Tapping Into Mother Nature
By Eileen Weber
There’s something quintessentially New England about seeing a maple tree tapped for its sap. And there’s nothing better than fresh, homemade maple syrup on your favorite breakfast dish.
I remember growing up in Easton where my dad tapped our maple trees. Every winter our house was filled with the whiff of sticky sweetness. Of course, there was the year that my dad left the sap on the stove overnight and nearly burned the house down. But aside from that, I have happy maple syrup memories.
Most people don’t realize the vast quantity of sap it takes to make one bottle of syrup. Approximately 10 gallons of water-like liquid boils down to get one measly little quart of candy-scented, amber elixir. The sapping season in this area usually runs from February through March. Steady weather with sunny days and freezing nights make for some pretty happy sapping.
Of course, the weather factors into how much sap you will yield. As Joe McHale from Tap My Trees in Redding says, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“The sap flows with days in the 40’s and nights below freezing,” he said. “If it gets too warm too quickly, you get a short season. With a deep freeze—like the polar vortex we had last year—that pushed our season back by two to three weeks.”
McHale got into the maple syrup business because he wanted to teach his kids—now 12-year-old twins—where their food comes from. He wanted them to know that not everything comes out of a grocery store.
From there, his sapping talents grew. Now, his business provides supplies for families, schools, and other organizations to tap their own trees and collect sap for syrup making. The New Canaan Nature Center and the Stamford Museum and Nature Center get their equipment—buckets, lids, and stiles that tap through the bark of the trees—from him. McHale donates all the necessary materials so each kid gets to go home with a spile.
At the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, boiling the sap down, or “sugaring,” has been taking place on the 10-acre Heckscher Farm, located within the nature center, since the early 1970’s. (The property was originally a private estate.) They built a new sugar house and expanded their program in 1999. With about 5,000 visitors and over 60 programs for more than 1,500 local students, they have plenty of participants interested in sugaring.
“Our programs are for groups only,” said Will Kies, Director of Education and Heckscher Farm at Stamford’s Nature Center, “but the sugar house is open to the public so families can stop in when we are boiling sap.”
Michelle Hips, Visitor Experience Manager and Environmental Educator at the New Canaan Nature Center, says that with the hundreds of kids who come for their sugaring program, their relationship with Joe McHale has been a “mutually beneficial” one. He donates the materials for their education programs and they, in turn, advertise his tapping kits and sell them in their gift shop.
While scores of kids pour through the nature centers, McHale said the heart of his business depends less on groups and more on moms and dads. “Most of my customers are families,” he said. “But I get a lot of schools that purchase the kits. It’s a great teaching tool. It’s also great for people who home school.”
He noted that tapping trees can illustrate a range of different topics, from the environment and cooking to mathematical ratios and Native American history. After all, the early European settlers learned their tapping techniques from the Native Americans who had already been doing so for generations.
McHale noted that, when tapping, the tree should be about 30 to 40 years old and at least 12 inches in diameter. Larger trees can support more than one spile and bucket. Sugar, Black, Red, and Silver maple trees are typically used for tapping. But birch and walnut trees can also be used.
In Alaska, birch tapping is popular because they don’t have indigenous maple trees. And in some parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, they also tap other trees after the maple season is over. It just extends their tapping time. But in this area of New England, the maple tree is king.
New Canaan’s center has an Adopt-a-Tree Program, now in its seventh season. It allows families or groups to select their very own maple tree for the season. When they first started out, they only had a little more than 25 families signed up. Last year hitting capacity for their production cycle, they had 53 families. The center also hosts Friday Evening Boil Downs, which start this year on February 20th.
“One of my favorite aspects of syrup season is that we see many of the same families year after year,” Hips said. “And they love to bring family and friends along with them, so we keep getting more and more folks coming down the lane to learn about the entire syrup process. It’s great!”
There are maple sugarhouses all over Connecticut and many are affiliated with the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut. Ambler Farm in Wilton happily boasts their sugar shack as does Warrup’s Farm in Redding. If you’re up for the drive, there’s Wenzel’s Sugarhouse in Hebron, Brookside Farm in Litchfield, Lamothe’s Sugarhouse in Burlington, Flanders Nature Center and Land Trust in Woodbury, Bats of Bedlam Maple Farm outside Mansfield in Chaplin, or even the sugarhouses on the outskirts of the main campus of the University of Connecticut on Horsebarn Hill Road in Storrs.
But there will be no shortage of maple syrup fun in this area. The Stamford Nature Center will hold its Maple Sugar Festival Weekend on March 7 and March 8 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. And, mark your calendars for the 25th Annual Maple Festival in Hebron on March 14 and 15 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
To learn more about Tap My Trees, visit them online at tapmytrees.com.
Note: Fairfield Green Food Guide publishes a guide to maple sugaring in Fairfield County each February. Please find our 2015 guide here.