Wednesday, February 21

Maine Maple Weekend offers sweet fun


Marcel Blais, 85, chats with Julien Labonte, 3, Saturday as Labonte’s family tours the Blais Maple Syrup sugar shack in Greene. Blais and his sons started boiling sap in 2012 with turkey fryers. The family now collects sap from about 1,200 taps. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The 39th annual Maine Maple Sunday Weekend brought residents out in droves to maple syrup farms throughout the state Saturday.

“Spring is a great time to get out and enjoy the great State of Maine and everything that it has to offer, including Maine maple syrup,” asserts the Maine Maple Producers Association on its website, which also indicates approximately 100 sugarhouses are participating in this year’s celebration. On Maple Weekend, always on the final weekend in March, sugarhouses across the state open to the public, allowing them to enjoy the goods they produce while seeing the process and level of required involvement firsthand.

On March 15, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King celebrated the Senate’s unanimous passage of a resolution designating March 27 as Maine Maple Sunday. Collins and King said Maine’s annual syrup output is about 575,000 gallons with a value of about $21.6 million, adding the state is third largest producer of maple syrup in the country after Vermont and New York. Maine accounts for 17% of all maple syrup produced in the United States, according to a report by News Center Maine.

In Greene, a muddy dirt road cratered with puddles leads to Blais Maple Syrup, where tents and tables greeted guests with a display of syrup and sweets.

“Maine Maple Sunday is a Maine tradition. It’s (raising) awareness, it’s selling (syrup), it’s showing people how it’s processed, how things are done. It’s getting it out there that maple syrup is a natural sweetener that you can use in anything,” said owner Mario Blais, a member of the Maine Maple Producers Association who runs the business with his brother, son and granddaughter.

Blais has another son living in North Carolina where he sells the company’s syrup to micro-breweries for maple beer.

“Right on their label, they say ‘Dark strong ale using real maple syrup from our friends at Blais Maple Syrup in Maine.’ It’s pretty cool,” Blais said. Though they do not sell maple beer, Blais Maple Syrup flaunts a large array of maple candy, cream, taffy and cotton candy.

Greene native Ricky Blais brings Maine maple syrup home to North Carolina after he visits his family in Greene each year. The syrup from Blais Maple Syrup ends up being added to Snow Hands, a dark beer brewed by Haw River Farmhouse Ales in North Carolina. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The family’s tradition of producing syrup started with Blais’ father Marcel, who started collecting sap with his father in St. Romain, Quebec, during the 1940s. Established in 2015, Blais began boiling syrup in a turkey fryer outdoors and had 15 to 35 taps — or spouts — in the trees on his property.

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Today, the business has graduated to more than 1,100 taps and uses a 2-by-8 oil fired evaporator housed in the wing of a small wood building. The machine uses the process of reverse osmosis to extract 70% of the water in the sap, yielding a thicker consistency and sweeter taste.

The company sells and ships syrup throughout the country.

Maple Rush Sugar House in Sabattus rang in this year’s festivities with the Sabattus Fire Department as customers followed the smell of free-flowing syrup and snacks. Courtney Wheeler, marketing director for Maple Rush Sugar House, helps run the business with her brother, the owner, and her husband, who is a sugar maker. Wheeler was elated at the turnout for this year’s maple weekend, which is the business’ fourth, citing the close-knit culture of Sabattus’ sugarhouses.

“There are two other operating sugarhouses here in Sabattus which is really beneficial to the Maine Maple Weekend because people like to sugarhouse hop. You come to Sabattus, Maine, and you can visit three different sugar houses — we all operate differently and we all offer something different. We lean on each other and if something gets hard and they need us to pick up the slack, we’re there for them,” said Wheeler.

Nearby on winding Jordan Bridge Road, Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse was abuzz with folks searching for sweet treats. Every year since 1988, the family-owned farm and sugarhouse splits the year producing syrup and making maple-related candies and baked goods as well as fresh produce cultivated in their greenhouses, although they sell syrup year-round.

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“We have our own sugarhouse and we tap trees all around,” said Pat Jillson, who co-owns the business with her husband. Jillson’s experience making syrup goes back to growing up watching her father do it, although their methods differ: Jillson’s sugarhouse also uses a reverse osmosis machine to process the sap.

Canceled in 2020, Maine Maple Weekend made a muted return last year under strict precautions and finally experienced a return to form this year, although Jillson is just grateful to be a part of it. “People have been wonderful and they understood that we couldn’t do all the things that we usually do, and I think now they’re just glad to get out,” said Jillson, from behind a counter covered in maple cream horns and whoopie pies. “We’ll sell all year round but (Maine Maple Weekend) is when they like to come,” she said.

Maine Maine Weekend continues Sunday. For a complete list of participating farms, go to: mainemapleproducers.com

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