Sugar shacks fired up for maple syrup boils
By CHRIS GOUDREAU
HADLEY, Mass. — The sweet aroma of fresh maple syrup wafted through the air inside the North Hadley Sugar Shack last weekend as white smoke filled the room during a recent maple syrup boil.
For Joe Boisvert, owner of the North Hadley Sugar Shack, weekend maple syrup boils are a family tradition going back to his childhood that now includes his children and his wife, Shelly Boisvert, who operates the restaurant portion of the sugar shack.
“My brother and I have been sugaring since we were 9 and 10 in my parent’s backyard,” he said. The Boisvert family has been serving breakfast at the sugar shack with their homemade maple syrup during the past 25 years, with his children also working in the family business.
This was the third maple sap boil during the shack’s current maple sugar season, which typically starts in mid-February and ends in mid-April — but every year is different for maple syrup producers.
“The peak time of maple sugaring is warm days in low to mid-40s and a rapid warm-up that morning to a night that might have been 26 to 30 degrees,” he explained. “So, having a decent freeze and rapid warm-up and sunshine will give us the strongest sap runs from the trees.”
Boisvert said he and other sugar shacks are finding themselves tapping trees for sap earlier in the season because of climate change.
“It’s always on our mind, without a doubt,” he said. “We’re going to have to learn to adapt to the earlier boil dates, I feel, if we’re going to continue doing this in the next 10, 20, or 30 years here in New England.”
The restaurant half of the sugar shack typically does between 400 and 600 meals per day on weekends during the maple season, he said. Many people also visit sugar shacks for agricultural tourism.
A typical day for Boisvert, his family and his workers begins at 5 a.m. to start the two-person boiling process on the evaporator, which heats sap via a wood stove to separate water from the natural sugars to create maple syrup. Meanwhile, others are gathering sap throughout the day. On a good day, the sap is running all day long, from early morning to night.
“Once the sap is harvested from the trees, it gets collected and gathered, it gets filtered out back so any impurities are out of the sap,” he explained. “From a stainless steel tank out back, it’s flowing down this big copper line to the evaporator.”
As of last weekend, with the season just getting underway, they had made about 40 gallons of maple syrup — the result of cooking down 1,600 to 1,800 gallons of sap. The sugar shack typically makes between 2,000 and 2,500 gallons of syrup annually.
“We also make maple cream, maple sugar candy and granulated sugar, and that has all to do with the different temperatures that we boil that syrup to. The more we boil it, the more water leaves the liquid syrup and it makes other confectionaries.”
Mark Moriarty, 26, has been working at the North Hadley Sugar Shack for the past 12 years. He helps out with a little bit of everything at the sugar shack, feeding wood into the stove to boil sap, maintaining sap lines, collecting buckets of sap and monitoring the boiling process.
“When I was younger, I wanted something to do in the wintertime,” he said. “I went out and started collecting sap buckets. And here I am today still doing that. When I was a kid I loved to work. I grew up in town and they were family friends. I was looking for a job and they took me on and here I am still, 12 years later.”
Shelly Boisvert said the sugar shack’s restaurant has a regular group of customers every season from local families to people driving a couple of hours to have breakfast at the restaurant.
“It’s nice to see those faces,” she explained. “When we’re open, you know that spring’s right around the corner, even if it doesn’t look like it.”
The sugar shack and restaurant, which are open only through April, are attached to the North Hadley Market, which they also own. The market is open year-round, where they operate a deli and offer a variety of groceries — including their homemade maple syrup, cream and candies.
Currently the cold winter weather at night is producing light syrup, which will end up being used for maple cream and candies, Joe Boisvert noted. As the season continues, the sugar content in the sap decreases, which produces darker colored syrup with a more pronounced maple flavor.