Maple syrup producers worth their sugar don’t make predictions about how much sap will flow from their trees in any given year. But Michael Bryant of Hilltop Boilers in West Newfield is pleased to report the sap running up and down his sugar bush due to February’s wacky weather patterns is putting his numbers way ahead of the norm. “We have made more syrup, earlier, than any other year in my 30 years of syrup making,” Bryant said.

Aaron Mason of Greenwood Mountain Maple Products in Hebron had already made 120 gallons of syrup as of Feb. 25, compared to 100 gallons made by late March 2015. “You never know what Mother Nature is going to give you, but anything you get in February is a bonus,” Mason said.

We’re not making predictions, I know, but can’t we speculate just a little bit? Envision sap running at these rates through March. Will the market be flooded with sap? Local maple syrup is certainly a sustainable product, but maybe producers should think about diversifying their operations with drinkables that require less time and energy. Reducing 40 gallons of sap down to 1 gallon of syrup requires fuel, after all.

Enter bottled maple water. Maple water (aka sap) is marketed in health food stores as a low-calorie (about 15 calories per serving), hydrating (it’s 98 percent water), slightly sweet (2 percent sucrose out of the tap) alternative to sugary drinks. About a dozen maple waters are now on the market, the raw materials for which mostly come from New York and Canada, University of Maine professor Kathryn Hopkins said.

Sipping maple sap is something producers have done for as long as they’ve been making syrup. “It’s convenient when you’re out in the woods collecting sap and you get thirsty,” said Abby van der Berg, a researcher with the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center. What’s changed is that collection and packaging processes have advanced enough to ensure that the highly perishable sap can travel from tap to TetraPak (the most popular packaging) safely and still taste like it did in its natural habitat.

Producers taking part in Maine’s Maple Sunday on March 27 say they have been testing the public’s interest by using sap to make coffee and tea, offering it in soda, and giving sample sips to the curious when the crowds visit their sugarhouses for this annual event. None are bottling it themselves. Only one Maine producer, Claude Rodrigue of Arnold Farm Sugarhouse in Jackson, has sold sap to a commercial bottling operation, and he says the focus of his business remains syrup production.

Maine Cooperative Extension food science specialist Beth Calder has researched the steps local producers would need to take to bottle sap, and most would have to pasteurize beverages in a commercial facility and acquire additional licensing to do so. Even with pasteurization, these beverages require refrigeration and have a limited shelf life similar to milk products, Calder said.

So for Mainers looking for a small sip of maple water, ask for it at your local sugarhouse on Maine Maple Sunday. But if you are looking for a longer draw of something maple-flavored that is both newfangled and nostalgic, try making either a Double Maple Ice Cream Soda (see recipe) or mixing some high-test syrup with a little bourbon in a good Old-Fashioned. I highly recommend either.

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Christine Burns Rudalevige makes her Maple Ice Cream soda with maple syrup and homemade maple ice cream. Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

DOUBLE MAPLE ICE CREAM SODA

I was a soda jerk at McClelland’s Drug Store on Main Street in Lee, Massachusetts, when I was 15. It was a dream first job. We had two gracefully curved, chrome soda dispensers, 10 flavored syrups and a freezer full of Häagen-Dazs ice cream flavors. This is a variation on one of my favorite concoctions. I made it then with cream soda and maple walnut ice cream, but since the walnuts always clogged the straw anyways, and Maine maple syrup plus vanilla extract is a dead ringer for cream soda syrup, I have ditched the nuts and turned to a local syrup to help create future taste memories.

Makes 1 quart of ice cream and 1 ice cream soda

For the ice cream:

1 cup maple syrup

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

¼ teaspoon salt

3 egg yolks

For the soda:

2 tablespoons maple syrup

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

12 ounces seltzer water

To make the ice cream, boil syrup in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat until reduced to ¾ cup, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the heavy cream, the milk and salt. Bring the mixture back to a boil.

Whisk the egg yolks in a large bowl or measuring cup, then slowly whisk the hot maple mixture into the yolks. Pour the mixture back into a saucepan and place it over medium heat. Stirring constantly, cook the custard, taking care not to boil it, until it coats the back of a spoon or registers 172 F on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile pour the remaining 1 cup of cream into a metal bowl. Pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into the cold cream. Stir to combine. Chill, covered, at least 3 hours but preferably overnight.

Freeze custard in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.

To make the soda, pour the maple syrup, vanilla and soda water into a 16-ounce glass. Perch a sizable scoop of maple ice cream on the side of the glass and place a straw in the glass. Whether you daintily dip spoonfuls of the ice cream into the soda or go for a fizzy submergence and risk the overflow slurp is merely a matter of preference.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester, and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at [email protected]