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By John R. Nieb
The unusual weather of the winter of 2016 to 2017 has affected the trees in the Granby area and the sap that determines boiling season for maple syrup.
“Even though we’ve had a few days up and down the temperature scale, trees here in New England are and will remain dormant for the winter season,” said Doug Max, owner of Maximum Tree Service LLC.
Buds that are formed prior to the summer remain protected under bud scales until the next growing season. There is a scientific formula to compute Growing Degree Days (GDD), but basically it’s the high and low temperature of a given day averaged out above a particular base line for each species or variety of tree.
Trees live in hardiness zones specific to each tree species and directly related to their ability to survive in the temperatures of that zone.
“Trees in our hardiness zone require a certain number of consistent GDDs to start the growing process,” Max said. “We haven’t started counting any GDDs for New England because we need consistent temperatures above an average of 50-55 degrees.”
“One concern that comes to mind, but there’s nothing we can do to prevent it, is a late season frost,” Max said. “If trees accumulate enough GDDs to break dormancy and start the flow of nutrients or sap as it were, and we get a late season frost, thin bark trees like Norway maple can run the risk of having the sap freeze.”
When any liquid freezes, it expands and can split the bark. Trees are resilient and have the ability to compartmentalize disease and decay. The present weather pattern is having very little affect on the trees in this hardiness zone and they’ll continue dormancy until spring arrives.
When Arlow Case Jr., owner of Sweet Wind Farm, was six-years-old, he began maple sugaring on Bushy Hill Road. Case took an interest in tapping trees, boiling the sap, and making maple syrup. His father, Arlow Case Sr., was a sheet metal worker and fashioned his first homemade evaporator, and began “Arlow’s Sugar Shack” in the backyard.
Case and his parents made maple syrup for about 30 years. Case has tapped many trees in Granby over the years and still does so, giving some of the finished “liquid gold” to tree owners in exchange for letting him tap the trees. As a kid, Case’s production was a few dozen taps. Now, his production is around 3,000 to 4,000 taps, depending on the season.
Case taps trees in many towns besides Granby, including Hartland, Granville, Barkhamsted, East Granby, Simsbury and on the family farm in Blandford.
In 2006, Case and his wife, Susan, built their present sugarhouse in Hartland. It has a 4”x10” Dominion and Grimm evaporator and a La Pierre reverse osmosis. The Cases make 200 to 1,000 gallons of syrup depending on how many sap runs there are and the number of trees tapped.
Case’s four children have all helped with syrup making and the two who are still at home know a bit about farm work and the old New England tradition of maple sugaring.
The sap “runs” when the days are warm and the nights are freezing. The roots convert stored starches into sugar and the pressure of the freeze and thaw cycle sends it out and upward to feed the limbs. The sap is collected after a “run” and brought back to the sugarhouse for boiling.
“Each tap hole has to be a newly drilled hole in a new spot, which is about one and a half inches deep and a 5/16 spigot is inserted for the sap to flow out of,” Case said. “Usually all taps these days are put on connected tubing, which makes it much easier to collect the sap in one large tank near the sugarbush.”
“The old days of buckets are great for a home hobbyist, but not a commercial producer who needs to make good time on collecting,” Case said. “A typical good season could provide a quart of syrup per tap.”
It takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Back at the sugarhouse, it is first run through a reverse osmosis machine that extracts water content out of the sap and concentrates it before boiling in the evaporator.
Sap is about 2.5 percent sugar content, and the finished syrup is about 66 percent sugar. Once the syrup is the right density it is pumped through a filter press to take out the “niter”, or sap sand, and when it is hot, it is bottled into various size jugs and bottles.
Syrup season in Connecticut typically starts in February and lasts through the end of March, but there have been seasons that start, and or end, sooner or later. Every year the weather is different—there is never a typical season.
In years past, the Cases have made syrup as early as January or as late as mid-April. There have been seasons where it didn’t warm up enough until mid-March to start, and other years where by mid-March, it was all over.
This year seems to be an average year. Usually by the second week of February, most sugar makers have started their season. The extended forecast is watched for days with a night time freeze (below 32 degrees, but preferably in the 20s) followed by a 40-degree day to start to thaw the sap.
“This is what makes the sap flow,” Case said. “Any other day where the nights don’t freeze up enough, or the days don’t get warm enough, the sap does not run at all.”
A typical season will get up to a dozen sap runs, but the Cases have had years where there were only a few saps.
“We can never tell ahead of time what kind of season it is going to be, we can only tell you in hindsight what it was,” Case said. “The weather right now does not seem out of the ordinary to us.”
“Only if it suddenly gets warm and stays that way, or suddenly stays cold too many days in a row, will it effect the overall season,” Case said. “We don’t know until it is over and done with for sure, usually by sometime in April.”
Pure maple syrup is graded according to color, but there is a difference in flavor with the different grades as well.
“We are still using the ‘old’ grading system, because it’s easier and it’s what people are used to,” Case said. The old way, Grade A syrup was divided into three subcategories: light amber, medium amber, and dark amber. Obviously determined by the color of the syrup. Lighter colored syrup is yellow, whereas medium is a golden brown, and dark is brown. Grade B syrup is even darker like coffee, but stronger in flavor so it is not considered a table-grade syrup, but is used for baking and cooking.
Most of what the Cases make tends to be medium amber. Typically, the darker the color, the stronger the flavor and the lighter the color the more delicate the flavor.
“We use light syrup for making confections. Everyone has a favorite and there is no grade more popular than another, it is all individual preference,” Case said.
The grading system has changed and now is divided into more categories. What was considered Grade B for cooking is now a Grade A “strong robust.”
The Cases hold their annual Maple Festival on the second Saturday of March every year because that day is the best bet for being smack dab in the middle of the season, but there have been years when the Maple Festival was the first boil of the season—and years when it was on the last boil of the year.
“We’ll see what happens,” Case said.
Sweet Wind Farm
Annual Maple Festival
March 11, 2017