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Maple Syrup Expert Stops by Sugar Shack

Snow on the ground (even if it would not last long). Sap boiling in the sugar house. This is New England. 

Maple sugaring is in full swing on the campus of Loomis Chaffee, where on Wednesday afternoon, March 1, Mat Wilkinson, president of the Maple Syrup Growers Association of Connecticut, talked to a group of students about the history of the industry and best practices in sugaring production. 

As he talked, sap boiled in the Loomis sugar shack, presided over by Sarah Griggs, associate director of the Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies. Sarah said that between three and four gallons have been bottled so far from maple trees on the property. Another two and a half to three gallons was expected to come from the sap on hand. The goal is to get up to last year’s figure, which was 10 gallons. That, of course, depends on the weather. Highs in the 40s, lows in the 20s produce the best conditions for a good flow of sap. 

“This has been one of the strangest seasons that I or any of the other sugar makers I work with have seen,” Mr. Wilkinson said.  

Wilkinson Farm in Columbia, Conn., has been producing maple syrup commercially for 11 years. It produces about 150 gallons a season and sells most of its products at farmers markets and craft fairs. Wilkinson, invited by the Alvord Center and the E-proctors, said he has about 720 taps. 

“The really warm summer was hard on the sugar content in the sap, so it was low sugar content to start out with, but the hard freeze a couple of weeks ago seemed to turn things around,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “We are very nervous about the early budding of the trees, but we may have winter in March, and that could turn out to be good for us.” 

Mr. Wilkinson started tapping his trees in late January, much earlier than usual. He said 2013 was the last time people tapped that early. Whenever you tap, the collecting of sap becomes a race against the clock. Taps can run for only six weeks. 

As Mr. Wilkinson continued his presentation, the boiling sap turned darker in the wood-fired evaporator as steam filled the air. 

Maple trees that are 10 to 18 inches in diameter can have one tap; those 18 inches in diameter and larger can have two taps. The same trees can be tapped for generations. Mr. Wilkinson said there are some trees in Canada that have been tapped for 200 years.  

More of his tips:  

  • Always collect sap in food-grade buckets. 

  • Syrup boils at seven degrees above the boiling temperature of water. If you can’t boil the sap right away, keep it cold. Think of milk, Mr. Wilkinson said. Warm milk spoils. 

  • A hydrometer indicates the percentage of sugar in the maple syrup. The sugar percentage of the liquid is measured in degrees Brix; one degree Brix equals 1 percent sugar content. The standard density for maple syrup is 66.9 Brix when calibrated to measure cold syrup at 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  

  • Bottle syrup at 185 to 190 degrees, though when using glass bottles, the bottles must be preheated to keep the syrup from cooling. 

There is, of course, much more to know about the process. This was just the short and sweet of it. So to speak. 


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