Bobo's Mountain Sugar

DIscover A Taste of Tree

Reflections on a Season

image

The 2014 season has ended. We boiled for the last time on Monday afternoon - pushing thick sap through the pans, clogging the filter press every few draws, and making super-strong, super-dark syrup. Blackjack syrup or Black Gold: one of Bobo’s favorites.

Syrup made: 550 gallons, a 35% decrease from last year. A lot of dark syrup.

Sap boiled: ~ 34,000 gallons.

Sugar content of sap: varied through the season but averaged 1.4%.

Number of boils: 16

Amount of wood used: 10 cords.

Sap ran: 26 days.

Season started: March 29 - while there was a quick small run for three days in early March, the sap never truly ran until the 29th, making it the latest start in recent memory. “Like the Old Days,” they said.

Season ended: April 21.

In General: Our experience seemed to mirror that across the region: super-late start, average production year, mucho dark syrup made. The Guys at the equipment stores said that even the light syrup tasted dark. Producers with a vacuum system seemed to fare better than those without. Sugar makers just running buckets or gravity lines might have had a poor season while those with vacuum systems veered more towards average. The Guys were okay with it though; they had already sold a few vacuum pumps by the time I’d talked with them. 

On the Mountain: We knew how good we had it last year with brand new equipment and fresh tubing in the woods. This year, everything was less tight, more leaky, less efficient. Need to step up woods work and equipment maintenance in 2015.

Hard to predict and while we certainly want to be ready for an early March run, it wasn’t really necessary to be tapped out the last week in February.

You can never clean the pans too often. Once it gets warm, sap gets the funk. We had to dump much of the sap in our back pans twice. Remember learning in biology class how bacteria replicates exponentially? This demonstration would win ribbons. 

Once again, I am reminded how closely held we are to the winter-spring transition. We begin in the woods in deep-winter February. The first boils are cold, quiet ones - wearing jackets and hats. Everything is still frozen solid. By the end we’re boiling with the doors open in T-shirts listening to the Red Sox, water run down the hill, and the wood frogs in the pond. Soon I’ll be back in the woods with sneakers and bug spray watching the spring ephemeral flowers pop off the mountains. 

There is nothing subtle about this transition. I love being pulled through it covered in sticky syrup. 

Ice Out

The sap hasn’t begun to flow in earnest here on Bobo’s Mountain. We’ve had some good afternoons where, for a few hours, the sap will come down in steadily and slowly, but it seems to shut down as soon as the sun angles toward the horizon. The 1900-gallon bulk tank is filling a few hundred gallons at a time (in contrast, when the sap is pouring, it fills twice in day). So, despite the date, Daylight Saving(s), the return of the robins and mourning doves, spring hasn’t arrived. This feels especially true when one sees the town tractor heaping and spreading the snowbanks along our road in preparation for the 9-20” of snow and sleet coming today and tomorrow.

This time last year we had already made 150 gallons of syrup. And anxious thoughts of “will we make as much as last year?” and “when will we have the first boil” run alongside the eager late spring/early summer anticipation of asparagus poking through the garden bed and beach vacations. Despite the winter weariness, there’s a lot to be done before we can relax into May. Stay present my friends. 

Vermonters have always had tried-and-true methods for dealing with the anticipation of spring. One such is ice out: betting on the time and day when the ice is out of the local pond. Probably the most famous one is Joe’s Pond Ice Out up in Danville and Cabot https://www.joespondvermont.com/iceout.php but even locally we have less-official systems for guessing ice out that usually involve standing around in the local markets and drinking coffee. 

All of us on Bobo’s Mountain are interested in tracking the date of ice out too although not in our frog pond, in our bulk tank. Because of last week’s polar vortex, we have a 400-gallon sap ice cube floating in it. It is doing a swell job keeping the sap underneath it nice and cold but is taking up quite a bit of precious room. And since we moved the tank undercover on the north side of the sugarhouse, it isn’t receiving a whole lot of warm afternoon sun. So who knows when ice out will be but perhaps you could visit with a beverage of your choice and an ice pick. 

Hooking up the Woods

Tapping trees is a remarkably repetitive task:

1. Approach maple tree and find footing on clumsy snowshoes.

2. Look for last year’s tap hole and determine where this year’s tap will go.

3. Drill hole into the tree (often involves drilling up over head).

4. Belt drill, fish in pocket for plastic tap, and set in hole.

5. Hammer tap into hole using lightweight tap hammer.

6. Unhook the drop line from the lateral line and secure the end on the tap = hooked up.

Repeat 2400 times.

Like other repetitive tasks, one can find a measure of the meditative in it. It can be relaxing, serene, and exhausting, but never boring. This year, the snow conditions helped add some variation to the meditation. The first two days were to be expected, on snowshoes, and moving fairly efficiently up and down the lines.

Then it snowed 15”.

Then it was flounder fest as we sunk up to at least our knees and often mid-thigh WITH snowshoes on. As a test, I tried walking without snowshoes: hip-deep and stuck. In the words of fellow tapper and philosopher Quill Gordon, “Snowshoes make the impossible difficult.”  Every step was slow and the uphills were often crushing. After a few days, we had made goat trails to the main sections of the mountain. But snow is fluid under pressure and it changes daily, sometimes hourly. After a few settling days, the walking became easier and the sinking less pronounced. Animal tracks appeared.

Then it rained 0.75” and I came to miss the 15” of fresh snow. Because now, wet clumps of snow stuck to my snowshoes with every step and while I wasn’t sinking to my knees, I was wearing 20 lb weights on each clumsy foot. But glimpses of the divine appeared through every ice-covered tree as they clicked together in the wind. Finally, the holy grail of tapping conditions arrived on the last couple of days as the water in the snow froze solid. We scampered about ON TOP of the snow, drunk on the ease of movement, snowshoes needed only for grip.

Annie Dillard says this about people who have had their sight restored after being blind, “for the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.” This sentiment echoes what I miss most about being young: the shininess - that time in our lives when everything appears new, alive, and pure sensation. Our minds have not yet dulled things to fit into some well-worn cranial groove. Yet being in the woods methodically tapping and moving slowly from tree to tree, I find, slows my mind down to where the work is sensation: the vibration of the drill and hammer, the cold feel of each tree, the sound of the snow. Plus, I get to see.

Bear claw marks on a young beech.

image

A moose bed.

image

Moose tracks walking away from the bed.

image

Squirrel nest with food cache.

image

https://bobosmountainsugar.com

The Maple Buzz

It’s time to head to equipment dealers with our lists and get supplies for the 2014 season: taps, drill bits, tubing, filter paper, hydrometers. The stores are filled with purposeful people feeling the time crunch of spring men standing around drinking coffee out of paper cups and gossiping. It’s a hen house in there: yap yap yapping. 

But this year the talk is different. Instead of earnestly discussing the Brown’s new reverse osmosis machine or the leasing of the McDonough’s farm to the Wards, there are two news worthy topics that are getting most of the air time at equipment stores. While I wouldn’t normally post about current events, this is the maple buzz.

1. Changes to the Maple Grading System

For those of you excited because you’ve finally discovered that you like “dark amber” syrup over all other grades: sorry. As of 2105 there will be no more dark amber and instead you will be purchasing syrup that is “dark color/robust taste.”

US and Canada have different grading systems and even within the US, different states have different grading systems. And while states (read: Vermont) feel very loyal to their own system, it makes it tough on the consumer, especially those in emerging markets who don’t even know there are different grades of maple syrup. The new system, adopted first by Vermont, will standardize the grades across the entire industry and make it easier for the consumer to know what he/she is buying. 

Current Vermont Grading System  New Grading System (all Grade A)

Grade A Vermont Fancy                   Golden Color/Delicate Taste

Grade A Medium Amber                   Amber Color/Rich Taste

Grade A Dark Amber                        Dark Color/Robust Taste

Grade B                                           Very Dark Color/Strong Taste

Clearly designed with the consumer in mind which is probably a good thing. However, you can imagine the grumbling this is causing especially among the Old-Timers who cheer when there is something new to grumble about. The new grading system is in effect now and everyone has until 2015 to implement it. Bobo’s will make the switch probably mid-year. So don’t be surprised when you begin to see grade stickers on Vermont syrup with the new designations on them.

Read more at:

http://vtdigger.org/2013/12/10/new-maple-syrup-grading-system-debuts-jan-1/

2. Farming Maple Saplings

While the changes to the maple grading system are actually happening right now, this next topic hasn’t come into the industry yet but it’s causing so much buzz - to the point where friends who aren’t even in the business are emailing me about it - that it’s worth mentioning. 

In late 2013, Dr. Timothy Perkins and Abby van Den Berg of the Proctor Maple Research Center at University of Vermont, presented a study that has since shocked the industry. After observing a tree that was missing most of it’s crown produce large quantities of sap, they hypothesized that maples were actually drawing large quantities of sap from their roots and not from the crown, which was originally thought. In order to study this effect further, they lopped off the tops of several trees to measure the sap flow. Since they didn’t want to destroy mature trees, they cut off the tops of saplings. What they found was incredible. These small maple saplings produced an unbelievable amount of sap - all from their stumps. 

A regular sugarbush produces on average, about 40-50 gallons an acre from about 60-100 trees. But an acre of what is now referred to as the plantation method could sustain 5,800 saplings producing around 400 gallons of syrup  per acre. What this means is that there may not be any need for forest land to produce maple syrup. Plantations of five-year old maple saplings in rotation, farmed, could be the future of the industry. The pros and cons of this method are interesting to follow, and while I’m not going to get into them here, check out Laura Sorkin’s piece in Modern Farmer. She tackles them there. http://modernfarmer.com/2014/01/maple-syrup-revolution/

A lot to discuss these days in equipment stores. Better put on another pot of coffee. 

http://bobosmountainsugar.com

Life on Mars

If you’ve been like us and spent the first part of 2014 in the Polar Vortex, then you know how cold it can be. Of course, in our climate’s new normal, we’ve had two rounds of rain since the big freeze. But the Vortex might be returning this week. At least to Vermont. 

During the cold days, I’d be making deliveries and people would joke, “is the syrup ever going to freeze?” or I’d get more-serious-like questions about leaving syrup overnight in cars or in unheated garages. The pat response to this is, “syrup doesn’t freeze.” Or because I’m a former high-school teacher, I make something up: “it freezes at -100F” This is all true, sort of.

Syrup certainly can’t freeze in a household freezer or even overnight in a car at -5F.

Maple syrup is a solution made of 66.9% sugar (predominately sucrose). The sucrose molecules get in the way of the water molecules crystallizing into ice and therefore force the solution to freeze at a much lower temperature than water.

But the Polar Vortex got me thinking about the actual freezing point of maple syrup. My obligatory web search came up empty so I was forced to do math. For those of you who remember your chemistry (high-school or otherwise) you may remember there is a freezing point depression equation: ∆T = Kfm.

I dusted it off. 

Follow along if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, skip down to the *** to get to the punch line.

                ∆T = Kfm

∆T is the change of freezing point temperature below that of water. 

Kf is the freezing point constant of the solvent which, in our case, is water. Looking this up we can see that it is 1.86C kg/mol.

m is the molality of our solution or moles sucrose/kg water

Our solution is 66.9% sucrose and 33.1% water. One liter of syrup contains 669 mL of sucrose and 331 mL of water

We then have to convert mL to grams which involves finding the density of sucrose. I look it up and find it is 1.33 g/mL which, multiplied by 669 mL, gives us 889.77 grams sucrose. To find the number of moles of sucrose, we divide by the molar mass of sucrose which is 342 g/mol (the chemical formula of sucrose is C12H22O11) to get 2.6 mol of sucrose in one L of syrup . 

To find the molality we need to divide 2.6 mol by the 0.331 kg water to get a molality of 7.85.

Now we plug this into our equation: ∆T = 1.86C kg/mol x 7.85

∆T = 14.6C

***Syrup freezes 14.6C below the freezing point of water. This is -14.6C if water freezes at 0C. -14.6C is also 5.7F.

This puzzled me at first because syrup certainly doesn’t freeze solid at 5.7F. Upon further review (and consultation), 5.7F is when syrup begins to crystallize. It doesn’t actually freeze solid until 85 degrees later at around -80F. 

So go ahead, leave that syrup in the car, in the garage, outside: it’s safe. If we lived on Mars we might need to bring it inside. But if we lived on Mars, we’d have bigger problems to consider. 

Countertops and Benches

An excavator has been up on the mountain this past week. In just a few days Alec cleared at least a half acre, an amount of land that 100 years ago would have taken several people many weeks to clear.  

We wanted to access an artesian spring, to clear shade from the gardens, and to open up one of the few flat areas on the property. 

Trees were removed and sugar wood acquired: that wood pile is a great sight indeed. This morning I walked over to one of the bigger stumps. I always feel a pang of sadness when I see a stump this size. This maple was surely not one of the Old Giants, but a grand old tree never-the-less and one that has a story to tell. 

I counted its rings. The rings are made from the alternate layering of large cells built in the spring and early summer (springwood) and the tight, dense cells built in the summer and early fall (summerwood). What we see as the actual rings are the tightly-packed summerwood cells.

There were 91 rings (+/- 5) meaning this sugar maple germinated in 1922. Warren Harding was President, the USSR formed, Benito Mussolini came to power, home brewing was illegal under prohibition laws, and King Tut’s tomb was found. 

The story goes deeper though when you take into account the tap scars. This maple began being tapped around 1964 when it was just over 20 years old and about 8” in diameter. It was then tapped repeatedly for many years. The sunburst-like scars in the middle of the stump are old tap scars made back when the metal taps were big and clunky. It seems the the tree was tapped for about 7-8 consecutive years. 

Then there is a second round of tap scars made around 1999-2000 when the tree was almost 80 years old. It was likely Bobo who did the tapping, the boiling, and the pouring in the 1960s. And maybe, too, in 99-00 although the secret is well-kept.

Nowadays, the taps we use are 5/16”, plastic, and don’t leave such pronounced scarring. This is, of course, better for the tree’s health but quiets the history down considerably. As for the tree itself? Well, here it is in the woodpile. 

Maybe this one won’t be burned in the arch in 2016. Maybe this one will milled and turned into countertops or benches for Bobo’s Mountain; the tap scars in perfect view for everyone to hear its story. 

First Place for Destruction

Tuesday was a sunny day in the low 40s, and it was the first work day of the 2014 sugaring season. I wore just a sweater, carried an old clipboard, and spent four hours walking the sugarbush. It was quiet with almost no wind. There was light crunching as I walked over the hardened dusting of snow and the only other sounds were the occasional blue jay, chickadee, raven, or scolding squirrel.

My goal was to find and map downed trees across the tubing in the woods. As mentioned in the previous post, even in my seasonal absence, the sugarbush has been a very busy place. All the wind storms of the last six months have left their mark, and now it’s time to spruce things up before the Big Snow comes. Because once that’s here, downed-tree removal becomes an Ordeal involving digging, ice chipping, pulling, cursing, and dodgy chainsawing.

I was busy. Within five minutes this deadfall was in front of me, hung up on the conductor system and across one of the main lines too.

The tubing is plastic and purposefully stretchy so it can both withstand significant weight and then pop back into place after released with minimal damage. I’m not so curious to see how long the tubing can hold the weight of this tree before becoming damaged: the sooner it is removed the better. The conductor system is incredibly strong as well as incredibly stretchy. If this tree had fallen on a mainline or a lateral line, it would have pinned the tubing to the ground like this.

Both of these trees are fairly easy to saw and remove, but there were also some big messes out there too.

This was a limb of one of the Old Giants that cracked and fell on top of other trees pinning the entire mess to the ground along with one mainline and two lateral lines. It’s hard to see what’s holding what. A big danger in this situation is spring poles. These are small, flexible saplings that get bent and pinned to the ground by a larger tree, then when the weight is released, they spring back into place catching anyone or anything in its way. Bad news if you’re that anyone.

On Bobo’s Mountain this year the wind did not win first place for destruction. That honor goes to the rodents. Because while the tubing was made to withstand stretching, it was not made with withstand chewing.

This lateral line was chewed completely in half. I have no doubt there are many other sites where chewing took place but until the vacuum pump is turned on so suction can be heard and damage can be identified, I prefer to stay ignorant to that wreckage. So overall, I probably removed 30+ smaller downed trees and found 22 spots where a saw is needed. The map below shows the 18 mainlines. The vertical lines from the mainlines are the laterals and the red slashes are where a saw is needed. Maybe Santa will need a chance to work off some Christmas cookies.

Covering Ground

The woods have opened up again.

The heat and the rain of the past five months created a jungle and any movement through the woods meant bush whacking through ferns, stumbling over hidden terrain, breaking through leaves, and swatting at bugs. It was slow going. But during this precious time of year known as stick season (the 10th of 11 seasons in Vermont according to Bobo), between when the leaves drop and the snow falls, the woods become a playground. And if you don’t mind wearing a little bit of safety orange (rifle season for whitetail is from Nov 16-Dec 1), moving through the open forest floor quickly and efficiently is a real treat.

This:

image

Or this:

image

Now the ground is hard and dry, I can see well ahead of me, the leaf pack is noisy which does eliminate any wildlife sightings but makes for fun, crunchy walking. The air is cool and the bugs are gone. I can criss-cross Bobo’s Mountain in a couple of hours in these conditions. Of course, then I see this.

image

A white birch down on the a mainline.

I have a confession: I haven’t been in the woods since late April. It’s going to be ugly out there with five months worth of fallen trees, porcupine nibbles, tumbling branches, and squirrels. I’ll be out there soon enough with saws and a sled full of repair equipment. Until then, I’m just going to walk the woods.

Calories

The other day I was on the phone with someone who I was hoping might retail our syrup. He scolded me, “ There’s not a list of ingredients on your bottle.”

I was quiet, thinking he might be joking. After a suitable pause I said, “It’s just maple syrup. There’s nothing else in it.”

“There’s no sugar or anything in it?”

“No.”

Later, I was curious and took a glance at what many people pour on their breakfasts. 

Here’s the ingredient list for House Recipe Low-Calorie Syrup:

INGREDIENTS: Water, Sorbitrol, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Xylitol, Sodium Benzoate, Aspartame (Nutrasweet), Acesulfame Potassium, Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate, Caramel Color. PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE

image

BUT, the good news is that fake maple syrup is “80% lower in calories than regular syrup. Regular syrup has 100 calories, House Recipe has 17 calories per 30 ml serving.” Its good they have something to be proud about. 

Maybe a new Bobo’s label should say this:

Bobo’s Mountain Sugar 

INGREDIENTS: Sap from maple trees

Contains more calories than fake syrup. 

Fall

A single sugar maple on Bobo’s Mountain from August 27 to October 11, 2013.

August 27

August 30

September 5

September 10

September 15

September 19

September 24

September 30

October 5

October 11

Amazingly still no frost on Bobo’s Mountain. All around Weston there has been frost but our little south-west warm zone we have eggplants, peppers, and green beans. But the garden will end this weekend when it appears nighttime temperatures will finally dip into the upper 20s.