ELLSWORTH — David Shepard has made maple syrup since he was a boy, but the Winkumpaugh Road resident never had a roof over his head — let alone a sugar shack — where he could comfortably boil the sap collected from his sugar bush out back.
That was until this year’s maple syrup season when the retired stone mason started boiling sap in the handsome brick and granite edifice that he built for that purpose on his property. The sugar house was constructed almost entirely with salvaged material, including mismatched bricks, windows rescued from a scrapyard and shingles that were “nearly free” from Ellsworth Builders Supply.
Shepard hand-cut the Deer Isle granite. And the finishing touches? Two stained-glass windows created by the stone mason’s artist partner, Tamara Duff. One depicts a wintry scene of tapped trees and hanging buckets while the other is of cascading maple leaves.
“He’d be sitting out there in a tent for hours in the rain,” Duff recounted last week, referring to Shepard’s plein-air boiling over the years.
Last year, anticipating the 2018 maple syrup season, Shepard began cobbling together a proper shelter for himself, but his own masonry skills and building know-how evolved into a more elaborate structure.
A brick column inset with granite graces the sugar house’s entrance and supports the overhanging shingled roof. Granite lintels and sills adorn the windows. Large, rough granite pieces, incorporated into the brick façade, add a whimsical touch.
“I started building this and just got carried away,” said Shepard, showing the sugar house last week.
Shepard, who studied at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, has made his living as a stone mason in Maine. He retired from working for Freshwater Stone about a decade ago. Nowadays, he devotes his time to painting — he works in oil on very large canvases — sailing and other pursuits such as making maple syrup.
On this mild mid-March day, the maple tap lines were still covered with a dash of snow from a recent blizzard, and the sap was moving sluggishly. Working in his new sugar house, Shepard has done “three or four” boils and collected 565 gallons of sap so far this year. He will likely have enough for another boil in the coming week. His yield is a bit less than the 40-to-1-ratio of sap-to-syrup that commercial producers aim to get.
During the January thaw, Shepard placed more than 200 taps, some with hanging buckets, but the majority with hoses connected directly to the trees: a sprawling science experiment amid the snow.
“If you tap in January you get a nice, sweet sap,” he says. He draws mostly from red maples. “A few sugar, but no birch,” and uses small plastic taps between 3/16 and 5/16 of an inch.
The traditional metal spouts are larger, but Shepard thinks the smaller ones do just fine. “It’s better for the tree,” he says and you get roughly the same amount of sap.
On warm days in early spring, the starch stored in a tree’s roots is converted to sugar and rises through the trunk, where it can be collected with taps and hose.
In Shepard’s operation, hundreds of feet of hose winds its way from tree to tree, eventually collecting in a single metal tub. He siphons the slushy sap (the water in the sap freezes, although the sugar content keeps the contents from freezing entirely) into barrels and drives it to his sugar house, where it is poured into a 220-gallon plastic tub and gravity-fed into pans for boiling.
The sap is boiled for hours over a wood fire to evaporate the water (this process should be done outside or in a well-ventilated building as it results in massive clouds of sticky, sweet-smelling steam). Boil too long and it will crystallize; under-boil and the resulting syrup will be watery and prone to spoil. The resulting liquid must then be filtered to remove any debris that may have slipped through.
Maple syrup is graded from “very dark with strong flavor” to a “golden color with delicate flavor.” Lighter syrups are typically the result of early-season taps; darker syrups are more intense in flavor. Shepard says he prefers the darker shades, although the amber ones are often prized for their delicacy.
For those looking to sweeten their pancakes and beans, Shepard sells his syrup from his home at 288 Winkaumpaugh Road, $5 for a half-pint and $9 for a pint. A quart runs $16.50, and larger quantities are available by calling 667-5621.