TEMPLE, N.H. (AP) – Benjamin Fisk peers into a wall of steam rising from the massive steel pan. Inches from his face, sap carefully collected from thousands of trees boils at 219 degrees Fahrenheit, a rich amber foam churning on its surface.

The air is delicious, a mixture of cinnamon buns and warm waffles.

Fisk has labored hard for 10 years to perfect his maple syrup, carefully tapping thousands of trees spread over dozens of acres, meticulously boiling down tens of thousands of gallons of clear, sweet sap.

In January it paid off. The New Hampshire Maple Producers Association named his syrup best in state, based on density, clarity and flavor.

But there was one problem. Fisk needed help collecting his award because he can’t drive. He’s 15.

“Once I get my license I’ll probably get a lot more taps out,” he said recently before taking a break from sugaring just long enough to attend a driver’s ed class.

Fisk, a fifth-generation sugarer and high school sophomore, is one of more than 900 syrup producers in the state, many of whom tap only a handful of trees and produce just enough for their families.

“His age makes him unusual,” said Barbara Lassonde, spokeswoman for the maple association. “He is so dedicated to making a high-quality product. He works so hard. Not many 15-year-olds would spend the amount of time that boy does.”

This year Fisk will set 3,000 taps, respectable by state standards but far from the 10,000 he hopes to have in a few years. He wants Ben’s Sugar Shack eventually to be one of the largest producers in the state, and run a pancake house.

“I love seeing the final product,” he said, staring into the steam. “I don’t like sitting around the house watching TV. I like being out in the woods all the time. Then I like coming into my sugar house.”

Fisk developed his sweet tooth when he was 5 during a preschool field trip to a sugar house.

“It’s bred right into him,” said his grandfather, Bill Fisk, who made syrup for more than 30 years without winning the honor Benjamin took on his first try.

Fisk’s father built him his first boiler that year, a tiny barrel that produced about a quart of syrup. Ten years later he has an enormous oil-fueled rig that can make 6 gallons of syrup an hour.

The property Fisk taps stretches out around his home, though much is owned by neighbors who let him use it. Many of the trees bear scars from earlier taps; the land has been used for sugaring for decades.

Sugaring has been a New England tradition for centuries and was taught to the first settlers by American Indians, who discovered that the sap of the region’s towering maples could be reduced to a thick, luscious syrup.

But this isn’t the sap most people know, that sticky Christmas tree goo that never quite washes from your hands. This is water, direct from just under the bark of the tree and naturally sweet with just a hint of sugar.

“It’s just about water with 1.5 percent sugar,” Fisk said. “That’s why it takes so much.”

It’s also why pure maple syrup can be so expensive. It takes more than 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, which can sell for more than $40.

It also is labor intensive. The old days of hanging buckets from trees are over except for the smallest home sugarers.

Today, sap is collected with a web of thin plastic tubes that stretches from tree to tree, letting gravity pull it drop by drop downhill where it drains into massive plastic tanks.

When the sap runs well, Fisk’s 525-gallon collection tanks can fill up several times a day, meaning multiple trips back and forth draining them and pumping the sap into the boiling tanks at his sugar shack.

Weather is everything in sugaring. Sap runs best with warm days and cool nights, usually a two-month period starting in March. The window for boiling the sap is even narrower. Fisk said sap should be boiled within 24 hours for best taste.

“There are days I boil 22 hours straight,” he said, admitting there have been a few days when he borrowed a sick day from school to finish the job. “I’ll stay up until 2 a.m. boiling, but my mom doesn’t like me staying up much later.”

As the syrup boils and darkens, Fisk dunks a large metal scoop in it.

“The old-fashioned way of telling when the syrup is done is the scoop. If it’s done, the syrup drips off in a sheet,” he said.

Fisk was surprised in January when he won the Carlisle Trophy, which honors the state’s best syrup each year. Just to enter, a sugarer must have won at least one ribbon at a state fair during the previous year; Fisk had two first-place finishes.

“I knew I had a pretty good chance, but I knew I was up against people who had been making syrup for years,” he said.

Lassonde said Fisk is the youngest winner and that it is encouraging to see a young person so involved in sugaring. She said the demise of the family farm has meant fewer teenagers are taking an interest in it.

These days Fisk is focused on expanding his business. He has just launched a Web site, but also continues to sell at his roadside sugar shack, where visitors can see the syrup being made.


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