, I think maybe maple sugarin is like an addiction."
Or worse, as Paul Weeks describes it, "it's a disease."
And Bill Cheney says, "you just want to keep expanding. A little isn’t enough. You gotta keep going, keep going, get bigger, get bigger. Yeah. That seems to be the way."
A little like fishing, a little like panning for gold. At $32 to $35 a gallon, and $1,800 or so a barrel, maple syrup is 13 times the price of crude oil.
With that much at stake for Nate and Maggie Brox, maple season creates a kind of fever:
Nate Brox: "You’re just waking up every morning, you’re like, “What’s the weather doing today? When do I have to be up there? Is it sunny here? What’s the temperature at my house? If the temperature is 34 at my house it’s probably about 36 maybe up there if it’s been in the sun.” Yeah. I’m like you know, yet get kind of anxious."
Maggie Brox: "And you never know what Mother Nature’s gonna throw at you. You could have a great season, you could go to the middle of April, or you could be done next week. Everyone says, “What do you think sugaring’s gonna be?” And I say “I’ll tell you May 1st!” I have no clue!"
It’s a Rube Goldberg device, how the sun leans into the wind and warms the land that squeezes the trees that leak the sap that trickles into the tanks that bubbles and boils and thickens into a golden amber that you drizzle onto your pancakes one Sunday morning. It starts with the sun and the cold and ends with a smile or a sigh or just closed eyes.