Guest Blog

The Ramones vs. Sugaring. You Know, That Thing We Do With Maple Trees

This arrived in the inbox from Susan. It’s just too good not to share.

Hey Alan

Long time no write, so thought I’d drop a line. Currently I am sugaring, as I have since 2008.

When I saw the realtors’ listing for my house back in August 2007, the words ‘mature maples’ were a huge selling point.   Fast-forward a few years, during which I learned sugaring (which is what the process of turning maple sap into maple syrup is actually called)  and usually March is a pretty busy month.   But with the extreme cold we had this last year and in 2014, March was a bitch of a month.  Barely made 1l of syrup.  

But then along came April Fool’s Day and with the influx of perfect conditions, the spiles all but blew off the trees.  Last year, I made 19l of syrup from 407 litres of sap collected from 6 trees.  

Yes, you read right, 6 trees.  Five sugar maples, and one red.  Three spiles apiece but they’re all mature trees, and the best of them produced 102l of the collective amount of sap last year. The second-best tree produce 98.5 litres of sap, so between the two trees, they produced 48% of all the sap and resulting syrup.

So what does sugaring have to do with music?

Well, for one, you start with raw ingredients.  At the very basic level, you look for a tree with a nice straight trunk, no burls or knots, that is the minimum size of 10-12 inches across.  At that size they are 40-yr-old babies, able to take only one tap without causing undue harm to the tree.  Enter a child with musical aspirations, who pesters their parents into letting them try singing or playing an instrument.  

Then you insert a spile, a tap, and see what comes forth into the pail below.  Untried musicians on the one hand, sap that looks just like water on the other.  Then you collect a significant amount of the raw material – form a band, collect a lot of sap – and subject them to some serious heat.  Be it literal or actual, heat is the stressor in life that produces the best.Under the gun, under pressure, feeling the heat…then you start to get something.  In the sugaring world, we have a nickname: we call it ‘nearup’.  This is sap that has been boiled down, often a lot, in order to keep it from going bad, as sap can spoil, and to make it easier to store.   Trust me – it’s far easier to store 4 litres of nearup than 33litre of raw sap!

But though nearup has colour and syrup-like texture to it, it is still not syrup.  So you collect and add more sap: more input, more songs, more gigs, more experience.  Then you go for the good stuff.  Put the band in a studio; put the nearup and fresh sap all on a hard boil til you reach past the boiling point.  (Maple syrup is finished at approx 219 degrees; the boiling point of water is 212.)  In sugaring, nearup is considered ready to become syrup by a whole bunch of small signs you learn to look for, if you don’t want a huge sticky boilover on the stove. 

The timing has to be just right, the whole seething hot mass poured through the filters and into a waiting glass jar at just the right moment to attain sweet, clear, beautiful maple-y perfection.  Get everything just right, and you won’t have any sugar crystals forming in the bottom (they appear when the syrup has been overcooked by as little as a minute at too high a temp), or a layer of sludgey residue settling at the bottom called nitre (essentially tree minerals that got through the filtering process).  Both nitre and crystals are perfectly harmless, and easy enough to fix, but everyone who sugars all wants the same thing right off the bat: clear syrup, unclouded by nitre and without pretty little crystals littering the bottom and sides of the jar 🙂

Now fast-forward to this evening.  Caught your show, and if there was one band I will forever regret not having been able to see live, it was The Ramones.  They were as rough as they come but damn, they made game-changing music. They caught lightning in a jar. Like you said, they’ve been compared to Johnny Appleseed, and for good reason.  The Ramones were the distilled essence of punk, and I regret that even though at 10 I recognized their sound and image as something important, I had no idea back then HOW important.

But then, if you had told 10-yr-old me that in my late 40s I’d be living on a half-acre property featuring an old schoolhouse and 6 maples who can put out enough sap in a 6-week period that I was often up til 1am boiling down sap to nearup…well, I wouldn’t have believed you. But all this time I’ve been able to hear artists on the radio and been able to pick out a lot of winners.  Artists who show versatility, who are quick to prove that they aren’t one-trick ponies.  

So, who are they?  Well, at the top of my list – Elle King. She’s been described as a bad-ass Adele, and I agree 100%.  She’s young, she has a great voice, doesn’t take herself to seriously, and is able to transcend different genres.  I think she could easily be kicking Adele’s ass to the curb by the time she  -Elle, that is – is 30.

Another band to watch for is, IMNSHO, Saint Motel out of Los Angeles.  They are a band that knows how to make great danceable music that has fun and quirky lyrics, without being cheesy, which is so important.  Even just hearing their song ‘My Type’ makes me want to find the nearest roller rink, even though I would probably just crash into the sideboards 🙂  The fact that their videos are great is no surprise too, as apparently the band formed in film school.  

Other bands to watch: Kongos. They have a sound that I dare others to even try to replicate. Apart from the accordion, they are also messing around with vocoders, and who since Peter Frampton has been able to pull that off and build a career from it?  And though all four brothers are probably young enough to be my sons, it doesn’t stop me from having some very un-motherly thoughts about them ;-p

AWOLNation is a more recent surprise fave with Hollow Moon/Bad Wolf.  When I hear older songs of theirs I go, ‘WTF? That’s AWOLNation?’  I frickin LOVE dark horse bands like AWOLNation, because they aren’t predictable and do keep you a little off-balance.  Ditto Of Monsters and Men.  Their new stuff bears scant resemblance to Dirty Paws, and that’s a good thing, because it proves they aren’t lightweights.

There are scads of other bands I could mention – I like Kaos, Foster the People, Florence and the Machine, and Modest Mouse, a little Hollerado and Weezer – but they’re all pretty established.  They’re like my tried-and-true trees, the ones who keep me biting my nails cause they start to produce later than all the others – but when they do start, there is no stopping them.

So, there you go, another musical braindump inspired by both the sugar season and your show on The Ramones.  Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it! 😉

Bye for now


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37426 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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