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March 7, 2018

Maine Food Insider: If it's mud season in Maine, it's maple syrup season

Photo / James McCarthy Sugar maple trees in Woolwich are tapped, with long tubing carrying the trees' sap to strategic collection barrels, which are then taken to a sugar shack for boiling down into maple syrup.

A major sign winter may end and spring is coming — despite outward appearances such as the major snowstorm bearing down on Maine later today — is that many of the state’s maple syrup producers are already making syrup.

More accurately, it’s not spring that signals the sugar shacks are in operation, but mud season.

The recent weather has been just right over much of central and southern Maine to produce maple syrup, Kathryn Hopkins of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension said Tuesday.

“Producers are looking forward to a good, if somewhat early, season,” she said.

For those not familiar with when syrup season begins, think mud season. Maple trees begin to produce sap needed for syrup when the temperatures at night are below freezing, but day temperatures are in the low 40s.

“As temperatures rise into the 40s, syrup-making begins,” according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension fact sheet on the topic.

Ideal weather for sugaring is 40 degrees in the day and 20 degrees at night. The season lasts four to six weeks, with an average of 15 good sap flow days.

Hopkins said the first syrup of the season is the lightest grade and it tends to get darker and more robust in flavor as the season progresses.

“But this doesn't always happen,” she said. “Sometimes, a run of dark syrup can happen in the middle of the season and then it goes back to golden delicate or amber rich.”

Somerset County is the 'maple mecca'

Photo / James McCarthy
Maple trees in the Pennellville neighborhood of Brunswick are tapped the old-fashioned way.

And as delicious as maple syrup is, it’s also one of the healthier sweeteners, with antioxidants and phenolic compounds.

“Pure maple syrup is a 100% natural food,” the cooperative extension says. “The sap is a clear liquid, which provides the trees with water and nutrients prior to the buds and leaves opening in the spring. In the boiling and filtering processes, all the nutrients remain in the syrup.”

Maine has about 1.89 million maple syrup taps and is the third-largest maple syrup producer in the country, behind Vermont and New York, according to the cooperative extension. The state produced 709,000 gallons of maple syrup last year, worth $20.25 million.

The annual statewide economic contribution, including multiplier effects, is an estimated $48.7 million in output, 805 full-and part-time jobs and $25.1 million in labor income.

Somerset County is maple mecca — it produces more maple syrup than any county in the United States, accord to the University of Maine.

Anyone with a few maple trees in the yard, some time and some food-grade equipment can be part of the fun, Hopkins said.

The cooperative extension has a how-to guide for those who want to give it a shot.

For everyone else, there’s Maine Maple Sunday on March 25. This is the 35th year of the event that celebrates the state’s maple producers, and many of the more than 100 maple syrup producers that take part are open both days that weekend.

The sugar map to that day’s events can be found here.

Hopkins points out that if there’s steam rising from the sugar shack, it means syrup is being produced, so stop by and check it out.

She also reminds those trekking out on Maine Maple Sunday to wear their boots.

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