Thursday, March 26, 2009

Aunt Jemima… Eat Your Heart Out!

When I was young I loved climbing trees, especially the maple trees in our yard that were the largest, sturdiest and had the most branches. The only disadvantage was when I got done playing in the tree, my hands, feet and whatever outfit I had on, were covered with sticky sap. Sometimes for fun my sister and I would find big dried lumps of sap and try to break it open with sticks, only to be annoyed seconds later when it got all over us again. Little did I know that the same “sticky stuff” that used to antagonize me as a child, was the same tasty treat I loved on my pancakes.

Years later, over a discussion about Maple Syrup, my boss came up with the brilliant idea that I visit Maple Help Stock Farms, and learn how Maple Syrup is created! Considering I still had no idea how they turned sap into syrup, I immediately jumped on board.

I drove down to the farms and saw the steam in the air and knew I was in the right place. The sugar shack is hard to miss during this time of year. Spring is the best time to produce Maple Syrup because cold nights and warm days get the sap moving!

I found Gary Hurlbut in the Sugar Shack and he was more than helpful. He said he gets about 100 people a year who stop by to see what goes on behind the scenes of Maple Syrup Production. You can look at my photos below to get an idea of how Maple Syrup is created, or you can take a visit yourself! Maple Help Stock Farm is located on 207 Hurlbut Road in Mexico, NY. For a list of other Maple Syrup producers in the county, visit

Maple Help Stock Farms have been producing Maple Syrup for 103 years.

Starting the Maple Syrup process - getting sap from a tree. They have over 2,000 taps on their farm. During spring weather, the sap runs through the taps into buckets, which are then brought back to the sugar shack.

The sugar shack, where all of the sap is processed into Maple Syrup!

When I walked into the sugar shack, I went through a door and came across this huge contraption called an evaporator. It evaporates the water from the sap using fuel oil. It evaporates 200 gallons of water an hour - taking 40 gallons of sap to make only 1 gallon of syrup!

Gary Hurlbut (in the yellow hat) and a friend keep their eye on the sap while it gets evaporated, using half and half to keep the bubbles down and from boiling over; this does not affect the flavor of the syrup.

The next step is to get the filter press ready. Gary keeps the filters in buckets in the evaporator to keep them moist. He then puts the filters in between plates and hooks them up to his press.

This is what he filters out of the syrup… it’s called “sugar sand”, and you guessed it… it tastes like sand!

Gary checks the syrup to see if it’s ready to go through the filter. The syrup is ready when it reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water.

He opens a valve and the syrup starts flowing into buckets…

…which are conveniently cleaned out just by sitting in the evaporator… the steam cleans all of the stickiness off the buckets! Maybe I’ll bring my dishes over next time I visit!

When the syrup is all poured into the buckets, a tube gets hooked from the syrup to the filter press, then another tube from the filter press to an empty bucket.

In the syrup bucket, filter aid is used to help the sand stick to the filters. This is safe and unflavored.

The first amount of syrup contains mostly water from the filters, so Gary dumps this back into the evaporator so the syrup isn’t wasted.

The tube is then moved into a barrel, which is where the syrup is stored until it is ready to be sold!

This is a gradient sample for the kind of Maple Syrup he produces. Right now he is producing medium to light syrup. The earlier in the season, the lighter the syrup usually is. While lighter syrup is harder to make, it is 80% of the farm’s sales. The darker syrup is used to make maple cream and maple sugar.

Maple Syrup for Sale!