Armed with only a cordless drill, a wooden mallet and a pocket full of plastic spouts, 70-year-old Dean Wilber trekked uphill through his maple orchard on a pair of snowshoes, making an extra effort to stomp out a path for me to be able to follow him through the snow in my less than adequate snow boots.
“People call and ask why maple syrup is so expensive,” Wilber said. “They should be up here with us.”
Wilber, owner of Mapletree Farm, said he has been maple sugaring since he was “old enough to be a nuisance,” spending time at family-owned sugar houses in Keene and Springfield, Vt., in the late 1940s. His fondest memory is of driving a team of horses at his uncle’s Vermont sugar house when he was eight years old.
“The snow was too deep for me to do more than that,” he said.
When he and his wife Meg were seeking property outside of Concord, they came across the maple trees on Oak Hill Road, which got Wilber’s attention. He built his house there in 1974 and his sugar house the following year, where he worked only part-time until 2007. Prior to pursuing a full-time career in sugaring, Wilber had taught industrial education and math in Bow, owned an outdoor power equipment sales and service business, sat on the New Hampshire Safety Council and worked as an independent Occupational and Safety Hazard Administration compliance consultant. He was later able to combine his expertise by creating a safety program for maple businesses and a food safety plan for maple packers.
Many things have changed at Wilber’s sugar house in the past 36 years. In 1975 he purchased his first evaporator for $650. He now has $35,000 worth of equipment not counting “Katey,” the all-terrain vehicle he calls his “orange wheelchair.” To make his operation more energy-efficient, he purchased a piece of equipment for $12,500 that cost an additional $16,000 to install. With the purchase, Wilber has been able to decrease the size of his hand-chopped wood pile.
“This [business] is bigger than a hobby operation; we make enough to sell, and all proceeds go back into equipment,” Wilber said. “If you are in it to make money, you are in the wrong business … even the large producers work hard to make their money.”
When I visited Wilber’s sugar house on March 1, the season had not yet begun; there had been some cold nights and (very few) warm days, but they had not reached the temperatures that get sap flowing from the trees. The season begins when the temperature dips below freezing after 9 p.m. and the days warm up to the mid-40s. Wilber noted that last year’s season was “not the best” as temperatures did not dip below 32 degrees until midnight. When temperatures creep into the 50s, bacteria start to grow in the lines, equipment and tap hole.
“Then the season abruptly stops,” Wilber said, adding that years ago, sugar house owners would clean their lines with formaldehyde, until health risks were discovered, and some places still do. Some sugar houses also use alcohol to clean their tap holes
“I don’t believe in that,” Wilber said. Wilber also emphasized the importance of using food-grade buckets to collect sap for sanitary and quality reasons.
In New Hampshire, annual highlight of maple season is Maple Weekend, held this year Saturday, March 19, and Sunday, March 20. Sugarhouses across the state will be open for tours, demonstrations and free samples of the harvest. Mapletree Farm will offer self-guided tours of the orchard as well a samples of maple treats.
Sap, on average, has a sugar content of two percent, so 43 gallons of it needs to be boiled to make only one gallon of syrup. The other 42 gallons are burned off as steam. The sugar content at the beginning of the season could be higher. Should the sap only have one percent sugar content, 86 gallons would be needed to produce one. To decrease the amount needed to produce a gallon, Wilber uses a reverse osmosis machine that concentrates the sap. Two pumps put pressure on the membrane of the machine, which pulls out some of the water so only the sap’s sugar content and concentrate come out. The reverse osmosis machine increases the sap’s sugar content to eight percent, which requires only 10 gallons to make one.
“Reverse osmosis made my life much simpler — my wife doesn’t have to bring my supper to the sugar house,” Wilber said.
The sap sits in a 450-gallon tank before it is pumped into the reverse osmosis machine. After the sugar is concentrated, the sap is transferred into a 300-gallon tank where it will wait to enter the evaporator. A steam recycler preheats the sap before it is evaporated. In the evaporator, the sap sits on a flue pan on a flame until it is seven degrees above boiling. It is then put into a gas-fired finisher at a half degree before it becomes syrup so the final step of the syrup production can be better controlled. The syrup is then checked for its density using a hydrometer and run through a mechanical filter press to ensure that the syrup is “sparkly clear” before it is canned and bottled.
The syrup is then given a grade based on color. The color — Grade A light, medium, amber, dark and Grade B — indicates the sugar content of the sap, Wilber said. Lighter, sweeter syrup is produced earlier in the season. Grade B is the last syrup of the season and has a sugar content of less than one and a half percent.
Wilber began tapping his 700 trees (200 on his property and 500 elsewhere — he trades syrup to use the neighbor’s trees) in January, drilling tap holes an inch deep into their trunks before hammering in a plastic spout. The holes are drilled six inches to the side of the old tap holes and one foot to eight inches up or down the tree. The spouts Wilber uses have a check valve that prevents bacteria from flowing back into the trees. With 700 taps, Wilber estimates he will be able to produce about 200 gallons of syrup this year. In 2005 he was able to produce 215. One tree can produce 10 to 12 gallons of sap a season.
Four thousand feet of rubber tubing connects the taps to tanks, which are brought to the sugar house when full. Two thousand feet of tubing connects taps directly to the tanks inside the house.
Wilber hopes to be able to tap more trees next season but is working on a solar pump to pump the sap uphill to the sugar house. “I’m always looking for more to tap,” Wilber said.
In addition to by the bottle and gallon, Wilber sells his sells maple syrup in less traditional forms — maple candy, maple crystals, maple-coated nuts and Wilber’s favorite, maple cream (syrup boiled down 22 degrees above boiling then cooled, used as a spread). At the farm’s open house on March 19, he will make maple cotton candy.
“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have some sort of maple product,” Wilber said.
During his open house, Wilber will provide a nine-page book packed with instructions and such information about the orchard as trees of interest and such activities as “find the old tap holes” to allow visitors to take a self-guided tour of his property.
“That’s the former school teacher in me,” he said.