2012-03-23 / Front Page

At center of city, maple syrup flows

Kristy Wagner Staff Writer


Dan Williams of South Portland opens the firebox where he burns wood to fuel an evaporator. Williams built the device, which is used for evaporating maple sap into syrup, with his son. Williams taps red maple trees right in the front yard of his Evans Street home. (Kristy Wagner photo) Dan Williams of South Portland opens the firebox where he burns wood to fuel an evaporator. Williams built the device, which is used for evaporating maple sap into syrup, with his son. Williams taps red maple trees right in the front yard of his Evans Street home. (Kristy Wagner photo) Some neighbors may have noticed smoke billowing out of Dan Williams’ front yard on Evans Street in South Portland recently, but they can rest assured his home was not on fire. Williams is participating in his second season of home maple syrup production.

“I started last year,” Williams said. “A friend of mine has a sugar house and I got bit by the bug.”

Williams, who grew up in South Portland, has tapped a handful of red maples in his front yard, but said he owns some land in Scarborough where he has tapped more trees.

“All together I have about 160 taps out,” Williams said.


Dan Williams show how a spile attaches to a plastic tube. Williams said he drills 1 or 2 inches into the maple tree and then inserts a spile. The sap runs through the spile, down the tube and into a plastic bucket. (Kristy Wagner photo) Dan Williams show how a spile attaches to a plastic tube. Williams said he drills 1 or 2 inches into the maple tree and then inserts a spile. The sap runs through the spile, down the tube and into a plastic bucket. (Kristy Wagner photo) He has been learning how to identify different maples from his friend, Matt Roy, who owns Royal Maple, a sugarhouse in Buxton. Sugarhouses like Roy’s from all over Maine will participate in Maine Maple Sunday on March 25. On Maine Maple Sunday, participating sugarhouses open up to the public, offer samples of syrup and demonstrate how maple syrup is made. A map of participating sugarhouses in the state is available on the Maine Maple Producers Association’s website at www.mainemapleproducers.com.

Williams said the maple season this year has been short.

“We’re getting close to the end already,” Williams said. “Last week I received almost 300 gallons (of sap) and this week I only had two.”


Above, buckets hang from two maple trees in Dan Williams’ front yard in South Portland. The maple season typically runs from February until about mid-April, but Williams said the season ran short this year due to the unseasonably warm weather of this winter. Above, buckets hang from two maple trees in Dan Williams’ front yard in South Portland. The maple season typically runs from February until about mid-April, but Williams said the season ran short this year due to the unseasonably warm weather of this winter. The weather plays a major factor in maple production, he said.

“Depending on the season there is an ideal temperature,” Williams said. “A good low is 28-30 (degrees) and a good high in somewhere in the 30s and 40s (for sap production).”

According to the Maine Maple Producers Association website, the maple syrup season begins in February and ends around mid-April. Syrup making is not for the lazy; once the sap flows from the tap it needs to be processed within a couple of hours or it will spoil. Sap is processed in a maple syrup evaporator. The maple producer feeds the syrup into the evaporator where it continuously boils. The syrup must reach 7 degrees above the boiling point of water before the syrup density reaches the ideal level.


Left, the pan on top of the evaporator that sap is fed into while making maple syrup. Sap boils until the sugar content rises and must reach 7 degrees above boiling temperature to be the right density for syrup. (Kristy Wagner photo) Left, the pan on top of the evaporator that sap is fed into while making maple syrup. Sap boils until the sugar content rises and must reach 7 degrees above boiling temperature to be the right density for syrup. (Kristy Wagner photo) Williams collects his syrup the oldfashioned way – plastic tubing running from the tap into a bucket that hangs from the tree as opposed to the elaborate set-up of large sugarhouses. Trees are drilled and then tapped with spiles, which are attached to the tubing.

“I have had some trees whose buckets filled in just over a day,” Williams said.

Red maples produce less sap than the sugar maple. The sugar maple’s sap also has about 10 percent sugar, while the red maple has about 3 percent, he said.

Roy taught Williams that a tree should be at least 30 years old before it is tapped; the tree only has to be drilled about 2 to 3 inches deep to see sap run. Williams said the tree has straws that run up the outermost layers of the tree and they feed sap up to all the buds on the branches.

“The old wives’ tale says you should tap right under the branch with the most leaves,” Williams said.

Williams said tapping a tree is fun to do and to watch.

“As soon as you drill (the tree), within seconds you see the sap come out and it’s natural,” he said.

Williams has two holding tanks in his garage where he stores fresh sap that waits to be boiled into syrup and he has an evaporator in his driveway that he built with his son. He said between instruction from Roy and the Internet, they got the contraption built and running smoothly. The evaporator runs by burning wood in a firebox in the front, heating up the syrup fed into metal pans on the top.

Williams said that last week he began boiling a 70-gallon batch of sap at around 8:30 a.m. and did not get his first draw of syrup until about 7:30 p.m.

“You’ve got to ‘sweeten the pan’ to get the sugar content high,” Williams said. “When (the sap) gets closer to syrup I’ll constantly drip hot sap into it to get it to an average rate and keep up with the evaporation.”

Williams said if he adds too much fresh sap to the boil, the sugar content will go down and the process will take longer.

“There are a lot of little things, but for the most part (maple syrup production) is pretty basic,” Williams said.

“At this level it’s a little more time consuming than I would have thought,” Williams said about using his evaporator, which he downsized three times in the process of building.

Williams bought his Evans Street home from his grandparents and he grew up in the house next door. He said his grandparents had vegetable gardens and fruit trees in the yard that he helped with when he was young.

“I remember as a kid we would bring in the vegetables and fix the garden and all that,” Williams said. “One thing I never remember my grandfather doing was making maple syrup.”

Williams said he does not sell his syrup. He and his wife, Rebecca, use some at home and give the rest away. His wife found some plastic bottles for packaging and maple syrup stickers to label them.

Making maple syrup at home has been fun for Williams and his family, he said.

“It’s a good time. My sister comes over with the kids and they get excited about it. Everybody gets cabin fever this time of year and they want to get out and do something,” Williams said.

Return to top