Spring was around the corner in Virginia, but I planned a trip to the Northern Maine and New Brunswick, Canada border back to where the winter blues had not yet disappeared in order to chase “Maple”.
We wanted to resurrect old childhood memories of visiting the Sugar Shacks and rolling maple taffy on the snow. In conjunction with a trip to visit family for Easter, we decided to explore off the beaten path we normally would take, to stop and “smell the roses” along the way – in this case, smell the maple! We toured large and small maple syrup producing facilities, as well as other interesting places of interest.
It was very enlightening to learn about the processing of maple sap into maple syrup, so let me give you some historical and basic information.
Maple Syrup History and Fast Facts
Native Americans introduced the concept of collecting maple sap (or sugar water) to early French settlers of Northeastern areas of the United States and Canada. For Native Americans, it was an all purpose seasoning. This is the reason why Quebec, Canada produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup, and the remaining 20% is produced by New York, Vermont and Maine, to name the top three maple producing states. However, Somerset County, Maine is the largest maple producing county in the U.S. During the Civil War era, maple sugar sold for half the price of cane sugar. Cane sugar was part of the chain of slavery, so maple sugar, made by free Northerners became highly in demand. This resulted in a record production of 40 million pounds of maple sugar and 10 million gallons of maple syrup during the year of 1860. Even with today’s advanced technology in maple production, that record has not been broken.
On average, if the sap contains 2% sugar content, (with the other 98% being water) it will take forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. If the sugar content is less, it will take more sap to produce one gallon of water.
Maple sap can only be extracted during the spring when nights are still very cold, below freezing, and days are warm, with temperatures rising to 40 degrees or higher, so that the sap water will flow for collection. Pure all-natural maple syrup has one of the lowest calorie levels of common sweeteners, as well as having an extremely higher nutritional value content of manganese, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
All maple producing states conduct their own maple-festival weekend events during the month of March and sometimes at the beginning of April. Surprisingly enough, maple syrup may be found closer to you than you may have imagined. Maple sugar shacks are found in the mountains of Highland County, Virginia as well, among other north central states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I have previously attended the Highland County, VA Maple Festival in the past. Other New England states consist of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
First Stop Madava Farms, the home of Crown Maple, in New York
Our first stop was at Madava Farms, producer of Crown Maple Syrup, located in Dover, NY. Crown Maple was established in 2010 initially as a hobby, as well as an attempt to give employment after the 2008 financial crisis to area individuals who had lost their jobs. This 800 acre farm currently has about 60,000 maple trees tapped for sap with a recently acquired second farm situated in Vermont having 30,000 trees tapped.
Maple trees are considered fully mature at about 40 years old, at which point, when tapped, can produce about 40 gallons of sap. When reduced, this makes one gallon of syrup. The tree cannot be tapped in the same spot in following years. Once the taps are removed at the end of the season, the tree will heal and a hard fibrous scar will form on the tree closing the tap hole, making it difficult to place a tap in the same place. Only one tap per tree can be placed in order to avoid killing the tree. A group of maple trees is called a “sugar bush.”
Madava Farms has over 300 miles of sap collection tubing running from trees to collection containers, looking like an oversized spiders web weaved thru the maple trees. Vacuum pressure is used to collect the sap through the tubing to the collection station. If vacuum pressure is lost, lines must be checked for breaks such as wildlife running through the lines or chewing holes into the tubing. Tree limbs may also fall onto the lines. The taps and lines are taken down after every maple season. The taps are replaced annually, and tubing can be used several years after sanitizing before being replaced.
With an abundance of sap being collected, Crown Maple, with the assistance of Cornell University and University of Vermont Cooperative Extension researchers, has incorporated some of the latest technologies in producing large quantities of quality, certified-organic maple syrup.
300 gallons of sap can be boiled per hour, with a total processing and production time of 18 hours from tree to syrup in this large stainless steel evaporator.
Maple syrup producers, like winemakers, take a lot of personal pride in their maple syrup. Here, you are exposed to the different kinds of grades (or shades) of maple syrup, from light amber to dark amber. The light amber syrup is most coveted which has a light flavor, while the dark amber has a stronger taste and tends to be used more primarily for cooking and baking purposes. The grade of syrup produced varies from year to year, and there is no way to know what type of syrup will be produced until the sap is processed. All grades are equally tasteful for the typical pancake eater, depending on your preference.
My favorite was the Bourbon infused maple syrup. The pieces of crystalized maple from the maple syrup processing are also packaged and sold as “maple pearls” used as a topping for baked goods. The high quality of Crown Maple products makes it very much in demand from the nearby New York City chefs due to its pure organic artisan craftsmanship. Madava Farms/Crown Maple has a cafe which serves a farm to table menu with an infusion of maple in the menu served.
In another section of the facility, maple infused cocktails are available for sampling, as well as maple cotton candy, and maple covered popcorn.
Madava Farms/Crown Maple prides itself on utilizing fully sustainable practices in its maple production The water collected from the reverse osmosis process as well as the evaporated steam from the sap produced during boiling, are collected and packaged to be sold as Maple Water or re-used to clean out the processing equipment.
Wood panels on the walls of the Maple tasting room were made from dead Maple trees. The dots on the panels are from the scars of the taps originally put in the maple trees.
New York’s Soukup Farms, a third generation family farm
Our next stop in search of “Maple” was a few miles further down the road at Soukup Farms in Dover Plains, NY.
Here, we stepped back in time a bit as Soukup Farms practices making Maple Syrup in the familiar way of a “Sugar Shack” with a wood-fired evaporator. Typically 1 ½ cords of wood is burned to keep the sap boiling long and hot enough to produce the syrup. The temperature of the syrup must reach 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. So far, eighteen cords of wood have been burned to produce maple syrup.
The steam escapes through a vented section in the roof of the Sugar Shack. With this being a smaller scale production, Soukup Farms produced seven gallons of maple syrup per hour.
A display is shown with the various “taps” utilized in tapping maple trees for sap. The uppermost tap is made from metal, and progressing down are taps modified for modern day extraction of sap from the maple trees which are currently made from food grade plastics.
My favorite maple flavored find here was the maple infused hot-sauce. It was delicious on a sample of London Broil steak available there as well that day.
Visit mapleweekend.com for a listing of New York state maple producers and maple festival events.
A Horse Lovers’ Side Trip
Continuing our journey north, I had to satisfy my passion for equines by visiting the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, New York.
Admission to the museum is free. It is home of the world’s largest collection of Currier & Ives trotting prints and the Harness Racing Hall of fame dedicated to the Standardbred horse industry. It is housed on the grounds of a former harness racing track. Harness racers still utilize the track for training purposes. Inside, you can snap a photo with a life-size statue of a Standardbred.
New England Shopping, Food & Beach Excursions
Traveling further into New England, we stopped at Yankee Candle Village in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Formerly from New England, and a big fan of Yankee Candles, I had to stop in. Yankee Candles are known for their quality and keeping their candle scent until the candle is burned down.
Inside the Yankee Candle Company was a large Bavarian Christmas Shop with many kinds of Christmas ornaments to purchase. The King Candle, the largest Yankee Candle produced with 13 pounds of wax was on display. In keeping with the “Maple” theme of the trip, I was able to purchase a New England Maple scented candle, which is available on a limited basis during the spring Maple Festivals that occur in “Maple” country. A section of Yankee Candle Company was also dedicated to maple related products.
After crossing the Maine state line, we headed to Old Orchard Beach along the coast to walk on the beach. We try to visit Old Orchard beach whenever possible on our trips to Maine, no matter what time of the year it is, as this was one of our stops on our honeymoon trip thirty five years ago.
Passing through Scarborough, we made a stop at Cabela’s, one of my favorite outdoor adventure outfitters, which also has a life-sized statue of one of Maine’s popular wildlife animal, a moose. Inside Cabela’s, it is like walking into a wildlife museum. There are many taxidermy animals on display, including the black bear, another native Maine animal.
Next door to Cabela’s in Scarborough is Portland Pie Restaurant & Pub. Rated as the “Best Casual Restaurant” for the past twelve years, Portland Pie has an excellent and tasty variety of pizzas as well as a bar. Lobster rolls and wild Maine blueberry pie is also on the menu– a must if you want to taste foods for which Maine is well-known. In addition, Portland Pie serves food that is grown locally in Maine from sustainable farms and organically raised meats.
In Auburn, we ate at Gippers Sports Grill at 120 Center St., located in a small strip mall area, and the entrance seems like a hole in the wall, but once inside, it is spacious and the food is excellent. The employees are very cordial and service detailed.
A trip to Maine is not complete if you don’t have any Maine lobster. Our favorite place to buy lobster is at Gendrons Seafood in Lewiston. Located close to the I-95 exit, it offers live lobsters as well as cooked lobsters. In addition, cooked and shelled lobster meat is available to purchase to make delicious lobster rolls. You can also order Maine lobster from them online.
Another favorite spot we stop at on every occasion we travel to Maine is Fielder’s Choice Ice Cream in Sabattus for, well, Maple Walnut ice cream!
All of their ice cream is homemade with real cream, and I swear their Maple Walnut ice cream is the best in all of the world! Field of Dreams Ice Cream has several other locations along the southern coast of Maine.
Located in Sabattus as well was Pep’s Pure Maple Syrup. As with all the small Maple Sugar shacks we toured on this trip, the owners were very friendly and took pleasure in explaining to us the process of making maple syrup and their history. Maple sugar shacks and maple sugar bushes have been in their families for many generations. Each generation expanded and improved upon their maple “hobby” taking pride in the art of making syrup from sap and each has a favorite or unique food item made with maple.
Heading towards northern Aroostook County close to the point the I-95 ends is the little town of Smyrna Mills. Here is where we found Spring Break Maple Farm & Gift Shop, located at 3315 US Route 2. The landscape began showing evidence of snow on the ground.
Spring Break has 300 acres of maple trees and about 10 miles of sap line, filling on average one 55-gallon drum of syrup per day. When the owner’s grandfather began tapping maple trees for sap, he bought a 60 year-old boiler and was boiling sap into maple syrup outside underneath a blue tarp. Improvements and upgrades over the years with the succeeding generations make the process much easier and quicker today.
In another room, we found trays of maple sugar candies drying before preparation for packaging. The shelf life of maple candy is about six to nine months. One way to help naturally preserve maple candy is to dip the finished candy in maple syrup to produce a crystallized coating. Maple demand is increasing as a natural organic sugar and baking substitute.
During the summer, Spring Break Farm also produces honey, which is also sold in their store.
Heading further north, the temperature gets colder, and snow is evident. We stop in Bridgewater at Bradbury Farm, located at 22 Packard Road.
With the colder temperatures and snowy weather in Northern parts of Maine, the maple sap had not significantly begun to run yet so the Sugar Shack did not show signs of the evaporated steam from the boilers venting through the roof.
Maple sap will stay frozen in the lines during freezing temperatures. During the days when temperatures rise above freezing, vacuum equipment will pull the sap through the lines to the sap collection tanks. Once sap is collected, it cannot sit for long until boiling, as the sap water spoils quickly due to the sugars in it. So once the sap begins to run, the syrup makers must work around the clock. The boiling point of the sap will vary due to the barometric pressure in the air. All in all, the processing of sap into maple products is a very scientifically and mathematically based.
I now have a deep respect for maple production processing persons, and no longer have any hesitancy to pay a significant fee for quality and organically made pure maple syrup. Many times, the maple syrup found in regular supermarkets will contain other sugars mixed in with it. One way to tell is that the syrup will tend to crystallize very quickly. True maple syrup can be put into a freezer and will not freeze, similar to alcohol in that sense.
Another interesting tidbit we discovered here at Bradbury Farms was the use of crushed, powdered oyster shells used in the filtration system utilized in their process.
Bradbury Farm produces a tasty maple jelly – a new and different maple product concept I discovered on this trip. It reminded me of apple jelly in color and texture.
Maple syrup for purchase inside the Bradbury Farm store as well as a maple leaf-shaped puzzle displaying maple sap collecting scenes. This puzzle was made by school children from a southeastern state and mailed to Bradbury Farm as a gift.
For a complete listing of maple syrup producers in Maine, including a map, go to mainemapleproducers.com. In addition, many of these listings have their own websites where you can order maple products directly from them.
Maine Maple Sunday is traditionally held the fourth Sunday of March, and all of the maple producers will have open houses and special events to promote maple products.
Canadian Maple Syrup Shacks
Lastly, we crossed over into New Brunswick Province, Canada to explore some Canadian maple sugar shacks. Unfortunately, with much snow still on the ground and cold temperatures constantly in the air, maple sap had not even began yet when we dropped in at Castonguay Sugar Camp at Lake Edward. Not one to give up easily, we then went to Paradis de la Petit Montagne in St. Andre, Canada.
Paradis de la Petit Montagne (translated to English means “Little Mountain Paradise”) is a recreational campground during the summer. In the late winter/early spring, they collect sap from their maple trees on the property and sell maple products in their family style restaurant. In the restaurant they serve hot pancakes served with maple syrup during the maple season. Surprisingly, for a small restaurant tucked away in the woods a distance from the main road, the parking lot was full. The pancake meals served during maple season is a big hit with the locals.
For a list of Maple Sugar Shacks in New Brunswick Province, Canada go to knowmoncton.com and search for Maple Sugar Camps.
In the end, I can say we enjoyed chasing after “Maple” and did enjoy getting our maple sugar fix to last us for a while.
Maple flavored cotton candy, another new item we discovered made with maple on this trip. In addition, moose shaped maple lollipops, maple syrup in a log cabin shaped container, and a wood maple leaf ornament.
Other finds were: maple cream, spreadable on toast, muffins, etc.; maple syrup in a souvenir maple leaf shaped glass container with etched moose and state of Maine; Jelly Belly Pancake and Maple flavored jelly beans, their one of Jelly Belly’s latest flavors to hit the stores during maple season; maple and cream filled leaf-shaped cookies (one of my favorites); and a great cookbook with excellent recipes using maple syrup by Storey Publishing.
My husband’s favorite is grabbing a forkful of maple taffy and rolling it in salted peanuts for a sweet and salty snack.
About the Author: Susan St. Amand is employed with the Virginia Cooperative Extension as a 4-H Youth Program Assistant in Shenandoah County. She grew up in Northern Maine with horses on a farm and has been a transplant to Virginia for the past 25 years. She enjoys going back to Maine often to visit as well as traveling in other areas of the U.S.