BAR HARBOR — It was the kind of weekend that sugarmakers look forward to with freezing temperatures at night warming to above freezing during the day.
On Sunday, a slew of people from around Mount Desert Island and neighboring towns were out trudging through the woods with tools, buckets and taps to start collecting sap. Pine Heath Road resident Rob Krieg, with the help of his children Gabriel and Mae, was one of them.
Maine ranks third in the nation for top producers of maple syrup, with Vermont in first place and New York in second. In order to get the best tasting sap, there is a window of time in which tapping trees is recommended. Once the buds begin to swell from warmer temperatures, it will turn bitter, according to the Modern Farmer website.
When Gabriel and Mae were younger, the Kriegs regularly tapped the red maple trees in their yard.
“The kids asked to do it this year,” said Rob, pointing to a couple of trees off the driveway that he has chosen to start with. “The purists in Vermont would frown upon us for tapping red maple.”
There are several types of maple trees that are good for tapping, but the sugar maple has the highest sugar content in its sap and is most prolific in Vermont. Birch, sycamores and shagbark hickories also provide sap for syrup making. Typically, the latter trees’ sap has a lower sugar content, which requires more of it to reach the same sweet, thick consistency as maple syrup.
Rob Krieg makes his way across the yard to a small grove of maple trees and points with his drill bit to scars on the trunk from previous years’ sap collection. Gabriel, 16, follows after his father with buckets and taps in hand. He remembers how exciting it was to see the buckets fill with sap when he was younger.
“They would always be surprisingly full,” he said, which seemed unbelievable, “because it was such a slow drip.”
In one larger tree trunk, Rob drills a hole with a slight upward angle into the tree. Each hole can be as little as an inch and as much as 2 inches into the tree. In order to tap it, a tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter. To put more than one tap into a tree, the rule of thumb is it needs to be at least 18 inches in diameter. Trees over 25 inches in diameter can handle three taps.
After he hits the tap gently with a hammer a couple of times, Rob points to the sap collecting into a drop at the end, preparing to fall into the bucket.
Most of the small plastic buckets Gabriel carried to hang from the taps on the trees were capable of holding about a gallon of liquid. Rob said emptying them once a day would be Gabriel’s responsibility once his school day wrapped up. Contents from each of the smaller buckets will be poured into 5-gallon buckets and stored until there is enough to boil it down. Because the buckets don’t have lids, Rob explains that if it rains, usually he dumps the contents out because the additional water can render the sap unusable.
Places that tap hundreds of trees typically have a sugar shack on the property and for good reason. It takes an average of 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
Boiling down that much sugary liquid inside a house makes everything sticky, according to Krieg. To keep things simple, Rob boils off his sap in a large pot on a propane burner outside, except for the very end when he brings it inside to monitor it closely to achieve the final desired thickness.
“I have a range hood when I finish it off,” he adds, explaining where the sticky vapors go.
Reaching the right consistency for syrup is an art in itself. Krieg explained it is possible to overcook it. Syrup bottled while hot or warm can stay in a sealed container for up to two years, according to the Modern Farmer site.
On the last weekend in March, Maine maple syrup producers have the opportunity to showcase their product on Maine Maple Sunday Weekend. Last year the event was canceled due to COVID-19. This year, the 38th anniversary weekend will take place March 27–28 and already has nearly 150 producers participating.
More information can be found at mainemapleproducers.com.