While We Sleep In, Maple Sap Rises, Along With The Sugarmakers
When I was little, goat cheese lived in Switzerland with Heidi and her grandfather, and maple syrup—which seemed to me to be sorghum's lighter, frillier sister—came in cans from northern states, showing up only rarely in the farm kitchen in Wayne County.* Now I know better. I've savored Bleugrass Chevre and Sapori d'Italia cheeses, and Bluegrass Maple Syrup, all made within 20 miles of my downtown Lexington home.
This year Bluegrass Maple Syrup producers Randal Rock and Curtis Congleton began tapping trees and producing syrup in January, as winter warm spells caused the maple sap to begin rising. I was still rubbing holiday sleep out of my eyes when this year's sugarmaking began. Like every other farmer I know, Randal and Curtis work through winter weather to produce the goodness that fills my table year-round.
Since mild weather in January yielded to frigid temperatures in February, I wondered how these extreme variations affect the trees, and in turn, the work of sugaring. I asked Randal Rock, who offered a primer.
Ideal temperature conditions: The sap does not run when temperatures are below 32 degrees. The best days are when it is below freezing at night and sunny the next day with temperatures about 40 degrees.
What happens during bitter cold: We leave all the apparatus connected until we are finished for the season. Sometimes the sap will freeze in the buckets but we just collect the ice and sap at the same time.
Duration: When you drill into the tree, it will naturally try to seal the hole to protect the inner bark. The tree will start to heal after about six weeks and the taps will stop flowing. We have occasionally re-drilled to start sap flow again, but not often. We drill into the same tree, just a different spot or into the same hole.
Sap (and syrup) color: The first sap is always lighter and the last is darker. When the trees start to bud out the sap will turn a darker color and get cloudy looking. This is generally the end of the season. I am guessing that we have about 3 more weeks but that could change with temperatures.
The maple syrup we so enjoy results from a lot of human effort that begins by literally tapping into maple trees' primordial work of transporting life-giving ground water upward to nourish trees and their leaves for the coming growing season. Steph and Howie Cantor of Deep Mountain Farm in northeast Vermont describe the interaction between humans and nature during maple sugaring season:
There is no activity that ties a person to the whims of nature as much as sugaring, and therein lies the attraction and the addiction. . . . One’s very being and soul become inextricably linked with the flowing of thousands of gallons of liquid through the trees of the forest. To say it gets in your blood would be an understatement; to say it makes you an odd person to be around for eight weeks of the year is an undeniable truth.
For more detail about maple sugar making, see Deep Mountain's Maple Facts and Fictions. See also their inspiring description of the inherent sustainability of maple sugaring 25 miles south of the Canadian border.
To learn where Bluegrass Maple Syrup is available in central Kentucky, message the sugarmakers at their Country Rock Sorghum and Bluegrass Maple Syrup facebook page.
* Not long before Dad died, he told me that his grandfather had made maple sugar from the sugar maples in the woods surrounding our farm. In fact, Andrew Jackson Roberts used chips from a block of maple sugar to reward his favorite grandchildren when they visited on Sunday afternoons. Dad was not among the favored.