The maple syrup season is officially underway in Durham.
Mild temperatures last week triggered a sap run unlike any maple syrup farmer Russ Hassmann has seen in the decade-plus he's been producing winter's liquid gold at the Durham Sugarhouse.
"There's never been a run like this," he said.
Hassmann, who operates the sugarhouse with help from his family, spent a few sub-freezing days last week connecting a spiderweb of 6,000 feet of plastic tubing to 450 taps on the sugar maples that rise in the woods surrounding his home before the weather warmed.
Some of the trees belong to Hassmann's neighbors, who've happily agreed to let him vacuum their maples for sap — a liquid generally made up of about two percent sugar — and turn it into an amber liquid that must be boiled down to at least 66 percent sugar content to be officially considered maple syrup.
"The syrup will be very light and sweet right now for the first batches of the season. Then as the days get warmer and warmer, the sap chemistry changes, the syrup becomes progressively darker, somewhat less sweet and conservatively more maple flavored," said Hassmann.
The CEO of a successful sign manufacturing company, Hassmann has been sugaring since 2002, a hobby he picked up during a vacation to the place many consider to be the mecca of maple syrup.
"We were vacationing in Vermont and we were taking a country road somewhere and we stopped in a store to get some ice cream and they had maple syrup making supplies, so I bought six taps and a how-to book," he said.
The metal taps and tin buckets are now gone, replaced by newer technology that includes a reverse osmosis machine that helps speed up processing time by removing two-thirds of the water from the sap before it's poured into a wood-fired evaporator.
"There's been a lot of innovation," said Hassmann, who collected 1,000 gallons of sap during the first run of the season after temperatures rose above freezing to about fifty degrees.
Compare that to the 6,000 gallons he collected all of last year and Hassmann is steadying himself for what could be a record year for the Durham Sugarhouse.
"Traditionally, we were running middle of February until the end of March. Last year we tapped the end of January and we're tapping the end of January this year, so we'll see," he said.
Maple syrup can be produced when overnight temperatures dip below 25 degrees and daytime temperatures reach 40 degrees. "It's really the freeze/thaw that causes the sap to run," Hassmann said.
When temperatures reached the mid-fifties last week, the sap was literally pouring out of the trees, quickly filling several of his large sap tanks.
"They were overflowing when I got home," he said.
Sap can quickly spoil so Hassmann collects the day's harvest and boils it down until it's about 90 percent finished, a process that often keeps him up until early the next day and one that typically yeilds about one-gallon of syrup for every 60 gallons of sap.
The final step of the process involves boiling the maple syrup in a gas fired finisher until it reaches 218 degrees and 66 percent sugar. At that point, it's filtered into containers.
A quart of Hassmann's maple syrup, which has won first place at the Durham Fair, cost $15. Smaller amounts are available at the sugarhouse located at 28 Burwell Newton Drive, where visitors are always welcome to stop by during weekends or call ahead.
Unlike some maple syrup producers, there's no grading at the Durham Sugarhouse. "Some people like the dark stuff, some people like the light stuff. We just do it by batch," Hassmann said.
After having a taste of the season's first batch there's little wonder why people come from all over for a taste of Durham's syrup.
"People come and they ship it all over, Malaysia, Australia," said Leslie Hassmann. "They come by when they want something local to send off."