The hinges of the cast iron firebox at the base of a gleaming stainless steel evaporator squeal as maple sugarer Frank Ferruci loads more wood. As the fire crackles, the evaporator boils vigorously and exhales a constant flow of steam. The air smells of maple.
Frank, along with his wife, Jen, are the owners of Maple Moon Farm in Lebanon, Maine. It’s mid-March, and Frank has graciously invited me to spend the afternoon with him as he boils. The first thing I had noticed when pulling up the quiet driveway that afternoon were the buckets hanging from a stand of maple trees––exactly what I expected to see. The second was more surprising: a fleet of robin’s egg blue medical scrubs swaying from a clothesline.
As it turns out, Frank is a full-time Physician’s Assistant when he isn’t tending the 120 acres where (in addition to sugaring) he and Jen grow PYO peaches, blueberries, and raspberries. And if that weren’t enough, the couple also hosts weddings and Airbnb guests in their 1790s-era farmhouse.
Needless to say, Frank keeps busy.
Perhaps due to his medical background, when I ask Frank why he started maple sugaring, he describes it as a “bit of a disease.” Like many who catch the sugaring bug, Frank started on a homemade evaporator made of cinder blocks and hotel buffet pans. He goes on:
“You start small and it snowballs quickly. Soon you are peeking into the neighbors’ yards for trees.”
The original pan now hangs in the sugar house he built to house a commercial evaporator, reverse osmosis system (to remove water prior to boiling), and old-fashioned stove where he flips pancakes for visitors. The most popular weekend is Maine Maple Sunday––always the fourth Sunday in March––but Frank also welcomes visitors on other weekends, too, if they call ahead.
Frank now taps 600 trees––500 using gravity-fed line tubing and 100 using buckets collected by hand. He boils 8000 gallons of sap collected from 70% red maples and 30% sugar maples, which means his sap to syrup ratio is closer to 55:1 (compared to 40:1 with primarily sugar maples), but it’s all dependent on the year.
(The sugar content changes each season depending on the weather of the previous summer. A summer with lots of sun, versus cloudy days, means the maples can photosynthesize more and thus make and store more sugar.)
I ask the inevitable question: with a full-time job, why put in the long hours of sugaring? His answer is poetic. Because he loves it. Because of the ping of sap in the buckets, the smell of maple wafting from the front pan, the ability to honor the tradition of hundreds of years. And all of those things are true, but it’s easy to romanticize farming, and Frank is clear: for all of the good, it’s a lot of work, too. Wood needs stacking. Valves freeze. Tubes leak. Squirrels chew holes in the lines. Stuff goes wrong. “Sometimes, it’s not fun. Other days, it’s warm and the sap is pumping.” Those days are the days when he is reminded of the old adage:
“Maple sap can run as fast as the sugar maker’s heartbeat.”
As the sap boils, and I pepper Frank with questions, a float system automatically monitors the level of sap (they operate just like toilet bowl valves). This system frees Frank up to add wood to the firebox and keep an eye on a long-stem thermometer measuring the boiling point of the front pan. When the thermometer reaches seven, it’s time to draw off syrup. Seven is the lucky number because syrup is denser than water. Therefore, it boils at a higher temperature. Seven degrees higher to be exact. The thermometer is calibrated so that zero equals 212 degrees, so seven tells the sugarer the syrup has reached 219 degrees.
As the thermometer inches toward the seven, I share with Frank that I used to make maple syrup myself. For old times sake, he lets me take a reading with the hydrometer. As it floats to 66%, he instructs me to open the valve to draw off the syrup. As the dark amber flows into the collection bucket, Frank snaps my picture and I’m all smiles.
Returning back to our roles, Frank pours the steaming hot syrup through a series of filters and into a finishing pan. Later, he’ll reheat the syrup to bottle it. The filters remove minerals and sediment from the syrup. It’s impressive how much dark gunk remains behind. All part of the maple sugaring process that many don’t know about or get to see.
Another is the jar of white crystals that sit above the evaporator. It’s defoamer, a product used in the boiling process to break the surface tension of the sap so the steam can evaporate. Without it, you can have a “sap volcano” on your hands––just like when pasta water boils over. Frank used dehydrated vegetable oil. I used to use small dabs of butter. Frank tells me that old timers used to hang salted pork over their evaporators––satisfying two needs at once.
Frank is a natural teacher. His sugar house showcases educational signs alongside early colonial wooden taps and hydrometers with neat cursive writing and filled with mercury. A lot has changed since those times. In the early 1800s, cane sugar, imported from the West Indies, was the more expensive sugar. As a locally available sweetener, maple sugar was cheaper; it’s what everyone used. Maple sugar was so commonplace that Thomas Jefferson even tried to make it a major US export.
However, with the advent of steam power, the price of cane sugar dropped. Now, a 5-pound bag of white sugar costs a couple bucks. In comparison, six ounces of maple sugar can retail for $9. The tables (and what was on them) reversed. Even with that price point, Frank notes that “small and mid-size producers don’t get into the sugaring business to make money.” The operation costs (labor, fuel, equipment) is too expensive without scaling up considerably. (For reference, large-scale sugaring operations in Northern Maine and Canada run 30,000-50,000 taps and are boiling on evaporators fueled by oil, not wood.)
Price and availability aren’t the only changes. Over twelve years of sugaring, Frank, like many other maple sugarers, has witnessed firsthand the shifting climate. The season kicks off much sooner, and Frank often finds that he can barely get through Maine Maple Weekend with enough sap. Sometimes he’s had to boil water just so visitors can still see the process. Frank asks the question out loud:
“Will we be making syrup in Southern Maine in 50 years?”
After drawing off and filtering another round of syrup, Frank stops adding wood to the firebox. As the evaporator dies down, I ask what he thinks individuals can do about climate change. That’s no easy question to answer off-the-cuff, but Frank’s game. “It will be a lot of little things,” he says, “sourcing food from local farms that isn’t trucked. Using less resources. Less polluting.”
“Four or five little things times billions of people equals real results.”
It’s a metaphor that couldn’t be better suited for maple sugaring––a process where magic happens through concentration. Sugar diluted in sap is essentially water. Sugar concentrated into maple syrup is delicious. There is a huge impact when things are brought together. It adds up.
As we leave the sugar house, I snap Frank’s photo in front of the sugar house. The stack is leaning from heavy winds that blew it over––something else to fix in addition to the syrup needing bottling, the full buckets needing collecting, the tubing tanks that need to be emptied. Out of the corner of my eyes, those blue scrubs sway on the clothesline. I ask Frank how he does it all. “A lot of caffeine,” he replies. Sweetened with maple syrup, of course.
Three more facts from Frank (visit Maple Moon Farm to set up a visit and learn more!):
- The bigger the swing in temperatures (cold nights to warm days) the more the sap will run.
- Maple syrup is shelf-stable so long as it’s boiled hot, has an airtight seal, and reaches that sweet spot of 66% sugar—less and it will mold, more and it will crystallize.
- If you are collecting sap at home, use food grade buckets. Recycled buckets from big box stores might seem cheap and appealing, but they might have contained diesel. Since everything in maple gets concentrated, you don’t want to inadvertently concentrate the wrong thing. Food grade buckets are often available from bakeries.
Frank’s Foolproof Method for Perfect Maple Butter – thanks, Frank!
Bring 1 cup of maple syrup to the candy stage (234-235 degrees), then mix a stick and a half of butter in a standing mixer. This method yields the perfect consistency.