1. Maple syrup season�also known as �the sugar season��begins in Medora, Indiana, earlier than anywhere else in the world. �What we�re looking for is cold [below freezing] nights and warm [above freezing] days,� Tim Burton, co-proprietor of the farm, says. Those nights can begin as early as the third week in January.
2. Modern sap-collecting technology exists, but the Burtons choose to collect their syrup with hood-covered buckets. First, taps are attached to the 700 trees on the farm (collectively referred to as the �sugarbush�). Taps are entered only an inch and a half into the tree, since sap runs only in the trees� cambium layer, between the bark and the hardwood. �If you go any further than that, you simply aren�t going to get any sap,� Burton says. Trees that are ten inches in diameter get only one tap; for every extra four inches in diameter, another tap will be placed on the tree. (Most trees have two taps.)
3. Once the buckets are attached to the tap, the trees do all the work, depositing sap into the buckets one drop at a time. Each bucket will collect about ten gallons of sap in one season.
4. The sap is nothing like maple syrup�it�s thin and clear as water, and only vaguely sweet (it�s typically 2 percent sugar). To begin the transformation into maple syrup, the sap is collected from the buckets and fed into the Volcano 2000�the evaporating machine used to reduce the sap into syrup. Typically this means reducing the sap to one-fortieth of its density�meaning it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup.
5. But not all syrup is equal. Sap from earlier in the season makes for Grade A syrup, which comes in three subgrades: Light amber, medium amber and dark amber. (The later in the season the sap is collected, the darker amber it will be.) Sap from even later in the season becomes Grade B syrup, which is sought after for its nutritional benefits (higher levels of antioxidants) as well as its deeper, more complex flavor.
6. Sap from the very end of the season�stuff �you�d never want to eat,� Burton says�is sold through a broker to large companies who will add the sap to corn syrup, thereby being able to claim that their pancake syrup is made with �real maple syrup��even if only 1 percent.
7. Meanwhile, Burton�s Maplewood is one of the few farms capturing some of the evaporated sap. They bottle the evaporation�it�s waterlike, with a tannic flavor�and call it Maple Mist.
8. Once bottled, the syrup is sold at farmers� markets or directly to restaurants, where it�s put on the table for breakfast (as at Nana), or turned into desserts (such as the maple tart at the Ritz-Carlton).