by Greg Gerdel
t's that time of year again... "sugarin' season." Hundreds of "sugar houses" dot the Vermont woods, more than 2,500 statewide. Many of them welcome visitors and provide a genuine attraction in virtually every part of the state. Some are high-tech, making use of the latest innovations to produce high-quality, pure Vermont maple syrup. Others are very much the way they were 50 or 100 years ago, relying on trusted equipment and the craftsmanlike skill of the sugar maker. Want to see how maple syrup was collected years ago?
Boiling maple sap is an exciting activity to watch. On crisp, cold spring evenings after the sap has been running all day, the sugar house looks, from a distance, as though it is on fire. Closer inspection reveals steam, not smoke, billowing from not only the chimney but through every door and crack in the building. The light inside is diffused by steam which has an enticing, sweet aroma that teases the senses. The warmth coming from the evaporator, the large pan the sap is boiled in, draws visitors from the chilly night outside.
The typical maple season lasts four to six weeks, sometimes starting as early as February in southern Vermont and lasting into late April in northern Vermont. Sugaring season can be enjoyed no matter where you are in Vermont.
You'll find a few producers, like Larry Letourneau in the Derby area, still using horse drawn sleds. Letourneau says horse drawn sleds don't cause damage to tree roots because they don't leave big ruts like tractors do.
To make really good quality syrup, the sap must be boiled down as soon as possible after it is drawn from the tree. During a good "run," it is common for sugar makers to be up all night boiling as they work to reduce the sap, which is about 2-3 percent sugar, to syrup which is 88-89 percent sugar. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. In an average year Vermont produces more than 570,000 gallons of maple syrup, with a value of more than $12-million.
Vermont is the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States. But not in North America- that honor goes to Quebèc. Vermont and parts of Quebèc have an ideal climate for growing sugar maple trees; an ideal climate for good sap flow; and syrup making know-how that has been handed down from generation to generation. You'll hear Vermont producers complaining about production in Quebec. The Quebec product often floods the US market and Vermont producers say the Canadians are unfairly subsidized. That maybe so, but when you look at the general state of agriculture in Vermont and Quebec, the Quebec producers look at lot more prosperous!
Forty years are required to grow a maple tree large enough to tap. A tree ten inches in diameter is considered minimum tappable size for one tap. For each additional six inches in diameter, another tap may be added. It takes four to five taps to produce enough maple sap for one gallon of syrup.
If you'd like to place an order, you'll find two well known producers on Scenes of Vermont. You can place an order and have it shipped or drop by if you are in the area:
Couture's Maple Shop - Near Jay Peak in the Northeast Kingdom
A connaisseur's guide to maple syrup:
- There are subtle flavors in syrup.
- The maple syrup can taste different from one sugarbush to another. It is especially noticeable if you are tasting Grade B which is darker and generally has more flavor.
- If you want to become a connaisseur of maple syrup, never taste it with a metal spoon. Always use plastic or use a paper cup.
- Avoid buying maple syrup in cans if you want to keep it more than three months. The flavor can take on a metallic taste if left too long in the can. You can sometimes get rid of this taste by boiling the syrup.
- Most of the maple syrup you buy in a grocery store is a blend of syrup from several or many sugarbushes. It is genuine maple syrup, and if made in Vermont, there will be a label saying so. However, if you want a particular taste you will have to get it directly from the producer.
- Tour a couple of sugarmakers, take some tastes and pick the one you like. This is what I did and after a couple of tries I found the one I liked the best!
Editor, Publisher - Scenes of Vermont