HOPE — As March comes to Maine, it is not an uncommon sight to start seeing buckets hung from maple trees, or to see the network of tubing that moves sap from the trees to buckets, or tubs, and to the delicious smelling sugarhouses. For many, maple syrup season, is seen as a sign winter is ending, and spring is coming.

David Smith of Hope has been making maple syrup for over three decades. However, Smith said that he tapped his first trees, with his brother, at the age of 10.

“We used copper pipes, and dixie cups nailed to the trees,” he said.

Now, Smith’s sugarhouse sits on the Hope side of Moody Mountain just off of High Street, creating Sparky’s Moody Mountain maple syrup.

“The original house evolved over the years, and got larger,” he said.

Around six or eight years ago, he added that it got to the point where he tore it down, and built a new, larger one.

Turn here: the sign marking the sugarhouse location for Sparky’s Moody Mountain maple sugar. Photo by Holly Vanorse Spicer

While the magic of syrup-making actually begins with the trees, the sap-to-syrup process begins in a room at the back of the sugar shack with a large, open tank, and a reverse osmosis machine.

Tubes run in through the walls of the building, to a small canister that sits atop the open one. A vacuum pulls in the sap, and as the canister fills, the vacuum pauses, and it tips open, spilling the sap into the large tank.

“What we’re doing is using this in reverse of what these machines were originally designed to do,” Smith said.

After the water is removed from the sap, he puts the concentrate back into the tank. Just one pass through the machine will double the sugar content of the sap.

“I’ll recirculate it, and recirculate it. Out of this tank, I’ll remove 500 gallons of water before I even boil it, and I’ll get it to about 10 percent sugar,” he said.

The water goes into a tank, and he uses it to clean the membranes of the machine every few hours.

Once it is up to the density he desires, he then sends the sap to the head tank in the main room that feeds the large evaporator that sits in the middle of the sugar shack.

“It’s a continuous process, there’s always sap coming in to replace what’s evaporating,” he said.

In the evaporator, the sap moves into a pre-heater. From there, it continues to heat as it moves through various stages, and chambers of the evaporator.

“As it progresses through the evaporator, it creates sort of a gradient of sweetness, and it gets denser. As it gets denser, it boils hotter,” he said.

Syrup boils at seven degrees higher than water at sea-level.

Once the syrup reaches the right density, and the container is full, Smith then uses a filter press.

David Smith cleans, and resets the filter press he uses to make maple syrup. Photo by Holly Vanorse Spicer

“I’ll mix diatomaceous earth into the syrup,” he said.

Diatomaceous earth, which is made up of the fossilized remains of diatoms, is one of the most commonly used types of filtration aid in the syrup-making process. It acts as an attractant to the minerals, making those minerals larger.

When the syrup is placed into the filter press, the paper in the press catches the particles as the syrup is squeezed out.

How much sap it takes to make a gallon of syrup is dependent on the sugar content of the sap.

“I’m going up to eight percent or more sugar, so it’s 40-45 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup,” he said.

“The sugar content of the trees has gone down over the years. I think a lot more people are tapping,” he said.

Someone who taps their front yard maple that gets a lot of sunlight, and does not have many, or any other trees around it to give it competition, will produce more sugar than trees in the woods, or other more tree-dense areas.

“A front yard tree will produce four percent sugar, whereas trees in the woods will produce two percent,” he said.

Not only can the color of the syrup change over the season, but what kind of maple it comes from plays a role as well.

Smith has more red maple trees, which tends to produce a darker syrup.

Ultimately, as Smith says, it is up to the trees.

Maple syrup is graded by color as Golden Delicate, Amber Rich, Dark Robust, and Very Dark Robust.

The finished product. Photo by Holly Vanorse Spicer

Over the years, technology has changed the way the syrup making process happens.

Smith said that the biggest time-reducer of everything has been the reverse osmosis machine.

“That machine basically allowed me to add a lot more taps with keeping the same evaporator,” he said.

His new evaporator machine also allows him to need to burn less wood.

“With my old evaporator, when I started, they figured that it took a cord of wood to make 25 gallons of syrup. After today, I will have made probably close to 100 gallons and I haven’t burned a cord yet,” he said.

Smith said that he applied for an energy efficiency grant with the United States Department of Agriculture.

“I applied for funding, a grant, because I conserved so much energy with that machine. They awarded me with the smallest grant allowed that summer,” he said.

On one day, last week, he had 1,800 gallons of sap run.

“If I really pay attention, I can boil 100 gallons an hour with this machine. That’s an 18 hour day,” he said.

He said that although he did not start the evaporator until almost mid-day the next day because he was tending to other things, he checked the reverse osmosis machine earlier in the morning.

“As it’s concentrating sap, it’s allowing me to do other things,” he said.

“I still spend just as much time down here, but now, it’s doing other chores,” he added.

The evaporator machine that sits in Smith’s sugarhouse, turning sap to syrupy goodness. Photo by Holly Vanorse Spicer

Technology is not the only thing that has shifted over time. The climate in the Midcoast area has shifted as well.

“It’s the weather that’s frustrating. We rely on the freeze-thaw cycle,” he said.

He explained that 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower in the evening, and 40 degrees during the day, the sap goes up to the tree tips. When it gets cold again at night, the sap goes back down the trees, as it passes the tap hole.

This season, along with the seasons in the past few years, have been finicky. Smith said that the coastal influence of the weather impacts his seasons.

“Penobscot Bay, and being on this side of the mountain actually does keep it a little milder,” he said.

Smith said that he is concerned.

“Fifty and 60 degrees scares me a bit because bacteria starts to grow in the tap hole. Which is what the tree wants. That bacteria will help the tree heal. But if it’s warm, that bacteria comes quicker,” he said.

He combats the bacteria risk by replacing the taps on the trees every year, and every few years, he replaces the drops that attach to the taps.

Sometimes, Smith said, the weather during the season can work to his favor.

“A few years ago, everyone on the other side of the mountain, inland, was still frozen solid, and the sap wasn’t running, but I was making syrup,” he said.

However, last year, his season ended early, and this season is hanging in the balance.

March nights have trended along hovering just at the freezing mark, and very rarely lower. The remaining days of the month do not give Smith much hope for a turnaround.

“If the season were to end today, I have about a third of the average crop,” he said.

He added that last year, the entire state was below average in crop, and the sugar content was low in the sap.

“But the year before was the highest sugar content I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Smith begins his season the first week of February, with the help of his daughter and one of her friends, replacing taps, and replacing drops where needed.

He said that he starts in February to help ease into the season.

“It was a rough start this year. It seemed like everything was falling apart all at once,” he added.

Now, as the season starts to slow down, Smith is gearing up for Maine Maple Sunday.

Always held the fourth Sunday of March, the Maine Maple Producers Association hosts the Maine Maple Sunday Weekend, which invites the public to visit sugarhouses across the state for syrup samples, demonstrations on how syrup is made, and more.

Smith first began participating in the event in 1990, with a pause for a little over a decade while he lived in Peaks Island and did not sugar.

“It’s all hands on deck,” he said of the weekend.

They offer a free waffle with syrup on it in the mornings, and in the afternoons they have ice cream. Coffee is provided by donation, with the money raised going to the local food pantry.

“My daughter makes maple glazed donuts, and maple glazed nuts. Items we make just for that weekend,” he said.

Maine Maple Sunday Weekend is slated for March 26-27. For a map of sugarhouses, visit mainemapleproducers.com.