Photos by Michael Bloom
Maple syrup season seems a bit tough to define in terms of an exact date on the calendar. It does appear to be the sweet spot between the frigid cold of winter and the warm breezes of spring. A time when the path to the maple trees are a bit murky with mud, the sun beams down fiercely and yet, the nights are still cold enough to need the heat on in the house.
In a rough, raw, and practical outbuilding named, “Sugar Shack,” Ben Hudson and his faithful yellow Labrador companion, Hannah, are in the middle of the syrup making process.
“In 2009, I was in Vermont,” he explains, “and that’s where it all started for me. The next year I went around and marked all the maple trees I thought I would use. I started out with a porcelain pot that could only evaporate about one gallon of sap per hour then I used a 55-gallon drum which could evaporate about 5 gallons per hour. Now, I have this evaporator and I can do about 25 gallons in an hour. You need about 40 – 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.”
Hudson checks the wood level in his evaporator while talking then makes a few trips back and forth outside to get more logs.
“I have about 75 trees tapped right now,” said Hudson. “This sounds really hippy,” he laughed, “but you get to know the trees. I have my favorite one that produces about a gallon at least per day.”
White buckets were attached to a number of trees marked with a bit of green paint to indicate they are indeed maples. The clear sap is collected in the buckets before being dumped into one of two holding tanks that rest on a raised platform outside of the Sugar Shack. Hudson monitors the contents of the evaporator as well as the temperature of the hot sap as it reduces.
Steam swirls above the evaporator as Hudson shares more about the process, “Once the sap has been through the evaporator, the next step is the finisher and then to check sugar level, I use a hydrometer.”
A hydrometer actually measures density of liquids and the denser the syrup is, the more sugar it contains. In appearance, the device is quite similar to a thermometer; a glass cylindrical stem and bulb.
“The final step is to strain the finished product to make sure it does not have any debris in it. I used to use cheesecloth, but I am using a new material this year. The final syrup will be in 8 ounce labeled bottles,” Hudson said.
The labels were designed by Hudson’s brother, Tom and on the front is the grade of the syrup, and a whimsical image of two dogs. One is Hannah and the other is her deceased mother, Chloe. The back of the label offers a bit of insight into Ben’s journey into the world of sticky, sweet syrup as well as the nutritional information.
Hannah gets up from her pillowy bed, not far from the heat of the evaporator, for a stretch. Hudson is again on the move checking temperatures, the level of sap in the pan and the amount of wood in the stove. The cycle is constant and fairly fast-paced.
“Depending on the weather, I might be able to produce 150 bottles of syrup and I hope to see it for sale in a few local places like bakeries,” he smiles.
Plans for a bit bigger and a bit better next year are already in place as Hudson continues to monitor the evaporator. Talk of modifications to the Sugar Shack and the possibility of having more taps next year are among his hopes. With a busy life that includes more than one job, Hudson seems to prefer the energy of being in motion, doing, and creating. Though the official season of turning sap into syrup will end once the maple trees begin to bud, usually by the second week of April, Ben Hudson will still be quite involved with the business of Ben’s Syrup.
Editor’s Note: Since our visit with Ben, his faithful canine Hannah, has passed away. Having only met her once, it was easy to see she was a lovely and loyal lady who enjoyed every moment of life as well as found a way to smile and appreciate the joy in each day.
Maple syrup is not just for breakfast. Consider the following uses:
- Pour some over freshly popped popcorn
- Try cooking not only breakfast sausage but smoked sausage like kielbasa in syrup
- Use a spoonful to sweeten your morning coffee
- Mix with bourbon and citrus for a great cocktail
- Pan roast some carrots in a bit of butter and maple syrup
- Make a maple cream sauce with 1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream heated in a saucepan and add 5 tablespoons maple syrup, and 3 tablespoons light corn syrup. Allow to thicken and reduce for about 15 minutes. Pour over cakes, crumbles, even pies. (full recipe can be found at thepioneerwoman.com)