It’s Sugar Shacking Time

By Farah Masani

Maple sap is traditionally collected in buckets with lids, then collected by hand.

As a farmer, every winter (right around the end of January) I get an itch to go outside and do some physical work and, well, be a farmer. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ability to hibernate, and I love the fact that I can rest my body and get it ready for the upcoming farming season, but I can only do so much of that. I’m used to year-round farming from back home.

I spend December and January planning the next season, sharpening tools, oiling machinery (what little I have, because I prefer to do everything by hand), repairing coops, and eating all the food I have canned and jarred. But, come the end of January, I want some farm action…and maple syrup season provides just that. A lot of fun, a lot of action, and hopefully a lot of liquid gold.

Depending on where you are in the New England area, the season can start anywhere from early to mid-February and can go all the way to late April. Usually, it starts in late February here in Fairfield County. Just like most farming, the weather dictates when the season begins. Nights have to be below freezing, preferably in the 20’s, and days have to be above 40 degrees. This contrast in temperatures causes the sap to flow.

I owe all my knowledge and skill to Pam and Doug Cummings of Sharon, VT. They taught me all that I know and to this day we share the magic of the sugar shack.

But there is one other person that I want to introduce to you, my friend, Dottie Carpenter. She shares the passion of sugar season as much as I do.

Dottie Carpenter and her family own and run Doc’s Maple Syrup. Located in New York State, Doc’s produces some of the finest maple syrup I have ever tasted (it’s better than mine)! Dottie is one of the most passionate people I have ever met on the process of making maple syrup.

DOC's USDA Organic maple syrup is made exclusively from sap collected from maple trees on the Carpenter family farm in New York state.

Together with her son, Jim (an investment banker at a boutique firm in Manhattan), daughter-in law Aura (a chef), and daughter Carla (a designer), Dottie manages and runs Doc’s Maple Syrup.

The 1,600 acres of farmland has been in their family for seven generations. Originally, years ago, the land was used as a dairy farm. However, about three years ago Dottie and her family wanted to do more with it since it was not being used for dairy anymore.

They called in Cornell Agriculture Experts for a recommendation and it was determined that the land had about 60,000 sugar maple trees. Because the family had never used fertilizers, pesticides etc. it was easy for them to be classified as “organic.” This is a hard process for maple syrup producers and Dottie is very proud to have passed the test and be Certified Organic.

It all starts by “tapping” the tree, which means putting a spigot in the trunk of a sugar maple tree. It’s from this spigot that the sap drains into buckets or pipes. Doc’s uses pipes and gravity to transport the sap to the sugar shack where it is boiled down into maple syrup.

I prefer using buckets because I enjoy emptying them, seeing how much sap each tree has given me, how much I have collected from all the trees, and I enjoy schlepping buckets of sugar water to the sugar shack to boil down. But, I also don’t have 5,000 plus trees tapped on my land.

Trees that are larger than 10-18 inches in diameter are best to tap. The larger the tree, the more “taps” you can have in it. Also, it’s important to tap the tree on the sunny side of the bark because this is the side that will thaw out first thing in the morning, making the sap run faster. It takes about 40 gallons of sugar water to make just one gallon of syrup. The sap has to be boiled at a high heat to evaporate all the water. It has to reach a temperature of 219 degrees, and then it’s officially maple syrup.

A wood fire heats the evaporator in the sugar shack.

You can do this at home, in small quantities. I highly recommend you do it outside because sticky moisture will settle on your walls, and you’ll be wiping them down all throughout the summer.

Back to the process: It’s preferable to have an evaporator, which is a rectangular pan that has a large surface area. It helps with the faster evaporation of the sap when heated. I like using really dried wood to heat my sap.

During the 2 – 3 week sugar shacking season, I go from tree to tree every night and transfer the sap from the buckets hanging off the tree to my holding tank. Then, from the holding tank, I siphon it and start boiling down the sap right away in the sugar shack.

The volume of steam produced during the evaporation process means this is exclusively an outdoor activity.

The sugar shack is where the magic happens. Not only is it where this liquid gold is made, it’s where friends and family sit around for hours feeding the fire, stirring the sap, talking, sharing and exchanging stories. Oftentimes we’ve stayed out all night boiling down the sap, because once you start you can’t stop. Sap is like milk, it turns sour and curdles if not processed immediately.

Once the sugar level gets concentrated, the syrup moves to the front of the pan and it can be drawn down and filtered. All maple syrup has the same sugar content, but different flavors and color.

Maple syrup is graded by color, from lightest to darkest.

The color of the syrup determines the grade. Grade A (light, medium, dark) and Grade B. The really, really light maple syrup that comes from sap early on in the season is usually called “fancy” syrup. Personally, I prefer the darker Grade B. My favorite way to enjoy maple syrup is to have it in my morning coffee, instead of sugar.

Bourbon Spice Rack, featuring Doc's USDA Organic maple syrup, is served at Barcelona restaurants.

If you haven’t been to a sugar shack, I highly recommend a visit to one near you. Kevin Meehan and Jonathan Kishner at Ambler Farm in Wilton, CT have a pretty swell operation. I also get my maple syrup fix by drinking a Bourbon Spice Rack, a drink that Gretchen Thomas,Wine & Spirits Direct at Barcelona Restaurant Group, crafted specially using Doc’s Maple syrup.

In year one, Dottie and her family, tapped 4,000 trees and got 1,800 gallons. Year two was a bad year and they got only 1,400 gallons out of 5,000 taps. This year, thus far, Dottie has gotten 900 gallons from 6,000 taps and the season is not even half way completed. Fingers crossed!

You’ll run into Dottie at the Westport Farmers’ Market and find DOC’s maple syrup at the Double L Market, Saugatuck Craft Butchery and Olivette. Dottie and Aura also came to Barcelona Fairfield for a special event where they shared yummy maple ice slushies and maple cotton candy last summer.

If you’re adventurous, take a trip up to the Carpenter family farm to check out their maple syrup operations.

Farah Masani is a farmer living in Wilton, CT who, in addition to farming, is on the staff of Barcelona Restaurant Group where she is responsible for local sourcing. In July she launched the Barcelona Farmigo CSA program to provide the restaurant’s patrons and greater community with a convenient and flexible way to purchase more sustainably grown local food. Farah previously worked as a farm manager at Millstone Farm in Wilton.

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