Sweet science: Dalton farmer explains maple sugaring process at Berkshire Museum

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Photo Gallery | Learner's Lab: Maple Sugaring at the Berkshire Museum

PITTSFIELD — Here's one sweet way to learn about organic chemistry, biology and physics: Talk to a maple syrup producer.

A handful of early risers enjoyed just such an opportunity while attending a maple surgaring talk given by Dalton farmer Dicken Crane, who happens to know his stuff, Saturday at Berkshire Museum.

Crane, co-owner of Holiday Brook Farm on Holiday Cottage Road, expounded on the history and science of syrup making during an hourlong program, plus audience questions and answers.

"The modern sugar house is like a science lab," Crane said, where the farmer is "exploiting principles of physics."

He detailed modern practices like vacuum pump extraction and reverse-osmosis and trotted out insider terms like Brix scale and sugar sand.

Curious parties can note that the suction created via vacuum extraction allows farmers to only tap a tree in one place, rather than four or five times. Sap collection becomes much speedier for the farmer, and fewer holes protects the health of the tree.

Reverse-osmosis removes water from the sap, allowing quicker concentration. Whereas someone trying to boil down sap into maple syrup in a giant pot requires a lot of sweet time, one reaches the same product much sooner using a reverse-osmosis machine, and saves a lot of energy in the process.

Reverse-osmosis machines once were cost-prohibitive — only big-time, 10,000-tap producers could afford them, but, like other technology, it has fallen in price such that any producer with a few hundred taps is likely to own one.

The Brix scale measures sugar content in water-based solution. Finished syrup registers a density of about 66 degrees Brix, containing roughly 13 grams of sugar per tablespoon.

Sugar sand, crystalline debris — not unlike rock candy — that settles at the bottom of maple sap containers once it has reached syrup levels of concentration, must be filtered and contains mostly calcium salt and malic acid.

Tapping season falls between mid-February and mid-March, because sap flows better from trees subjected to overnight freezes.

Liquids dissolve more gas when they're cold, so when sap in a tree's root system warms, the heat forces carbon dioxide out of solution, creating pressure that drives sap flow, Crane said.

The process repeats day after day as winter transitions into spring.

"That cycle of warm and cold functions like a sort of pump," Crane said.

Tapping season began and will end much sooner in 2016 than in 2015. It will end before the close of March this year, whereas last year, Crane said he continued until April 15 — testament to how temperature means everything when it comes to syrup production.

"We didn't start last year until the 15th of March, and here we are, it's the 12th of March, and people are talking about whether we've got another week or not," Crane said.

Crane said the season looks to be "not near as good as last year," when the state had a record yield of about 75,000 gallons of maple syrup, generating more than $3 million in sales of maple syrup in Massachusetts.

"I've talked to a couple people who've made over half of what they made last year, and they're OK with that," Crane said, adding that he himself is due to match last year's halfway mark Sunday. "Last year was a pretty good year; you don't get that every time."

The history also proved interesting.

Indigenous people living in what is now the Northeastern U.S. were the first known producers of the syrup. Many different origin stories exist, but Crane said he subscribes to the idea that the natives watched squirrels feeding on sap as it sugared in the hot sun, and extrapolated on the idea.

Crane also shared a historical fun-fact: Abolitionists advocated that people use maple syrup instead of cane sugar, because it was produced by farmers in the Northeast as opposed to slaves on Southern plantations.

As a result of their successful efforts, Massachusetts' biggest year on record for maple syrup sales was just before the Civil War, Crane said.

He added, "Hasn't been beat since."

Vermont is the biggest producer of U.S. maple syrup, logging 41 percent of the total U.S. haul in 2015, or almost 1.4 million gallons. Massachusetts produced 75,000 gallons in 2015.

Canada produces more than 80 percent of the world's maple syrup.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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