Tapping into the sweet legacy of maple syrup

Every spring, Howard LaFever faithfully harvests sap from 400 sugar maple trees in Morrisville.

Howard LaFever has been making maple syrup since he knew how to walk.

Back then, he and his siblings would collect old cardboard boxes and fall asleep next to the hearth in the sugar shack as their father and grandfather boiled sap late into the night.

Today, many years later, LaFever is an accomplished engineer, he is married and he has children and even grandchildren. Unofficially living by the “work hard, play hard” motto, LaFever collects antique and modern race cars — and don’t let his age fool you, this grandpa races. And he wins.

While much has changed over the course of LaFever’s life, some things have remained ever the same, including his dedication and love of making maple syrup.

Beginning each January, LaFever starts walking through his Morrisville sugar maple forest — checking the health of his trees and testing the sap channels. Then in February, he grabs his drill, his hammer, and a bucket of taps and he starts tapping 400 sugar maples by hand. The rest, LaFever says, is essentially up to Mother Nature.

Each day he checks the weather reports and he waits until the temperatures tell him that the sap will be flowing — it must be cold at night (~25 degrees) and warmer during the day (~ 45 degrees) – which is why March and April are the perfect months to make maple syrup.

Most of LaFever’s trees are tapped and connected with lines of light blue, plastic tubing. From above, it might look like a giant blue spider web, but practically speaking, the trees, which stand high above his cozy sugar shack, built in a clearing at the bottom of a hill, rely on this tubing and on gravity to transport most of the sap from the forest to the maple house.

Once the sap has flowed down to the sugar shack, LaFever begins the boiling process. In its natural state, the sap is comprised of 2 to 3 percent sugar — and maple syrup must be about 66 percent sugar, which means that LaFever has a lot of water to boil off.

 He fires up his evaporator and gets the sap to a rolling boil, all the while testing and retesting the sugar content of the sap with a hydrometer. Then, at the right moment, LaFever draws off the syrup, pre-filters it, filters it again, and then pours it into a metal pot to heat the syrup up to 180 degrees so that it can be bottled.

The process  — from tapping to bottling — is a long one. It requires a lot of time outside in Central New York’s less-than-ideal weather, and it calls for a sizeable financial investment as well, especially for someone like LaFever who chooses to give most of his syrup away to family and friends.

For some, April might be the cruelest month, but for LaFever, this time of year couldn’t be sweeter.

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