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March 19. 2013 5:39PM

Sugaring in Amherst for fun and friendship


On March weekends, Bill and Christy Belvin crank up their outdoor boiler in their yard in Amherst and turn the sap collected from their maples into sweet syrup for friends and family. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER PHOTO)

AMHERST -- What started as a class project for their kids nearly 30 years ago has become a rite of spring for amateur maple producers Bill and Christy Belvin, and folks around Amherst know winter is almost over when the boiler in the Belvins' driveway starts spewing smoke.

"It's something to do during mud season," said Christy. "It gets you outside after being cooped up inside all winter."

Three decades ago, one of the Belvins' children came home from school with a request from a teacher to bring in some maple sap.

"They were going to make maple syrup," said Bill. "It was a good project because there's a lot of science and math to it, but for some reason the project didn't work out and the kids were sent home with the sap."

Not wanting to see a perfectly good batch of sap go to waste, the Belvins did their first boil and produced a tiny amount of thick, sweet syrup. It took one taste and the Belvins were hooked. They set out taps and covered buckets and began collecting sap from their small grove of maples (called a "sugar bush") and through a process of trial and error began perfecting their methods for making syrup.

Today they still collect sap the old fashioned way, but they've also got a small area of maples with taps connected to tubing that lead downhill to a large plastic tank that Bill calls "the pig."

"Gravity is definitely your friend," said Bill. "On warm, sunny days the sap just pours out of those trees like water and just makes a sugar maker's heart skip a beat."

The sap is stored in trash barrels tucked into deep snow banks on the side of the Belvin's garage. The snow helps keep the clear, sweet sap cold to ward off bacteria and mold until it's time to boil.

"If the sap looks foggy, you've lost it," said Christy. "It's really hard to keep sap in years where there's not much snow."

In the Belvins' side yard is a make-shift boiler made of an old wood stove propped up on blocks, a chimney, and a bit of a roof to keep snow and rain from interfering with their boiling. With a good fire in its belly, the boiler starts cranking out smoke and reducing the sap down to a thick syrup.

The Belvins, like the 500 other home producers in New Hampshire, don't sell their syrup; they give it away.

"There are people all over the country who get our syrup for Christmas," said Bill.

It takes nearly 40 gallons of sap - and around eight hours of boiling time - to make one gallon of syrup, according to Chris Pfeil of The Maple Guys in Lyndeborough. The Maple Guys make their own syrup at their sugar shack, but also sell sugaring supplies to home producers who want to try their hand at making syrup (www.mapleguys.com).

During the season, the sap takes on different characteristics which results in different grades of syrup, from "fancy" early in the season, to the rich ambers at the height of the season, and finally to the "Grade B" end-of-season syrup that isn't much good for pancakes but is used by bakeries to give products a hint of maple.

"There's a correlation between the color of the syrup and the flavor," said Bill Belvin. "The lighter the color, the sweeter and less maple the syrup. The darker it is, the more maple and less sweet."

Sugaring time is a busy season, but also a short one. Bill said there are a few ways maple producers know when to take in their taps.

"If you're out of wood and your wife stops helping you, you know the season is over," he said. But the maple trees also provide clues.

"If the buds on a sugar maple are the size of a mouse's ear, it's time to stop," he said.

Because the trees use the sugar in their veins to produce the buds which will become leaves, the sap changes later in the spring and becomes almost bitter, said Christy Belvin.

"It doesn't make very good syrup," she said. "It smells kind of funky and it tastes funky."

For folks who want to try their hand at sugaring, Chris Pfeil said the investment to get started is minimal.

"All you really need is a tap and a milk jug to get started," he said. "You can boil the sap in a turkey fryer and keep an eye on the temperature with a candy thermometer."

But Pfeil warns that for a lot of people, making syrup quickly becomes an addiction.

"It's one of those things where you get something for your labor," he said. "Anybody can do it, and it's always fascinating."


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