If you get off the Governor Thomas E. Dewey New York State Thruway at Amsterdam, Exit 27 and drive north on Route 30 about 50 miles, you'll end up in Speculator, NY after about an hour on the road. There are lots of lakes, rivers, and hills to look at on the way, plenty of places to eat or stay the night.
It has been a winter with a lot of snow up in Speculator, NY. Lake Pleasant is still frozen, and there are plenty of snowmobilers taking advantage of the snow. Without them, it would be hard for the local businesses to stay open. Adirondack winters are not for wimps. Route 8 splits off at an intersection to head west; if you're coming up from the south, turn right onto Elm Lake Road and go about a mile or so; Dave McComb's Oak Hill Farm will be on the left. (Watch for deer - even in the day! They were taking advantage of the plowed roads to get around the deep snow pack - and eat shrubbery.)
Up a winding drive, past several buildings, you'll find the key to any maple syrup operation: a sap house for boiling sap down into syrup.
The Sap House, McComb Oak Hill Farm
Dave McComb and his family are gearing up for the sap run this year - it's running about 2 weeks late. An extended warm spell could end it early, though with so much snow still on the ground that might not be as big a problem as it would otherwise. Since 1999, the McComb family has been expanding the network of plastic tubing that connects to the maple trees on the property; the estimate they tossed out was that they're up to about 5 miles of tubing by now, tapping 1750 trees.
Plastic tap for maple tree sap collection.
The tap is a lot smaller than traditional taps; but several new techniques (as explained to me) make it more effective. The smaller the hole that needs to be drilled in the tree, the quicker it is to eventually heal. The small plastic ball is a check valve. Because it prevents back flow, the sap keeps flowing longer. A vacuum pump keeps the air in the miles of tubing at low pressure - this also keeps the sap flowing longer. It all runs downhill by gravity to larger black plastic collector lines that end up at a big collection tank.
Here's where all the tubing leads - to collection tanks in the sap house.
Dave McComb said they like to have at least 800 gallons of sap collected before they'll start processing. The first step is to run it through an osmotic filter
. This removes a lot of water from the sap right at the beginning, and they can run about 500 gallons through in an hour.
Osmotic filter - sap goes in, water gets extracted, concentrated sap goes on to next step.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. The next step is evaporation - boiling off the remaining excess water to take the sap that started at 2-3% sugar to 66.5-66.7 Brix
. The McComb Farm has a wood-fired stainless steel evaporator
that is one impressive piece of equipment.
Intensofire Maple Syrup Evaporator - wood fired
Sometime within the next day or so, trees and weather willing, the fires will be lit and soon syrup will be coming out for final filtration and packaging. Spring is coming to the north woods.
Old maple syrup can showing how it used to be done.
While McComb's Oak Hill Farm wasn't boiling any sap when visited on Saturday, by Sunday their Facebook page
indicates they had enough for a first run, with more by midweek with luck. As it happens, I was back on the road by then, down Route 30 to head East on Route 8 into Warren County. There's some nifty roadside ice falls still to be seen.
Ice fall on the side of Route 30, south of Speculator, NY
New York is having a Maple Weekend
- sap harvesters around the state are having festivals right now. (A map at the Maple Weekend site shows 146 producers around the state, along with a lot of other Maple-related information.) While the basics of collecting sap and boiling it down into syrup and other maple products are pretty much the same for everyone, there's a whole spectrum of sizes and equipment out there.
Hidden Hollow Maple Farm near Warrensburg, NY is boiling sap. They're tapping a number of trees in the area - some of them feed into tanks that have to be periodically emptied for transfer back to the sap house, AKA sugar shack by truck.
Sap being delivered to the Hidden Hollow Maple Farm Sugar Shack 3-30-14
The inside of the sap house is filled with clouds of steam when the boiler is in operation, with a maple smell to it. Here's a look through a viewing window in the side of their evaporator.
Maple sap on the boil, soon to be syrup.
Also in the area is a huge maple sugaring farm, Toad Hill Maple Farm
. Billed as "the largest producer in the region with a state of the art production system", they are quite an operation to visit - and they were boiling sap as well on Sunday. They also use reverse osmosis to pre-concentrate the sap before boiling.
Toad Hill Maple Farm's impressive post and beam construction sap house 3-30-14, with a sap run in progress.
The air fills with steam as the modern wood-fired boiler turns sap into syrup.
It takes some good-sized chunks of hardwood to keep sap on the boil.
Before being packaged, maple syrup is filtered to remove particles. Here's how they do it at Toad Hill.
Liquid gold - and then there's maple sugar candy, maple cream, and more.
Here's a display of tree-tapping technology: metal taps and buckets versus plastic taps and tubing.
Originally, tree taps were carved from wood, then made from metal like cast iron. Plastic taps and tubing have revolutionized the industry.
Even with the newest technology to collect and process sap, it's still necessary to get out in the woods - hence the snowshoes at the ready.
The last maple sugaring operation visited was down the road in Malta, NY. Sugar Oak Farms
may be a small scale operation by comparison, but the basics are the same for them as everyone else. Collect the sap, and boil it down.
Buckets are still used - if made of plastic these days.
Apply heat to sap, and you'll eventually boil it down to syrup. This is a process that scales.
Maple sugaring time only lasts for a short time, and it's very dependent on the weather. Sap only just started running this weekend in the area around the southeastern Adirondacks; western New York and northern New York may be yet to kick in. If you've never seen maple syrup being made, it's a good excuse to get outdoors this time of year between seasons, tap into some old traditions, and sample the maplely goodness of a food that isn't over-manufactured or stuffed with additives.
If you're in or around New York State, the Maple Weekend website will help you find maple syrup operations, and whether or not they'll be operating over the next few days. (And if you live anywhere else that produces maple syrup, there's probably similar help available.) If you're nowhere near any maple farms, the NYS Maple Producers Association would be happy to serve you online, and they'd like you to know maple syrup isn't just for pancakes!
Maple tree cross section with scars showing how it was tapped for many years.