The Catskills is one of the larger maple-syrup producing regions of New York State, and at this time of year serious sugarers already have their trees tapped and their buckets or tubes up. But it’s been a consistently cold winter so far, and there’s still time to get a tap or two in before the next thaw if you want to give sugaring a try this year.
Thomas Jefferson planted a number of sugar maples on his estate at Monticello, and he encouraged his neighbors to do the same. He was hoping that American citizen-farmers could grow their way out of dependence on the (slavery-driven) West Indies sugar trade (for an interesting article on this topic take a look here). Anyone who has tried sugaring can imagine why this hope never came to fruition. The sap of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has an unsually high sugar content for a tree, but it is still only between two and three percent usually; unless it is boiled down to being more than sixty percent sugar, the sap spoils quickly. And the amount of energy required to boil off the water is astonishing: it is well worth spending a day doing a boil just to see how a kettle of sap can have a rolling boil all day and still have the consistency of water.
What is more, maple sugaring is highly dependent on weather. This year there has been almost no production of maple syrup so far throughout the Northeast, due to the small number of thaw-days: last year half the total crop for the year had been produced by now. Cool springs produce good sap runs, but hot Marches like the March of 2012 (when there were days in the 80s) cause the trees to leaf out early. Once this happens, the tree releases chemical inhibitors to deter herbivores: the result is bitter sap (this is why there is no maple-tapping during the summer). The only place where these kind of cool springs so perfect for maple sugaring are found is Northeastern North America along the U.S.-Canadian border, especially in Vermont and Quebec. But the Catskills due to its elevation has a similar climate, and this region produces good maple syrup.
However, the sugar maple prefers deep, rich, moist soils, so much so that it was used as an indicator tree for good homesteading sites. The Catskills tend to have thin, rocky soils, and the dominant maple tree here is the red maple, Acer rubrum. Syrup made from the red maple is every bit as good as that made from sugar maple, but the sap’s sugar content is usually between one and two percent, which adds even more time to the long process of boiling the sap down.
But if you have a good sugar or red maple (or even the silver maple, Acer saccharinum) nearby, it might be a pleasant experience to put a tap in this year. Taps can generally be found at the local hardware store for three or four dollars apiece, and they can be reused indefinitely. Buckets are more expensive, but you can use some ingenuity and come up with cheaper alternatives: a piece of tubing and a gallon jug works fine. Once you have some sap, you can use it in place of water: either as a beverage (it is a very lightly flavored water; you can also carbonate it for seltzer) or for cooking. I especially like using the sap for making tea or coffee. If you customarily put a pot of water on your stove to humidify your air during the winter, try using maple sap: it adds a delicious fragrance to the house, and you can drink it whenever you want to. And you may find yourself boiling some sap down all the way to syrup just to try it.