New England Gold

My darlin’ neighbors down the road have lived in their home for forty years. Now retired, Ken and Karen Mackenzie are known about town for the amazing maple syrup they bottle. Each year, we can’t wait to see smoke coming out of the top of the “Mackenzie Sugar House”. This year, they graciously invited me to be their apprentice in the process. Inspired again by MaryJane, I was thrilled at the chance to cross something off my “bucket” list, pardon the pun.

Making maple syrup is weather dependent, with below freezing nights of temperatures twenty to twenty-five degrees, and above freezing days over forty degrees, (to get the sap flowing) which is why maple syrup comes from New England or Canada. The season is short, from around February fifteenth to the twenty-seventh of March. End of season, as buds form on the trees, the chemistry of the sap changes, producing what’s known as “Buddy Sap”. This affects the taste, making it bitter.

Inspired by an article he read in the paper in 1978, Ken started his hobby using buckets for collection and boiling down the syrup on his grill. In 1981, he and his children built the “Sugar House”, which still stands today. (It’s charming as well as functional). Now his grandchildren come and carry on the tradition. In 1985, Ken designed his own evaporator – the contraption which boils down the sap. The trees he taps are sugar maples. He uses lateral tubing with fittings, installed last year, the more “modern way” of collecting sap, but still keeps a few buckets around because the grandchildren and scout troops are thrilled to see them on the trees! There are two tanks on his property; one collects sap and pumps it up to the holding tank, which then takes the sap and gravity-feeds it into the evaporator. He says most of what he knows about sugaring is through years of “trial and error”. The Mackenzie syrup tastes like perfection to us!

With record breaking snowfall and ice this year, the first thing I learned was how to walk in snowshoes! It felt awkward at first, but I soon got the hang of it, and we set about “tapping” trees. Ken brought his bucket of tools, which included a hammer, an electric drill, and what was once his father’s hand drill, in case the battery ran out on the powered one. I honestly did not realize just how much expense and hard work goes into “sugarin'”, and have a new appreciation of the sweet “liquid gold”. Did you know that it takes roughly forty-five gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup?

Here, Ken and Karen’s friend Bob instructs me on the proper way to put on snowshoes.

I’m standing next to one of the trees we tapped. Notice the tubing and the black spout coming from the tree.

Next, I learned how to look for previously drilled holes. You don’t want to tap into the same place twice, as it could harm the tree. When done correctly, tapping trees does no damage. We could see little “marks” on the trees, where the bark is still healing from the previous year. We needed to find a spot on each tree which would allow the lines to run from one tree to the next. Then we drilled a small hole at about a ten degree angle, the idea being that the sap should run down, not puddle in the hole. As soon as I pulled the drill bit out, clear sap would flow out and down the tree. Tasting it, I found it was slightly sweet, not as sweet as syrup. Syrup is the sap with the water evaporated out of it, and gets its color from the length of time it is boiled.

The next step was to hammer in the spout. A few taps was all it took, and we could tell the spout was in properly when we heard a “plunk” sound. We would then move to the next tree, tapping seventy-one trees in all! A large enough tree can have more than one tap. Ken does one tap for every twelve inches of tree. There must be a diameter of fifteen inches for two, twenty-four for three, and thirty-six for four. Just the preparation before tapping is a huge job! The tubing running from tree to tree looks like spider web, and must be clean and inspected before use. When the line stretches (from being in place a while), it can sag, causing the sap to pool and the possiblilty of mold. To remedy this, they use a splicing tool, cutting the line and pulling it taut again.

Here we are hammering in the spout, attached to the tube which the sap runs through to the holding tanks.

Once all the taps are in place, the waiting begins. After the sap is collected in the holding tank, it will then be time to boil it down. Join me again in a few weeks, when I visit my friends the Mackenzies, as they perform the time-consuming and important task of running the Evaporator at the Sugar House!

Ken and Karen Mackenzie inside the sugar house

To be continued…

Leave a comment 0 Comments

  1. Harry says:

    Such a wonderful experience! It’s a LOT warmer here in Texas!

    All of that said, I would absolutely love to taste the home made finished product. It has to be amazing!

    Harry, thanks so much for reading!  I will tell you that Ken and Karen’s maple syrup is to die for!  – Nicole

  2. Nicole–nice article! A few additions–the maple season can last into April in northern VT, NH,ME and usually begins later as well. Pure maple syrup is a great cooking and baking ingredient–check out http://www.vermontmaple.org for some delicious recipes! You can also use maple syrup in place of sugar in your favorite recipes by using the conversion information on the http://www.vermontmaple.org site.
    Happy sugaring!

    -Thanks for the tip, Catherine. -Nicole

  3. Sheree says:

    Wow! Sounds like fun! I live in Georgia and have a friend who does  "Syrup Making" on Thanksgiving Day. The syrup is made from sugar cane stalks. It is quite an undertaking also. The reward is the Cane Syrup that is popular in this area.

    Sounds great!  What a neat Thanksgiving!  Thanks for sharing!  -Nicole

  4. Barb says:

    Hi Nicole, interesting article. What great neighbors to have-love that they shared this experience with you. I enjoy reading your articles and just noticed a big coincidence -I will be joining you for soup this Saturday-how exciting! I have to go find or sew that apron.

    -Hi Barb, yes, it’s me!  Looking forward to meeting you Saturday!  -Nicole

  5. Sue Taylor says:

    Hey there! That looks like so much fun!!! Maybe I can help next year!!!
    Best, Sue

  6. Dori says:

    I so enjoyed reading this. Would be so special to be involved with the whole process and be able to hold up a pint of syrup and say "I made this!" Well, with the help of the trees, of course! :)

     

  7. Ali - Farmgirl #12 says:

    What a wonderful experience, Nicole; thanks so much for sharing! I was wondering if I might be able to purchase a bottle when I visit Saturday?? xoxo

    According to Ken, the trees are not done being "tapped"; then the sap wll have to be boiled down.  Check back in a couple of weeks – I will include Ken’s contact information when I write the next sugaring ‘installment".   (Ali, you probably drive right by his place when you come to the sisterhood meetings at my house). Hugs! -Nicole

  8. brenda says:

    That looks so neat. Something to look into. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Laurie- Farmgirl Sister#1403 says:

    Hi Nicole,
    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog! It looks like a very intense process…I never realized just how much work goes into getting to the end result- the delicious maple syrup. I actually just got a book out from my local library today titled "The Backyard Homestead" and one of the chapters includes information on "maple sugaring". I thought perhaps I would experiment with it, but after reading how much goes into the process I think I may just study up on it this year and perhaps better prepare for it for next year!
    Thank you again for the lovely blog…I loved seeing the pictures, and your warm farmgirl smile!
    Warm Regards,
    Laurie

    Thanks so very much Laurie!  I’m glad you enjoyed it.  Remember to check back in a few weeks for the second part!  -Nicole

  10. Christine says:

    What a wonderful article! Having lived in Quebec for many years, I went to many cabane a sucres; when the sap was boiled about halfway down, we would fill a mug with the "pot liquor" and top it off with a little rum. That warmed us up a lot while waiting for the real syrup to be boiled down.
    Thank you!

     

  11. Ken Mackenzie says:

    For anyone who would like to try sugaring on a small scale, go to http://www.tapmytrees.com where you can by kits. Also, I understand the same kits may be available at some Lowes and Tractor Supply stores.

    Ken

    -Thanks, Ken!  And thank you again for a wonderful day! See you and Karen soon!

    -Nicole

  12. Kate Mackenzie says:

    It is so nice to see such a great article on Ken’s operation. Having been a part of the process for the past 14 years or so, I can attest to the hard work he puts in (which starts by splitting cords of wood in the spring) and the long hours at the evaporator. It is so worth it though as he makes the best syrup around! My kids can always tell it’s not Grandpa’s syrup when we run out. I hope to meet you when the boiling begins!

    -Thank you for reading!  We are spoiled by his syrup…it does taste better than what I find in stores!  Looking forward to meeting you, too. -Nicole

  13. Karen M says:

    Love the story Nicole!! What a great experience to be a part of. I have a better appreciation of how this is made now. Keep up all the great stories.
    Karen

  14. Lauren says:

    When my children were toddlers we tapped the Maple trees in the yard. After boiling a bucket of sap, bugs and dirt, I swapped out the syrup with some from a bottle. The kids still think we "made" our own syrup. hahaha. I did all the work but did not want to sift through the junk. It was time consuming but worth it! The kids still talk about it 9 years later and want to tap our current trees.

    Lauren, how funny!  Thanks for sharing!  -Nicole

  15. Karin says:

    Nicole, you are so lucky to have this experience. We were in Indiana last week and went to the Parke County Maple Syrup Festival. The camp roads were all muddy and not having 4 wheel drive we didn’t take the chance of getting stuck, so didn’t get to see the operations. We did, however, have a pancake breakfast with absolutely wonderful Parke County Syrup. It sure beats anything you can buy in the store.

    Sounds like alot of fun at the festival!  Keep posted…I’ll have more to share on this subject in a few weeks.  -Nicole

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