The Sweetest Season

BY VICTORIA SPENCER PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER MAY

“Maple syrup is like wine,” declares Peter Andersen, a third-generation maple producer in Long Eddy, Sullivan County. “It reflects the flavor of the soil where it was grown, so different maple forests have their own flavor.”

The sugar maple tree grows only in the northern temperate zones of North America; southeastern Canada, New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio and, of course, New York. And maple syrup is a very weather dependent crop. If the temperatures aren’t right, the sap doesn’t run and there isn’t any syrup. “Last year was terrible, the worst crop in years,” says Peter’s mother, Irene. “If you don’t get the weather, the sap doesn’t come,” her husband August explains.

The Andersens are a tight-knit family with vast expertise in making maple syrup. They’re also great promoters of their product, readily sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge. For many years, Irene has hosted school field trips, introducing new younger generations to this sweet delight, and she and August were early supporters of the area farmers’ markets.

August’s father, a Danish immigrant, learned maple sugaring from neighbors after buying the land in 1936. August and Irene are both now in their 80s. When they started tapping, after they got married in 1954, sap was collected in buckets. “We had 1,000 buckets,” recalls Irene. August adds, “They were 16-quart or 4-gallon buckets.” By the time they moved to tubing sometime in the 1980s, they had 4,000 buckets. Using tubing makes collecting sap easier and more efficient but it’s still a long cold process. Irene laughs, “You plod around in snowshoes and can only go in one direction. You have to walk around the entire tree because you can’t back up. And you’re always on the outside looking in when everyone else is inside.”

The Andersens are a maple farm and this sets them apart. Generally, maple sugaring is something farmers have done as a sideline when their fields are frozen, but for the Andersens it is 75 percent of their business. The Hereford cattle that Peter, a Cornell graduate, raises for breeding, along with the freezer trade beef and the three-acre pumpkin and winter squash patch, are supplementary to the maple syrup, cream and sugar. About 250 acres of the 1,000- acre farm is used for maple sugaring. Maple season usually starts right after Christmas says Irene. This year Peter is still waiting at the start of February. “You need freezing nights, with a minimum of 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and thawing days, with 45 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says as he and his 16-year-old daughter, Megan, check tubing so it’s ready to go out when temperatures are right.

Let It Bleed

A group of maples is called a “bush” and the tubing is color-coded for each bush. Peter points to the tree line across the field behind the sap house. “I have 3,000 taps up there,” he says. Then pointing in the opposite direction, “and another 3,000 over there and 3,000 taps on the other side of the hill.” Trees are only tapped once a year and only trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter are tapped. Peter uses an electric drill to make a 7/16-inch hole just one inch into the tree. August explains the taps are made diagonally so as not to break the trees cambium layer, which is the layer between the bark and the wood and is responsible for producing new roots and new shoots as well as tissue that heals over wounds. But if the trees and the tapping, which takes two weeks, are managed carefully, “you can tap forever,” Peter says. His father laughs that this year Peter will be tapping about a foot higher, because all the snow on the ground has literally elevated the practice.

Processing, as they call syrup making, begins as soon as the sap is running. The sap from the trees closest to the sap house runs through tubes directly to the sap-house tanks. For the trees farther afield, the sap is moved by tractor to the saphouse. Maple sap has a consistency similar to water but tastes sweet. It’s two percent sugar and 98 percent water. It will easily spoil or ferment about 24 hours after collection, so a holding tank in the sap house is fitted with ultraviolet lights that preserve the extract and allow some sap to be held for a day or two if there is too much running to be processed immediately. While the sap is running, two people man the sap house and one works outside gathering sap and checking tubing for tears or blockages. Sap doesn’t run constantly but while the sap is running, the work is intense. It can run anytime in “January, February…but the middle of March to the middle of April, that’s the time,” says August. “Yeah, the last week in March is the big time.”

Peter agrees, adding, “I can be boiling 24 hours a day then.”

Once the sap reaches the sap house, it is filtered. This is the first of the seven times it will be filtered as it is reduced into syrup. The Andersens have been using reverse osmosis, a pressurized filtration system used to remove water from the maple sap, since the 1970s.

Peter proudly shows off his latest reverse osmosis machine. Bought just last year, it is faster than the model it replaced. Once the water is removed from the sap, it is about eight percent sugar and is boiled off in large stainless steel evaporators over high heat, around 217 degrees Fahrenheit, to remove 70 percent of the remaining water.

Before reverse osmosis, the sap was cooked all the way to reduce it to syrup. And when August and Irene started maple sugaring, evaporators were fueled by wood which they chopped themselves. Irene explains the oil-fired evaporators are much easier to control and can be turned off immediately, unlike the old wood-fired ones. The sap follows a winding path in the evaporator as it boils and becomes denser, more like finished syrup. The reduced liquid is “drawn off ” or pumped into the finishing pan, about 10 gallons at a time. From there, the syrup is checked for density. Finished maple syrup is 67 percent sugar and 33 percent water. There’s still more filtering before the maple syrup is ready to be graded.

Making the Grade

When maple syrup is sold at farmers markets or in stores in the usual heavy plastic pint or quart or half-gallon containers, it’s hard to see what the difference is between U.S. grade A light amber, medium amber and dark amber. If the syrup is packed in glass, the differences in color, on which the grading is based, are more apparent.

Differences in taste are more subtle. Generally light amber is the first syrup of the season; made when the sap is lighter, it has the mildest flavor. Medium and dark amber syrups are produced in larger quantities and are the most popular. In New York State, grade B maple syrup must be marked “for cooking,” though Peter notes no one is going to stop you from putting it on your pancakes. He does caution grade B maple syrup can vary more widely in taste than A; it is produced later in the season and has the strongest flavor. Each grade of syrup has its adherents. It’s all pure and natural and organic, laughs August. Though, generally, maple syrup, including Andersen’s, is not certified organic, it is produced without chemicals or fertilizers.

Maple syrup is a traditional food, produced much as it was by the Algonquins, who are credited with its discovery. It’s certainly a precious commodity, it takes 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. And maple syrup is probably New York’s first crop of the year; luckily though its production season is short, this is one local food whose sweet, rich flavor can be enjoyed year round.

ANDERSEN’S MAPLE FARM

534 Andersen Road, Long Eddy 845.887.4238

The Sweetest Season