The wood in the stove crackled and the wind swirled yesterday’s powder against the windows, while we huddled around the kitchen island dipping antique silver spoons into jelly jars of maple syrup. Each glass jar glowed in the light, like an oversized string of amber beads. We began with a 2019 batch so golden and clear we could see through the bottle. When the syrup touched my tongue I sensed a distant floral essence brightening the burst of caramel flavor that danced across my senses.

“This is the lightest one we’ve ever done,” said Joe Foran, who along with his wife, Nancy Foran, produces maple on Little Farm in Naples, Maine, where the single-batch process results in a distinctly different syrup each time they bottle.

As I reported last year, contrary to what you might think, not all maple syrup is vegan; some producers use non-vegan oils, including butter and synthetic products, as defoamers.

At Little Farm, no defoamers are added to the boiling sap, meaning the syrup is not only vegan but some of the least processed maple on the market. Little Farm is one of the rare producers that never blends batches of syrup to achieve a desired color grade. The variable nature of Little Farm maple syrup is part of the appeal.

It’s also common these days for maple producers to use reverse osmosis and other sophisticated filtration systems to remove sugar sand, a naturally occurring sediment, and other impurities not allowed in bottled maple syrup. The filtration systems meet vegan standards, but the Forans don’t use filtration, either.

Instead, the syrup is placed in labeled quart jars and stored in the granite-walled maple cellar, where they sit for months or years using time and gravity as a filter. Slowly, a layer of sugar sand, which looks and feels like actual sand, accumulates at the bottom of each jar. The syrup above is pure, concentrated maple sap.

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Joe and Nancy Foran pose for a photo among some of the sugar maples at Little Farm in Naples, where the couple makes and bottles single-batch maple syrup. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

“Maple trees are amazing because they filter incredibly well,” Joe Foran said. “They filter out things they don’t want to use in their metabolism. When you enjoy the sap, you’re getting the benefit of that filtration system.”

The Forans became part-time, small-scale maple syrup producers 11 years ago, after visiting with friends who make maple syrup for home use.

“They invited us down on a gorgeous sunny day in February when it was about 50 degrees,” Nancy recalled. “They had a big evaporating pan over a fire with all their taps nearby. We sat around having a lovely afternoon, and Joe and I thought this wouldn’t be hard to do.”

It helps that the Foran’s road frontage is lined with mature sugar maples.

These days, Little Farm’s evaporating station sits on a covered porch that runs along the ell of the Forans’ circa 1824 brick farmhouse near where it connects to the red-clapboard barn. The Forans created a do-it-yourself evaporator from cinder blocks stacked three high, fitted with a custom-made stainless steel evaporating pan over a 20,000 BTU propane burner. With a photovoltaic array in the back field, the Forans plan to eventually switch to solar-powered electric heat.

The sap simmers for a few days in the evaporator pan, covered by a window screen, before it’s ready for finishing in a stainless steel stock pot on a hot plate on a nearby table. The table doubles as storage for 35-gallon casks of sap waiting to be processed.

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“You don’t need a hissing, clanking evaporator,” Joe Foran said. “We just started. The first year or two, we used a big stainless steel pot. Then we had the stainless steel vat made by a metal fabricator in Bangor.”

He and Nancy learned the basics from their friends, who demonstrated how to properly install a tap and how to tell if a tree’s wood is healthy or diseased. But mostly they learned by trial and error.

“We made a lot of mistakes,” Joe said. “Never ever, ever, when your sap is getting close to being finished, do you leave it alone. It becomes like an animal and climbs out of the pot. We burned whole pans.”

One time, when the sap had passed the point of syrup and was turning into sugar, they rescued it by adding nuts and making a memorable peanut brittle.

The number of trees the Forans tap varies by season and the other projects on their plates. While Nancy retired as the pastor of Raymond Village Church in 2020,  she remains involved in many community efforts. Joe, a former deputy chief of staff for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, runs a management consulting business.

This season, they installed 78 taps along the road. There are hundreds more untapped maples in the farm’s forest, some of which they tap when they have more time. Little Farm buys new plastic milk jugs from Quality Containers in Yarmouth to attach to the trees to collect sap. Typically, they pour the sap from the milk jugs into a five-gallon bucket and haul the buckets to the porch. Occasionally, they have to lug the jugs themselves to the house and thaw them by the wood fire before pouring each into the evaporator or a holding tank.

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“You get your CrossFit workout schlepping five gallon pails of sap,” joked Joe.

Once the syrup has sat in the maple cellar for at least three months, the Forans pour it off, reheat it to 190 degrees to sterilize it and then funnel it into 375-milliliter glass bottles topped with cork stoppers, which get pulled into the bottles as the syrup cools.

This year, Little Farm tapped its trees on Feb. 20 and collected 30 gallons of sap on Feb. 24. Then the flow stopped as the daytime temperatures plunged below freezing. The ideal weather for sap production is when the temperatures rise above freezing during the day and sink below freezing at night.

“We’ve had such bizarre weather,” Joe said in early March. “It looks like later this week we might get an intense flow. If anyone wants evidence of the reality of climate change, they should just talk to a maple syrup producer. When we did our first year 11 years ago, we put up the jugs and the trees filled them. More and more recently, the flows are incredibly inconsistent.”

The other thing that varies day-by-day is the color and flavor of the sap and the resulting syrup.

“When we make a batch, every one is different,” Joe said. “There’s terroir with wines. With maple, it’s a temporal terroir because every time you fill the evaporator, it’s slightly different. One time, it’s very light, and two weeks later it is really robustly dark. No one can 100 percent explain why that happens. We know it has to do with what’s coming into the sap from the roots. If we do 15 pans of syrup in a year, we might have six to eight distinct syrups.”

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Back in the kitchen, we continue our tasting with three batches of syrup produced over 10 days in March 2020. I dip a clean spoon in the jelly jar holding the next lightest syrup, which the Forans call a medium amber, that was put in the maple cellar on March 23, 2020. The flavor is significantly more intense than the 2019 vintage and reminds me of dark brown sugar. Next, we try a syrup produced three days before the medium amber. This one is a dark amber that delivers a delicious rush of flavor tinged with molasses.

Finally, we try the darkest dark maple produced on March 30, 2020. The deep, intense maple flavor is almost overwhelming as the spoon reaches my mouth and conjures memories of vegan pancakes, maple sugar candies and maple-glazed doughnuts.

Many of us may remember those 10 days in March 2020 as the first disorienting weeks of the pandemic lockdown. But for the maples on Little Farm, those 10 days represented a prelude to spring, one measured in flavor notes pulled from the farm’s earth and water and shaped by temperature, sunlight, the composition of soil microbes and so much more we may never understand.

“You cannot help being very aware of the weather and changes in the seasons when you’re doing something like this,” Joe said.

Making maple syrup, Nancy added, reveals “our interconnectedness with the natural world around us.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]
Social media: AveryYaleKamila


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