Bobo's Mountain Sugar

DIscover A Taste of Tree

Season of the Snake

This summer the three-year olds have been preoccupied with snakes: snake drawings, snake bedtime stories, snake photos, snake ecology. And understandably so, as there’s nothing more exciting, terrifying, and mystifying than a snake even for a three-year old who isn’t aware of all our snake mythology. We’ve looked at photos of constrictors who’ve succeeded in consuming a crocodile, snakes which blind by shooting venom, and the densely-populated, super-eerie snake dens. Even for me, very few animals make me jump and even give a little yelp when I come across one slithering ahead of me in the grass. And I like snakes.

To catch more sightings, we set up snake boards on the stone walls near our gardens and pond.

The snakes come out of their stone wall homes and curl up on the warm sun-heated stones under the protection of the snake boards. Then to their annoyance, the three-year olds come visit, lifting the boards in search of one.

Often the snake boards look like this: empty or cricket filled.

But it’s not unusual to see one like we did this morning.

And since I’ve spent some time looking in field guides this summer I know this is a ring-necked snake, a small gray snake with a yellow belly and a pretty yellow ring around its neck. The other snake we tend to see is the common garter snake. We have at least two garters of significant size fattening themselves, hopefully, on the voles in our garden. And I’m pretty sure there’s a milk snake in the area, although I’ve haven’t seen him/her for a couple of years.

There’s a good website listing all the herps in Vermont with pictures, maps, and ecology information- The Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas  http://community.middlebury.edu/~herpatlas/ This is a great resource for figuring out what snakes are in the stone walls and what frogs are in the pond.

Farewells

On the Mountain today we are saying a fond farewell to Vermont Fancy, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. Yes, with the arrival this week of the new cap stickers, we are officially joining the new era of maple syrup grade names.

Different grade names across each state and Canada left consumers confused about what grade of syrup to buy and how they differ. Last year the entire industry agreed to standardize the grade names, and Vermont is the first state to make the change official. Vermont producers have until January 2015 to change the grade names on their syrup. So today, we’re now on board. Yay!

For those of you who know that, say, Dark Amber is your favorite syrup and are now wondering what to get, here’s a cheat sheet:

Vermont Fancy is now: Golden Color and Delicate Taste

Medium Amber is now: Amber Color and Rich Taste

Dark Amber is now: Amber Color and Rich Taste

Grade B is now: Dark Color and Robust Taste

Commercial Grade (beyond B we like to call it) is now: Very Dark Color and Strong Taste

Overall I’m happy with this change. It’s easier for consumers to know what they’re purchasing, all grades of syrup are now Grade A, and commercial grade/beyond b can be sold retail when, prior to this year, it wasn’t allowed.

However there are a couple of drawbacks. Golden Color/Delicate Taste is actually lighter than Vermont Fancy which means that it’s going to be harder to make. It certainly favors larger producers who have vacuum, cold storage, and major reverse osmosis operations. These producers can keep sap cold and produce high sugar contents in their sap through big ROs which means it becomes syrup faster creating a lighter color.

The combining of Medium and Dark Ambers into one grade of Amber Color/Rich Taste means that this grade will likely dominate the industry. Not a bad thing for sure, but as some years won’t produce as much Golden Color/Delicate Taste (like this year) or Dark Color/Robust Taste (like last year), Amber Color/Rich Taste will be the steady eddy.

We’re cheerfully embracing the change here, and will be framing some of the old cap stickers for sugarhouse nostalgia.

Note: thank you again to Marin Horikawa of Moderate Breeze Designs for the design brilliance and to The Sticky Brand for the printing. Both are located in Burlington, Vermont.

Special Shade of Cool

Autumn gets all the glory in Vermont. People travel hundreds of miles to see the truly amazing red and orange foliage. There’s speculation for weeks about whether or not this will be a good foliage season or whether or not we’ve hit “peak foliage” and tens-of-thousands of photos are taken across the state. The spectacle is absolutely stunning. 

Every spring, right about now in the deep part of May, I am thrown by the spring foliage. Perhaps it’s the shock of seeing the color green after so many months of seeing just white, brown, grey, and the occasional blue. The change of color can be truly blinding and disorienting. 

But who knew there were so many different shades of green? How is it that there is such range of textures and the subtle differences of color across this wild green spectrum? It’s as if a box of green crayons exploded across the hills - only better. It’s a unbelievable show, and Vermonters tend to have it all to themselves because by mid-June, the colors will have evened out into “hot-summer green,” but right now every species has its own special shade of cool. 

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http://bobosmountainsugar.com/

Snow Melt Fast

The snow is more-or-less gone. It seems odd to be saying this like, perhaps, it’s not, but there are still little pockets in dark hemlock stands, on the north sides of some buildings, and along roads where it was piled up high in banks. It also indicates how cold March and April were: March barely above freezing and even today, May 5, waking up to 37F and raining.

So while the leaves still haven’t flushed out and the spring ephemerals are slow to cover Bobo’s Mountain, there is an up-side. Mud season was once again a non issue, something Vermonters do not take for granted. We notice it. Because when it’s bad - like it was in 2012 - it is bad

And then I think maybe (just a hopeful maybe) the cold will reduce the black-fly population that’s about to hatch.

In general, when the snow melts, it melts fast. There’s some tipping point in the snow structure, heat absorption, and sun strength that makes it go. I was able to monitor it this year thanks to a Sharpie and a pea trellis. 

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From March 27 to April 8 the snow melted 18” in 11 days, Of course this was a south-facing garden. On April 8, there was still 2 feet of snow in the woods. Here’s the breakdown:

Date                             Snow Melt in Inches                  % Melted

March 27-29                 3.5                                                  19.4%

March 29-30                 1.75                                                 9.7%

March 30-April 1          0.75                                                  4.1%

April 1-2                        1                                                      5.6%

April 2-3                       1.5                                                    8.3%

April 3-4                       1.75                                                  9.7%

April 4-6                       1.5                                                    8.3%

April 6-7                       1                                                       5.6%

April 7-8                       5.25                                                 29.2%

On average the snow melted 1.63” a day or 9% of its total. 

I wonder how fast this little guy grows? Fast enough that we could tap it in 2024. Now that’s a growth rate. http://bobosmountainsugar.com/

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Thanks for posting 10e. Still trying to catch up!

(Source: 10engines)

Reflections on a Season

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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.

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A moose bed.

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Moose tracks walking away from the bed.

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Squirrel nest with food cache.

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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.