Hank Peterson has been “sugarin’” in Londonderry for 30 years. The owner and operator of Peterson Sugarhouse at 28 Peabody Row, he finally headed out Friday after a long winter to tap some trees.
Friday was one of the few warmer days this past week, and Peterson was outside drilling an inch or so into a maple tree. He looked at the drill bit as he removed it from the tree.
“We might have something here,” he said.
Peterson picked up a tap with a blue, 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long downspout and tapped it into the hole in the tree with a hammer. Taking a nail, he tapped that in nearby and hung a metal bucket from it so the downspout would drip into the bucket.
Then it appeared – a little drop much thinner than gooey pine sap, and resembling a drop of water.
“There it is, she’s runnin’,” he said. “If the weather was right, that bucket’d be three quarters full in a day.” He took a curved metal lid and slid it onto the bucket to protect the sap.
If the weather was right, indeed, as recent temperatures have been below normal averages for this time of year.
Hank’s son Wayne Peterson is helping his father tap the trees and explained that the snow cover around the roots helps extend the sugaring season.
“The snow insulates the roots and we need the cold in the ground for the root system,” Wayne said.
“We gotta have the right mix. Cold nights and warm days to get the sap runnin’ just right. On a warm day, these buckets will be full of sap. If we had a 40 degree day and a nighttime temperature of 20 to 25 degrees, this bucket’ll be full,” Hank Peterson said.
Several trees behind the barn have traditional metal buckets with metal lids protecting the sap, but the real “tappin’” comes via long blue, food-grade tubes interconnecting the trees and running down by gravity to a holding tank.
“It makes it easier to empty a few holding tanks than to go to every tree to collect the sap,” Peterson said.
Peterson said it takes 40 gallons of sap, which tastes like water with a hint of sugar flavoring, to boil down to a single gallon of the thick, amber colored confection drizzled on pancakes, French toast, oatmeal or even snow.
A New England early springtime favorite takes warmed maple syrup and drizzles it over crushed ice – or snow, as the old-timers would do. The syrup hardens into a brittle or chewy maple candy.
“You never want to tap near where you’ve tapped before,” he said. “You need at least four inches in every direction and you want to tap under a major branch, because that’s where the tree is sending the sap.
“Once we get the sap, we bring it to the barn, where there are two holding tanks that’ll hold 800 gallons of sap,” Peterson explained. “From there it flows into the evaporator.”
The evaporator can hold hundreds of gallons of sap and when the process is in full swing, a portion of the roof is opened to let the billows of steam escape into the outdoors.
“If we don’t open those slats, the water that condenses will be fallin’ like rain in here,” Peterson said.
Peterson has taps all over town and can be seen tapping trees at Mack’s Moose Hill Orchards.
“We have a crew that comes in and helps with the taps and bringing the sap to the sugarhouse,” he said. “I go through a lot of wood, but even that we try and recycle. We get wood from builders and contractors that have to cut trees to be able to build what they’re building, and they bring (the cut trees) to me instead of burying it in a landfill.
“As we get closer to the middle of spring, the sap’ll start getting sweeter and then at the end of the season, the sap’ll turn bitter in 24 hours and the season’s over, just like that,” Peterson concluded.