This is Part 2 of our segment on Maple Sugaring this March. If you missed Part 1: Sugaring 101––which provides an introduction to maple sugaring, including some of the terms in this interview––read it here first.
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If you attend our Winter Farmers’ Markets, you may have seen Steve Anderson staffing his market stall, Anderson’s Mini Maples. What’s clear looking at Steve’s market stall is that he sells pure maple syrup, maple pecans, and maple candy, but there’s a lot more to the story before those delicious products end up for sale. Our food always has a story, and in this interview, Steve Anderson shares his––and it’s a good one, because he’s been making maple syrup for 50 years!
Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Let’s start with the basics! Where’s your sugar house?
I’m in Deerfield and the sugar house is in the middle of the woods. You need four-wheel drive to get in.
I guess that means you aren’t getting a lot of visitors?
No, just me, I’m on a one man operation. I used to have visitors, but once I got distracted and ended up with a burnt pan that cost $600. No more visitors after that.
How long have you been sugaring?
I got started back in the early 70s with six buckets. That first year I boiled the sap on the stove and promptly got thrown out of the house because the steam took all the wallpaper off the walls.
Why did you decide to get started in sugaring?
Well, I was a pharmacist and I worked with a maple producer from New London. I went and saw his operation and thought I might as well try that, too. Then it grew out of control. When I retired in 1995 I went full-time maple.
How has your operation grown from those six buckets?
Well, after I got thrown outside I made an evaporator out of cinderblocks and put a pan over it. Eventually I built a sugar house to get out of the snow and rain.
Do you use buckets or tubing?
When I started tubing was only in its infancy, so I used 750-1000 taps on buckets. Now I use mostly tubing, and only around 200 buckets.
That’s a lot for a one man operation!
Yes, it is, but I put a 50 gallon drum on the front of my back-hoe and collect with five-gallon pails. Then I dump that into a 325 gallon tank in my truck. It takes about five hours to collect all the sap when it’s running strong.
What’s your evaporator like?
It’s a 3×8 Small Brothers. I can boil 100 gallons an hour.
Do you ever get bored?
Not really. There’s always something to do––keeping an eye on the sap, feeding the fire with wood, drawing off and filtering. But I guess occasionally. I keep the radio on.
How long does it take you to boil down the sap?
It all depends on the weather for how much sap there is, but sometimes I boil all night. You have to boil when you can.
What’s an aspect of maple sugaring that people might not know about?
In addition to collecting sap and boiling, you have to walk the lines to check on things, too. The squirrels chew into the lines. Deer aren’t really a problem. They walk over or under the tubing. Moose go right through it though, they pull out all the fittings. I usually walk the lines once a week. It takes about three hours.
Why did you select the name Mini Maples for your business?
Well, two reasons. One is because I started off very small, a mini operation. The other is so that people would ask me what I was doing, ask if I had miniature trees.
So what do you sell and do you do any value added products?
Maple syrup, of course, from one gallon down to 3.4 ounces. I also make maple candy, maple coated pecans, and maple sugar.
Can you explain a bit how you make the maple products?
Maple candy you take the syrup to 232 degrees then take it off the burner and stir it with a wooden spoon until it crystallizes. Then you pour it into molds so it will harden. I don’t make a lot, 17 ounces or so and I sell them in 1 ounce sizes.
That’s a speciality product then––only 17 people can get it each year!
That’s right! And then the maple coated pecans––I bake the nuts for fifteen minutes at 325 degrees. Then I heat the maple to 238 degrees and pour it over the nuts, stirring until my arm is ready to break off until the syrup hardens on top. I sell those in 4 ounce packages.
And how do you make maple sugar?
Maple sugar you boil to 255 degrees and pour into a heavy duty mixer like a Kitchen Aid with a bread paddle. You let it go very slowly until it’s the consistency of pudding. Then there’s a moment when a puff of steam comes up and you are left with sugar.
There’s a lot of precision involved.
Yes, my background in pharmacy helped with that.
You have a valuable perspective sugaring over 50 years. What kind of changes have you seen during that time?
The biggest is tubing. Most people use tubing now instead of buckets. There’s also vacuum systems to suck the sap out of the tree, and reverse osmosis. I wouldn’t do these. I do it the old-fashioned way.
The weather has definitely changed the season, too. In the past I wouldn’t tap until after town meeting, the second week in March. Now I tap the second week in February.
Have you been tapping the same trees all this time?
Yes, plus some new ones that have grown big enough to be tapped.
Fifty years is a long time to be working with the trees! Do you feel like you have a relationship with them?
I talk to them once in a while. It doesn’t hurt the tree, it only takes 10% of the sap each season.
What’s the most common question you get asked at farmers’ markets?
The most popular is if I have sugar-free syrup. But, without the sugar, it wouldn’t be maple syrup! Sometimes people have food allergies and they ask if there is gluten in the syrup, which there isn’t – it’s just the sap.
What else do people want to know that we can share?
People ask about the trees. They’re sugar maples. It’s not like tending an orchard with pruning and all that. They are trees in the forest.
What’s your favorite grade of syrup?
Well it used to be called Grade B, now it’s Grade A, very dark. A couple years ago they changed the grading system so all states and provinces in Canada would be the same. That’s what they said anyway, I think it’s because people don’t want to come home with Grade B. It sounded like an inferior product, but it actually has the strongest flavor.
What’s your favorite part of maple sugaring?
Gathering the sap is my favorite part. I like being outside, enjoying the weather. Boiling is just boiling, watching water boil.
What’s your least favorite part?
Cleaning up after the season is over. You have to flush the lines with water, wash all the buckets, holding tanks, evaporator.
What is something you’d like people to know about maple sugaring?
It’s the real thing! It’s a lot of work. It takes a long time so it should be enjoyed by the general public.
Okay, last question: what’s your favorite way to eat maple syrup?
Pour it over vanilla ice cream.
I thought for sure you’d say pancakes.
That’s too easy!