Maple syrup-making tradition changes with the times

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Stafford - posted Wed., Mar. 20, 2013
Spigots release the freshly-made syrup into pails, after which it is run through a filter. Photos by Annie Gentile.
Spigots release the freshly-made syrup into pails, after which it is run through a filter. Photos by Annie Gentile.

Maple syrup-making is a centuries-old tradition in the northeast, practiced first by native Americans and later adopted by European settlers, but the process has changed significantly over the ages.

That fact was evident at a recent visit to Bradway’s Sugar House in Stafford Springs, where Donald Bradway was found stoking his wood-fired evaporator that transforms common tree sap into sweet maple syrup.

“My family has been making maple syrup since the late ‘40s or early ‘50s,” said Bradway. “I took over the business in 1991, but I’ve been making it all my life.”

Making maple syrup basically involves tapping holes into maple trees to draw out and collect the sap, then using a wood-fired process to boil the water out of the sap until only the sugar content remains. The syrup is then run through a filter to remove the grit - or sugar sand, as it is often called - which is created in the boiling process. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make about 1 gallon of maple syrup.

Because sap is about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar content, the boiling process is the most costly and time-consuming part of the job. In years past, Bradway said it was not unusual to go through 25 or 30 cord of wood during the approximately six-week season. However, about four years ago he purchased a reverse osmosis machine, which pre-heats the sap with steam, removing about two-thirds of the water in the process before it is boiled. “It’s all wood-fired, but more modern and efficient, so it makes the fire burn hotter,” he said. “It cuts the boiling time and fuel consumption drastically. Now I go through only about four or five cord at the most. It saves a lot of time and money.”

Bradway said the heating process isn’t the only change in technology. As a child of six when he first started helping his uncle make syrup, he said he would collect individual pails of sap by hand and lug them one by one to the sugarhouse. Today, multiple maple trees are tapped and connected by tubing so that the sap collects into much larger containers which are then pumped down and transported to the sugarhouse by truck. “The job is basically the same, but technology has really modernized the process,” he said.

“People don’t know it, but a lot of maple syrup is made right here in Connecticut,” said Bradway, who sells his syrup in sizes ranging from a half pint to a gallon either from the sugarhouse, from his home in the off-season, or through a few country stores. “I would guess there are about a hundred sugar-makers in the state, although most are small operations,” he said.

“It’s about a six-week season, give or take – mid-February to about the first of April,” he said. “This year hasn’t been too bad, but it would be better if we had some warmer days.”

“If you make maple syrup, you have to love the outdoors, and I do,” said Bradway. “For me, it’s a family tradition.”

Donald and Karen Bradway offer maple syrup for sale year round. Visitors to Bradway’s Sugar House are welcome, but should call ahead to 860-684-7112.

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