At BSG-Maple & Marine we are both agroforestry harvesters & processors of a heritage foodstock. The farm
crafts premium Single-Crop, Single-Batch maple syrups handmade exclusively from this farm's harvest. A bottle of Berkshire Sweet Gold samples a single Spring day's 15 gallon barrel of pure maple syrup made in about forty-five minutes from sap collected from 4,500 Sugar Maple and Red Maple trees in a highland forest. There are three main steps to crafting maple flavors described below. One happens inside the trees, one happens in the forest and one in the sugarhouse. Further considering the heritage of this crop offers guidance in its myriad uses and hopefully deepens our appreciation of the broad ecosystem services this agroforestry brings to culture.
What happens in a maple forest harvest?
In the trees...
...as late winter temperatures climb above freezing, starches stored in maple roots convert to sugars which can flow in the mineral-rich sap to feed spring leaf buds. A unique property of North American maple trees makes it possible to collect this fluid which is often around 2% minerals and sugars: air cells present in the hardwood (xylem
sap-filled tubules. As these cells freeze, internal humidity condenses into frost along their cell walls. This drying air draws in more humidity which also freezes and the result is a compacting rime of ice, building pressure inside the cell. This tension, in turn, pressurizes the sap tubules it surrounds (like squeezing a toothpast tube)! On a rapidly warming day after such a nightime freeze, this pressure combines with the sap column's weight of gravity and cellular osmosis, to exert up to 40psi at the trunk base! (MSPM, pg.81) Our tapholes, or any break of a limb, will therefore rapidly drip sap. As this internal pressure draws down to match that of the current air pressure outside the tree the discharge of sap declines and then stops until it freezes again. If one could stop right there and harvest/process the sap, the only color and flavor would be delicate Light Ambers. Inside trees is a sterile environment where they are moving wild sucrose and minerals to where they are needed. Plants fashion their energy into carbohydrates which store well in a wet environment. Carbohydrates are converted to sugar to render them soluble for transportation. How much of the trees energy do we take? One formulation considers that maple leaves getting the sunshine they need can average about 1.5 pounds of carbohydrate per square meter of leaf cover over a growing season (about 1 gram per sunlit hour). If one considers a large field tree may have 2,000 square meters of leaf surface thats 3,630lbs per season! A tree with 500 square meters would produce 915lbs. (Platt, The Great American Forest, 1965, pg. 101) A carefull harvester using one or two small 5/16th taps will remove 6-8lbs (dry weight) to craft into 3/4 of a gallon of syrup!
In the forest...
...as daytime and seasonal temperatures rise over the next 6-8 weeks a wild forest fermentation launches. Dozens of changing airborne bacteria and yeast strains interact with the sap as it leaves the trees and rapidly travels down steep rocky ledges, across brooks and through hemlock groves through a network of 30 miles of tubing to enter our syrup house. This fermentation produces different sugars (some sucrose is broken into glucose and fructose) as shifting wild yeast populations add their materials like amino acids and proteins. Forest fermentation accelerates with warming temperatures and passing days. Different wild yeast have different temperature sensitivities which shifts their mingling populations and unique flavor contributions. In addition, all yeast work faster as the sap warms up and changes color from crystal clear to green and bubbly with whorls of yeast busily working on a warm afternoon. These unregulated processes -- along with other natural elements like soil composition, maple tree varietals, and weather patterns-- establish the basic elements of wild forest flavors
forming maple's unique variance.
In the sugarhouse...
...with the use of traditional practices and state-of-the-art technology, we bring the sap to 67% sugars and minerals. At the beginning of the harvest, it takes roughly 30 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. By the end of the harvest, this ratio can climb over 100 to 1. Using both high-pressure filtration and evaporation, we turn the sap to syrup. The high-pressure filter, or reverse osmosis machine, can remove about 75% of the water from the sap before we expose it to the heat of fire in the evaporator. (See the Solar Powered Harvesting page for more on this and other technologies) Brief heat exposure forms flavors as amino acids made by yeast bond to sugars (called the Maillard reaction). Prolonged heating would surpass that process with excessive caramelization and increased potential for scorching. In addition, prolonged cooking means sap coming in from the forest in a different state of fermentation is mixing in the boil with sap from earlier fermentation profiles. We consider this passive blending to muddy nuanced flavors which can be distinguished by the palate. At BSG-Farm a 15 gallon barrel fills with syrup in roughly forty-five minutes (sometimes less), which matches the length of time it takes the evaporator to cycle its sap volume. We thus capture that hour's mobile wild forest flavors. This is what we mean by a Single-Batch from a Single-Crop. (For more on maple sap harvesting, biochemistry and processing into syrups see the North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual, MSPM, 2nd Edition, 2006, Ohio State University Extension.)
By contrast, many harvester/processors blend syrups of varying colors, produced over many hours or days, for convenience or following wholesale guidlines urging market uniformity. Packagers further blend syrups from different farms. For example, the Quebec maple federation purchases and centralizes the majority of its 7,400 member farms' harvest for later redistribution. Syrups blended from different time periods, barrels or farms (as in creating a Medium amber by mixing Light and Dark syrups) may be far less smooth and sophisticated in flavor and can develop cloying aftertastes that limit a syrup's versatility. Our perspective is that over the last fifty years, the public's increasingly narrow association of maple syrup with heavy breakfast foods has occurred in concert with the dominance of wholesale-commodity harvesting and marketing practices like blending. The unique and traditional qualities of each farm’s syrups, each hour’s shifting flavors and thus each color’s many facets, will not survive a blending process.
& syrups at your table
Maple syrup is likely the only food in your kitchen harvested from the woods in a centuries-old tradition. Maple harvesting is a 400 year agroforestry practice first learned from Native Americans who harvested in large quantities. Meats and grains were packed with sugars for both preservation and high energy. Meats were simmered in nutritive maple sap. The crop became a first agricultural activity for many early European settlers to the Northeast as they cleared land for other crops. Maple was an important real estate tool for European businesses urging farmers to colonize New England and produce crops like Merino wool. Uneasy farmers were reassured that, while clearing wilderness and risking all during that critical first year or two they could immediately harvest this unusual forest crop and survive! Historically, and into knowledgeable contemprary times, maple is not considered simply a topping for heavy breakfasts. Rather, it is a prized, broad-ranging condiment and garnish for meats, vegetables, fruits, breads and drinks and complements many sour and savory spices. Historically maple offered an important new way to preserve foods as an alternative to salting, drying and fermenting.
Maple syrups came into the colonial and European diet in the mid 1600's at the same time as cane sugar and from the very beginning was a successfull competitor. Having said that, it took many European cultures and colonists some time to figure out how to integrate sweet tastes with their traditional diets rooted in sours, fermentation and salting. Native Americans offered colonists guidance which eased this important dietary transition. During many historical periods up through the Civil War maple sugar outsold cane sugar in the Northeast by preference and volume for household use. Cane was tariffed from the outset and suffered from its abusive labor practices which often continue today in places like the Dominican Republic. (For more on maple and sugar's histories, see Helen and Scott Nearing, The Maple Sugar Book, Tom Wessels, Reading The Forested Landscape ,Sidney Mintz Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History M. Kulansky Salt: A World History.
A role for family scale farms
Family scale farms can have an important role in supporting a healthy food supply for the public by upholding the flavor variance in a crop that larger, wholesale-driven farms typically must sacrifice for market demands of uniformity. Family farms that focus on such variance can root themselves in agricultural land conservation, attention to biodiversity, concern for organic methods, a pastoral landscape open to public interaction, carbon farming and fair wages for the family farmer. (See Variance harvesting & The Price Point Spread.) At Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple and Carbon Farm we work to bring all these interests together into a fine agricultural harvest that may nourish your aesthetic experiences of food, table, and community, as family scale farm foods have done for centuries. Please explore and discover the many pleasures and healthy uses that come from Single-Crop, Single-Batch maple syrups in all their rich variance. Read further in the Food & Culture section to consider how deeply embeded your behaviors are in driving agricultual practices. Resources in the Carbon Farming section outline all of our activities as carbon farmers and how best practices support biocultural diversity.