If you take a step into the boiling room of a maple sugar house, you will find yourself immediately enveloped in a thick haze of sugary air, a sweet aroma that fills the room.
For Joe Boisvert, co-owner with his wife Shelly of the Sugar Shack in North Hadley, this is a delicious smell that he encounters regularly as a maple syrup producer.
Joe first started making maple syrup with his brother John when they were in their parents’ backyard and they got the idea from a neighbor. They tapped a few trees and now 25 years later, the Sugar Shack is in its twentieth season of production.
The public is welcome to see how it’s made and I got a glimpse into the laborious, but rewarding process of making 100% pure maple syrup, which can only be made during a specific 4-6 week period of the year. Each late winter into the early spring, they tap a spout or spicket into maple trees, drilling a small hole about 1.5-2 inches in to the outer layer. Then, they hang a bucket to gather the sap. During this season, the daytime temperatures are warm enough that sap can flow and run from the trees, but are still freezing during the nights.
Sap is mostly water – on average, only 2% of it is natural sugar, so it takes a lot of sap to make a little bit of syrup. 40 gallons of sap is required for one gallon of pure maple syrup. During the season, they tap thousands of trees to gather thousands of gallons of sap.
Once the sap is collected, it is taken into the boiling room, where it is transformed into syrup. The evaporator is an enormous boiler that is wood fired, making a hot and rapid boil, removing water from the sap that rises and leaves as steam. Only the sugar is left, which becomes hotter, thicker, and develops a golden color. Absolutely nothing is added, making pure maple syrup.
Maple syrup can only be made during this season, a 4-6 week window that allows for the product. Once it starts getting even the slightest bit too warm, the season is over. I was lucky enough to catch the tail of the season, as we're heading into spring time. Joe says that when the buds crack open on trees, it is a sign and you know the period is done. Even if sap is still running from the trees, it tends to have a bite to it.
Even with maple sugaring season coming to a close, the Sugar Shack is a local, family-owned business that runs all year long. Syrup production lasts about one and a half months on average, but they offer their products and other services throughout the year, each corresponding to the seasons. Joe says it is a very diversified family operation.
The beginning of the season starts with the maple sugaring process. Once this period ends, the different farms, Farm Tales and Animal Village, open to the public, which are a popular place for families and birthday parties. They also offer a farm-themed, 9-hole mini golf and gem mining. During the summer, they begin harvesting and baling hay for the cattle, offering pure beef in this season. The fall is time for winter squash, pumpkins, and other seasonal vegetables. The retail sales go into the holiday season with Christmas trees and maple gift boxes and baskets. Maple syrup is offered all year round, making it the star of breakfasts at home and in the Sugar Shack’s very own breakfast joint.
“My favorite thing about having a family-owned business is being able to work with my family every day and watching my kids grow up alongside of us, learning from us and seeing how it’s done so hopefully maybe someday in the future they’ll want to continue on the family business,” Joe says.
Joe and Shelly’s children also like getting involved in the sugar process, in addition to other parts of the family business. They have a set of 12-year-old twins and a 9-year-old daughter – all who enjoy helping with the Sugar Shack after school and during weekends. Their son especially likes to drive the tractor and his daughters play with the animals, taking advantage of being outside in nature.
There’s another perk to having pure maple syrup at your fingertips. Joe says his kids only like their syrup and on the rare instances that they get to take a break from the business and go on vacation, the kids always remind him and Shelly to bring their own syrup if the restaurant doesn’t have any.
What’s his favorite product? Of course Joe is a big fan of the syrup too – but more for the process and the hard work involved. He enjoys boiling the sap and constantly sampling the syrup as it comes off of the evaporator. The season begins with light colored syrup with a mild maple flavor. As the season goes on, the syrup darkens and develops a stronger, more robust, pronounced flavor. Joe appreciates how the syrup changes with the season and it was interesting to get a glimpse of the process and see how the product is toward the end.
He says, “I really enjoy watching the trees and Mother Nature do their thing and see what the final outcome is here when we’re running the evaporators.”
Joe’s advice to the public? Go down to your local sugar house and talk to the farmers so you can understand all of the hard work that goes into making a pure product. For me, watching how maple sugar was made rewarded me with a sense of gratitude for small, family-owned businesses. It showed me how we can take care of our environment around us and we get something wonderful in return. Even though the maple syrup-making process is only a handful of weeks long, there are many other ways we can support our local farmers and take advantage of homegrown products! The Sugar Shack is big on educating the public, people who have never seen sap being boiled or who have never been to a sugarhouse. He says everyone is welcomed to come down during maple sugar season to talk to the sugar makers, including him. They encourage people to learn about what’s involved and hopefully sample some of their products and take some home to enjoy it.
“It’s nice being your own boss and being here every day doing what we love to do and that’s making maple syrup.”
You can find out more about the Sugar Shack, breakfast, maple syrup, and everything else it offers here.