What are the first things you think of when you think of Maine? Perhaps lobster, craggy ocean cliffs, wild blueberries or dense green forests? How about authentic, tooth-achingly sweet, delectably rich Maine maple syrup?
In our continued effort to keep it local, we have been serving Chandler’s Sugar Shack maple syrup as a staple on our breakfast table. Chandler’s is one of the only syrup making operations in Washington County. All others are much further west and north. Interestingly, most of the maple syrup these days comes from Canada. At Peacock House, you get the good stuff. Authentic. Maine. Syrup.
Maple syrup, like the blueberry, has a short production season. It comes in a rush and then is gone in a flash. The tree-tapping, syrup-making process is something I have wanted to witness, so I set my sights on the 82 mile drive to Topsfield (which is pretty darn local by syrup standards!) and waited until the weather was right for syrup production. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Peacock House and makes for an engaging afternoon. Just getting there was an adventure!
I drove through a wildlife preserve, a Native American reservation, past ice houses and moose crossings (though sadly the moose remained elusive), traveled over ice-heaved country roads that thrilled like an amusement park ride, past an eagle’s nest and an ancient Esso station, into a land with much more snow and about 10 degrees colder than Lubec. Making the drive gave me a fresh appreciation for the distance Chandler’s travels to deliver syrup to my door!
Did you know that syrup making started with the Native Americans as they let sap dry on rocks in their camp fires? Neither did I until my visit! I learned the history, process and fun syrup facts while sampling sweet treats and witnessing the magic of turning sap, as clear and thin as water with only a hint of sweetness, into the sticky, dark luxury that is Maine maple syrup.
I was lucky to see the process in action and planned my trip accordingly. Many days the syrup doesn’t run. It requires cold nights and warm days and mother nature is notoriously fickle this time of year. The sap actually freezes in the tubes overnight. Sap buckets, by the way, are a thing of the past.
Chandler’s collected 900 gallons of sap the day I visited. A great day is 1400 gallons. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. Chandler’s is considered a small operation and is a family-run business. In addition to running their Sugar Shack, Bert and Bob, Jr. still manage to work full-time, year-round jobs. The operation produces about 4200 gallons of syrup a year.
We proudly offer a few of these sought-after bottles of Chandler’s syrup not just on our table, but in our gift area too. While Maple syrup season is easy to miss, fear not! We saved you some.
Below, I have tried to document the process, which is more complex than I imagined, but my most important takeaway is this: Maple syrup over Breyer’s vanilla ice cream is to die for.
Mary Beth Hoffman, Innkeeper
Outside of Chandler’s Sugar Shack. (People in Maine generally call the building where syrup is made a “sugar shack.”)
Tubing collects the sap, which runs into the sugar shack. (Sap buckets no more! Nostalgic, yes, but tubing is easier on the trees.)
Two taps. The metal tap is an old fashioned style tap, much bigger than the new version. The new version allows the tree to heal more quickly. Each season, the tree is tapped in a new spot, moving around the circumference of the tree, giving it a chance to heal its previous tap hole with much less damage to the tree. The old tap has a bit of a hook on it from which the old buckets would hang.
Here’s the easy breakdown of a complicated process:
The sap goes through a process of reverse osmosis to separate out the raw syrup. What is left behind is essentially distilled water used for cleaning the equipment. (Chandler’s syrup is inspected by the health department, so it meets health standards. It is not a “home-brew” operation.) The syrup boils in the evaporator, which is heated by a stoked wood fire. After the syrup has gone through the evaporator, it collects in a vat.
A filter machine then removes any impurities. And a bottling machine fills the bottles.
Bob, Jr. monitors the evaporation process and keeps people away from the very hot sap/syrup inside. Its literally boiling in there. The evaporation process is done in a machine about 20 feet long that boils and evaporates the sap down to syrup.
And finally, the magic: SAMPLES!
Maple oatmeal bars and maple cookies, maple cake and maple granola, maple sugar candy and my favorite, maple syrup on Breyer’s vanilla ice cream. Simple, understated, and out of this world delicious.