When temperatures begin to rise in the spring, the sap begins to flow from the roots of maple trees up the trunks to the branches and limbs. During the short period of spring when the daytime temperatures are above freezing, and the night temperatures are below freezing, the sap flows up and down the tree trunks daily.
Small holes are drilled in the trunks, and taps are inserted to allow some of the sweet sap to come out. At first these taps consisted of carved, hollowed out pieces of wood, with a wooden bucket hanging from them to collect the sap. Later, metal taps and buckets were mass produced, as well as bucket covers to keep the sap cleaner.
In the old days the sap was hauled to the sugar house by human, horse, ox, and tractor power. Today most of it gets to the sugar house via plastic pipelines. This keeps the sap far cleaner and protected from bacteria better. It also saves a lot of work! I know this first hand as I worked in the neighbor's sugarbush and sugar house when I was a kid. We tapped over 700 trees, and collected all the sap by hand! The biggest tree we tapped held 13 buckets, and was over 5 feet in diameter.
Some folks think the sap just comes out of the trees and is packaged as syrup for sale. Wrong! (Don't we wish) It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Even more is required to make maple sugar. The water content of the sap has to be boiled off, leaving the syrup behind. You can't just leave the sap around and boil it at your convenience either! The sooner you boil the sap, the better the quality of the syrup. If you wait too long, the sap will spoil and you'll have to dump it.
The sap is transported to a holding tank where it accumulates until there's enough to boil off. This can take from a few hours to several days if the weather is cold.
Back to weather. The weather plays a vital role in the making of maple syrup. You need cold nights, the further below freezing the better. These need to be alternated with warm days, the higher above freezing the better. If the daytime temperature is too cold, the sap won't flow at all. If the nightime temperature is too warm for too many days in a row, that's the end of your sugaring season. You have to catch the sap as it is naturally pumped up and down the tree past your tap hole.
In any event, you get the sap from the tree to the holding tank. Now the work begins. Well, not really begins, you've been working all year long to get to this point. Most sugar bush owners spend the rest of the year culling waste and dead trees from their sugar bush, so that all thet remain are healthy maples. The waste wood is cut up, split, lugged to the sugarhouse, and stacked for use in the spring.
This cultivating of the forest is what produces the beautiful fall foilage people travel from around the world to see. Maple trees have particularly bright red and yellow leaves in the fall. This transforms the areas of Vermont and New Hampshire that have sugarbushes to an amazing pallet of colors. Some of these sugarbushes have been cultivated by the same family since the 1700's. One of these is Goodrich's, another Morse's. You'll find them on the list.
Back to the work in sugaring season! The sugarhouse (in New Hampshire called a "saphouse") owner now takes some of that wood he sweated to pile up, and starts a fire in the sugar arch. Those who didn't want to sweat as much use oil or gas. At the same time he opens the valve to allow some fresh sap to come in. The flow of sap is then controlled by a float valve at the rear of the pan. Soon the fire is roaring, and steam begins to billow from the pan. He keeps tucking wood into the arch.
The sap flows through the pan in a serpentine fashion, directed by baffles. It starts at the float valve very cold, and is boiling at the other end of the pan. Now a real balancing act begins. The less time the sap stays in the pan, the higher the quality of the syrup. This means you must keep a roaring fire going, while at the same time keeping the level of syrup in the last section of the pan as low as possible. The difference between as low enough and too low is very small. One miscalculation, and the syrup catches on fire. You're lucky if the pan is all you lose. (The pans are made of stainless steel and cost upwards of $4000 each depending on their size).
When enough water has been boiled off to make the syrup the right consistency, it is "drawn off" into a container. Some operators have automatic drawoffs that sense the consistency, and allow syrup to flow from the pan when it's ready. Others do it the old way like we did when I worked for our neighbor. They take a sample of the syrup in a tall dipper, about 5 centimeters in diameter and 20 centimeters deep. They place a hydrometer in the sample to test the specific gravity. When it's correct, they open the spigot and draw off the syrup.
This process can often starts in the morning and continues non-stop until the wee hours of the morning. Once you start, you don't want to stop until the holding tank is empty. That way you start the next day with no old sap to contaminate the new. And you're still not done!
The syrup mast be strained or passed through a filter press to remove any dirt particles and niter, which naturally occurs in sap. Then it's finally placed in cans or bottles and sealed.
If you want to make maple sugar, granulated maple sugar, or sugar on snow, you have to boil it down even more. If you're going to do this, you must watch the container like a hawk! I almost burned down a friend's kitchen when I turned away from the stove for about 30 seconds! Fortunately I was able to move the burning mess to the sink before major damage was done. Another time a friend turned away from her stove no more than 5 seconds, and a pot of syrup started boiling over. I quickly grabbed it and lifted it off the burner before any damage was done.
You can buy some maple syrup, and make your own maple sugar, but please be careful! As it cooks down stir it constantly, and reduce the heat towards the end. The last part of turning it to sugar can be done off the stove by rapid stirring.
Spring time during "sugaring season" is an excellent time to take a road-trip and avoid heavy tourist traffic. Coming to northern New Hampshire and Vermont at this time will give you a chance to see an annual event that has been going on for centuries. You can visit many different sugarhouses and see everything from "high tech" at Goodrich's to "the old fashioned way" at Morse's.
Starting in Lancaster, go east on Route 2 for about a mile. Just over the brow of the hill is Christie's on the left.
When you're done at Christie's, head back west on Route 2 for Vermont. A few miles after the village of Lunenburg is a sign pointinhg to the right up a back road to Blaisdell's. The road can be a little interesting during mud season.
Heading west on Route 2 again there may be a sign to Romeo's. If there is, follow it and see Marty. Tell him Ed Sanders said "hi".
Continuing along Route 2 west you'll come to a sign pointing to Route 2 West truck Route. This takes you around St. Johnsbury and back to Route 2 West on the other end of town. Take this route if you want to skip the next sugaring operation, which is more like a factory. Maple Grove is on old route 2 just as you enter St. Johnsbury on the left. They have a gift shop and a tour.
Leaving St. Johnsbury, you'll have about a half an hour drive to Goodrich's. A few miles before Goodrich's there's an intersection with Route 15. Go left on Route 2. After the intersection there is a section of uphill, winding road. This opens out at the top of the hill with a turnoff on the right. You might like to stop and take a picture. You are standing on the divide between the eastrern and western watersheds in Vermont. Goodrich's is about a mile further on the left. Tell Ruth Ed said "hi".
The final spot on the tour is Morse's in East Montpelier. Go to the center of Montpeier and take a gander at the Capitol building. Head back east on the "main drag" to the lights. You're going the right way if the Capitol building is on your left as you pass it. Take a left at the lights, and when the road forks go right. You're on the way to cousin Harry Morse's. The road gets a little squirrly, but it's all paved, so you'll make it.
Some of my ancestors were the first to pioneer in East Montpelier, the next town on the road by Morse's, Calais, and Plainfield and Marshfield, two of the towns you passed through on Route 2.
Leaving Morse's, head back into town and follow the signs to I-89 to head home, or take Route 2 back to Lancaster to stay the night. I thank the Tom McCrumm for the following info:
Tom McCrumm Coordinator, Mass Maple Assoc. Ashfield, MA 01330
BTW, some of the info. you have on the sugaring process isn't quite corrrect, but overall is an excellent description. The sap doesn't flow just up and down in the trees, but rather flows back and forth, left and right, north and south, etc,. as well as up and down. So it doesn't just flow out of the spout when it passes by the open hole. It's the pressure differential between the atmospheric pressure outside the tree and the increased pressure inside the tree that makes the sap flow. Much like why you bleed when you cut yourself. ie, the pressure inside your blood vessels is greater than the surrounding atmospheric pressure. Also, the "fine line" you describe while boiling isn't between boiling and catching on fire. You make it sound as if syrup is flammable, which it isn't becase there is too much water in it. A pan catches on fire because the syrup has been heated too much, has removed all the water to sugar, the sugar melts, overheats, then catches on fire. The remains is the burned and scorched pan. Believe me, I know, I've done both (scorched and real fire)!! Luckily only the latter once at 3AM when I shut a valve feeding my front pan for a few minutes because it was flooding and was too tired after boiling for 20 hours to remember it. Next thing I knew the pan was on fire!!! Luckily I was burning oil, so I shut off the burner and put out the fire - needless to say I was wide awake then and spent the next 4 hours scraping the burnt sugar out of my now warped pan!!