The first thing you notice upon entering a sugar house is the aroma, which emanates from the steam that rises above the evaporator. It’s as if you’ve entered a soft cloud of sweetness – subtle yet unmistakable.
When most Americans think about maple syrup, their thoughts turn north to Vermont. That’s understandable given the fact that our New England neighbors are the biggest producers of syrup, producing over 1.14 million gallons in 2011 alone. What most people may not realize is that Canada is by far the world’s leading producer of maple syrup. More than seven million gallons were made there last year, most of it in Quebec. The Canadian output represents 80% of the world’s maple syrup production.
Other US states that produce marketable quantities of maple syrup are Maine, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut. And then there is Rhode Island. Yes, Rhode Island (like all of the other New England states), produces maple syrup; much of that production comes from the southern part of the Ocean State.
Native Americans were known to have produced maple syrup long before Europeans ever arrived on the scene. No one quite knows how or why maple syrup production began, so the origins of the process have become the stuff of legend. What is known is that there was ritual associated with the process, and that the “sugar moon” (the first full moon of spring) was celebrated with a “maple dance.”
When the Europeans arrived here, the Native Americans began to teach them how to tap trees and process syrup, much as they did with so many other elements of life in the new world. By 1680, Europeans were harvesting maple products. Instead of making an incision in the tree bark, as Native Americans did, the Europeans used augers to make a hole in the tree. It wasn’t long before maple syrup was used as the primary form of concentrated sugar, since cane sugar had to be imported from the West Indies.
Around the time of the Civil War, processors began to use large flat metal sheet pans because they provided a greater surface area for evaporation. The first evaporator was patented in 1858. It was also around this time that cane sugar began to replace maple syrup as the primary sweetener in the United States.
There have been many technological advances in maple syrup production over the years, but the basic process remains the same as it was centuries ago: tap the trees, collect the sap, boil away.
There is not a lot of maple syrup produced in southern Rhode Island, and no single producer makes enough for it to be their sole means of support. But, the producers that are here are committed to the intricate process, and they have been at it for many years.
Norm Windus has been running the sailing program at the University of Rhode Island for more than 30 years. (His women’s team won the national championship last year.) The maple sugaring that he has been doing in Kingston for 24 years now is purely a hobby for him. Windus works with his friend Walt Hudson, and what they produce at Kingston Syrup is mostly for family and friends – and anyone who happens to stop by the house looking for a jug of syrup – while supplies last.
The maple sugaring process is heavily dependent on weather, which means that it is completely unpredictable. What the producers are looking for are cold nights, with temperatures below freezing, followed by warmer days so that the tree sap can run. Last year’s cold winter brought a bumper crop. This year, not so much.
Maple syrup producers begin tapping their trees in early February each year. The process continues for four to six weeks and is over by the end of March. Windus has about 90 trees on his property, mostly Norway Maples. The Norway has a lower sugar content than the sugar maples that are found further north, resulting in a different grade of syrup.
Maple syrup is graded according to color and taste. Because Vermont sugar maples have more sugar content, it takes less time in the boiling process for the sap to reach the proper sugar level. That’s why Vermont syrup is usually a light amber. In southern Rhode Island, most of the syrup produced is a medium or dark amber, which some people prefer because of its more intense, less delicate taste.
Trees with a larger diameter can accept more than one tap. A tree with a diameter of up to 12 inches is tapped once. For every additional 6 inches of diameter, another tap can be added. Windus has 200 taps, known as spiles, in his maple trees this year.
The production of maple syrup is not a very efficient process. You need approximately 50 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. Once the sap is collected it is brought to the sugar house. There, it goes through several layers of processing. The objective is to get the syrup to the point that it reaches 66.7% sugar content, which is 59 on the Brix scale, the accepted standard for maple syrup.
Windus’ all time record for sap collected in one 24-hour period is 445 gallons. This year, as a result of the warm temperatures at night, he’s been averaging less than 200 gallons a day. Where he once collected 3500 gallons in a six-week period, he expects to collect about 900 gallons this year, resulting in a yield of less than 20 gallons of syrup. Of course, all of that could change for the better if temperatures return to their winter norms.
At the other end of the scale – in terms of southern Rhode Island maple syrup production – is Gibby Fountain of Spring Hill Sugar House in Richmond. Windus calls him the “dean” of maple