Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on the adventures of a Wisconsin contingent that traveled to New England in early October.
BETHLEHEM, N.H. — Lots of people enjoy pouring maple syrup on their pancakes or using it to replace sugar in recipes, but not many of them know much about how it is produced.
A Wisconsin group traveling through New England in early October got a crash course in maple syrup production at The Rocks Estate just outside of Bethlehem, N.H.
The Rocks Estate sits on about 1,400 acres of primarily woodlands donated to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests in 1978 by John Glessner, a Chicago businessman and co-founder of International Harvester. The land and 22 buildings were donated with the stipulation that there always be a crop in the field. For nearly 40 years, the primary crop has been Christmas trees, although maple syrup also plays a prominent role in the facility.
The Forest Society is the oldest conservation group in New Hampshire, and owns 55,000 acres in the state. All of the land is open for hunting, fishing and other types of recreation.
The Rocks Estate is managed by Nigel Manley, who grew up in the United Kingdom but came to the U.S. to oversee the property in 1978. The facility has about 45,000 Christmas trees and about 1,000 of the property’s sugar maple trees are tapped for sap each spring.
Maple syrup production is demonstrated to visitors each year in the property’s former sawmill/pig pen, a building constructed in 1906. The New Hampshire Maple Experience draws hundreds of people to The Rocks Estate the last three weekends of March and the first weekend of April, where guests learn the history of sugaring, help tap a maple tree and enjoy a horse-drawn wagon ride through the property.
The Maple Experience museum includes a display of maple sugaring tools and artifacts from the extensive collection of Charlie Stewart, who sugared for decades in nearby Sugar Hill.
Manley said maple syrup production varies from year to year — as it does everywhere sap is collected — depending on the spring weather.
“In order for the sap to flow we need 20 degrees at night and 40 degrees during the day,” Manley said. “The longer you have that temperature change, the more sap you will get and the more syrup you can make.”
The worst year at Rocks Estate saw that temperature swing for only 10 days, Manley said, before the daytime temperature reached 60 degrees and put a stop to the sap flow. That year, only about 90 gallons of maple syrup were produced on the grounds.
In 2016, the tapping season lasted for about 6½ weeks, and the Rocks Estate staff made 460 gallons of syrup.
“We basically got bored of making it,” he said. “The most we had ever made before that was 240 gallons. I’ve been in this country for 30 years and seen a lot of cool things, but watching sap boil is not one of them. It’s not very exciting.”
The sap runs through about five miles of tubing in the property’s woods. The tubing is raised in the trees each year once the sap is collected so it isn’t destroyed by the moose, bear and coyotes that roam through the property.
The maple syrup grading system changed in 2015, Manley said, from “A Light, A Medium, A Dark and B” to a new system based on the taste of the syrup. The new grades are Grade A golden, amber, dark and very dark. The tastes vary from “delicate” for golden to “strong” for very dark, Manley said.
“The old system was working until the millennials came along,” Manley said. “You know they don’t get Bs. Now the industry standard is much better.”
Manley said the grades change as the season progresses — the syrup is lighter at the beginning and darker at the end. Syrup can be made darker by cooking the sap longer and adding more sugar, he said.
The Rocks Estate specializes in the darker syrup based on consumer preferences determined by blind taste tests at agricultural fairs, Manley said. The various grades are sold at the same price, he said.
Manley suggested that consumers buy maple syrup in large containers, separate it into smaller glass jars and freeze those that will be used later. The jar to be used first should be kept in the refrigerator.
“You pay more when you buy syrup in smaller containers,” he said. “It often gets wasted when it’s used out of large containers. My grandson, for example, has half a pancake in a gallon of syrup.”
New Hampshire ranked fifth in the nation in maple syrup production in 2017 with 154,000 gallons, just behind Wisconsin at 200,000 gallons. The top three states were Vermont, New York and Maine.
Manley said Native Americans made sugar from maple sap long before the arrival of European settlers, often making it to the consistency of taffy so it could be carried in leather pouches. Maple sugar became an important staple for early homesteaders.
Manley said some people sell organic maple syrup, but he described that as a “scam.”
“I’ve never seen anybody use fertilizer in the woods,” he said. “I’ve even seen free-range trees. If you’re paying more because you want to see the word organic in there, I think you have too much money to spend.”
The same can be said for the farm’s 45,000 Christmas trees. Manley said they use pesticides to stay ahead of the weeds and kill pests to provide optimal growing conditions for the trees.
“I can’t weed them all by hand,” he said. “You can’t have that kind of production without using herbicides.
“Farmers won’t use too many chemicals, because they cost money. If we can avoid spraying Christmas trees we won’t be spraying them. Who wants to spend money for the fun of it?”
Seedlings are planted when they are 4 to 5 years old, and the trees are tended for the next 6 to 9 years before they are harvested. Each tree is hand-pruned each summer for optimal shaping, Manley said.
Hundreds of people come to The Rocks each year to take home their family Christmas trees, Manley said, and the trees are also sold to wholesale and mail-order customers.
The property also hosts weddings and other events and welcomes visitors to take advantage of the extensive trail system for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and walking.