Fall in Vermont NewEnglandTimes Header

Green Line

By James H. Hyde, Editor

When it's "mud season" in northern Vermont, it's time to harvest sap from gray trees and turn it into New England's sweetest concoction: Vermont maple syrup.

Indeed, the ground is soggy from rapid snowmelt, preganant with this spring's grasses and hay. The sap is flowing freely from the maple trees, and it's been a good year for maple sugarers.

Great plumes of steam churn out of sugarhouses into the brisk morning air. Seen from a lofty mountain perch, "sugar shacks," shrouded by the fog from their evaporators, punctuate the landscape.

It's in these buildings that the maple sap is super heated to boil off the water content until all that's left is pure maple syrup. But it's neither an easy nor quick process, and it's one reason why the price often involves some sticker shock.

For sugar makers, who nervously thumb through The Old Farmer's Almanac for any indication of what this year's March will bring, it's nail-biting season, again.

In fact, the role weather plays in sugaring is perhaps the most critical to success in the marketplace. In general, as winter begins to ebb (almost always in March), the sap begins to flow if the nights are cold and the days warm.

Tapping a Maple Tree
Tapping a Maple Tree. Courtesy of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association
When the temperature dives below freezing at night, maples absorb water through their roots and produce a barely perceptible suction within their trunks. If the next day is warm, pressure builds, and the sap begins to run.

But if winter decides to hang out a little longer, and the thermometer gets stuck below 32 degrees during the day, the sap stays where it is, and the sugaring season, generally only six weeks long, contracts, the supply shrinks and the cost of what is made skyrockets.

But the 2009 season is off to a great start, and when the first syrup oozes out of what are called "evaporators" (the heaters in which the sap is boiled), servings of sugar on snow are the first delicious concoctions parceled out to sugarhouse visitors. It's a highly anticipated taste treat among the natives and savvy tourists who've followed the scent to a sugarhouse.

Sugar on snow is a for-real snow cone, not crushed ice, served up with rich maple syrup seeping throughout the packed, white stuff. Little comes from nature that is as sweet as sugar on snow, and it's one of New England's most prized delicacies.

    Low Tech and High Tech Converge: How Maple Sap Is Collected

The process of collecting maple tree sap has changed dramatically over the years. It seems as if each season brings a new technological innovation. And yet, the old way of doing things is holding its own, and may never be replaced entirely. Whatever the technology used to gather sap, it all starts with the trees, treasured gifts from God and nature.

Sap Bucket
Courtesy of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association
And the trees have to be the best. It can take as long as 40 years for a maple sapling to reach the necessary ten- to eighteen-inch diameter needed to yield its sap.

To harvest this precious liquid, a "taphole," no bigger than five-sixteenth of an inch in diameter and two inches deep, is drilled into the maple's trunk. The larger the tree, the more tap holes drilled, but rarely are more than three drilled in any single tree in a season.

For a ten- to fifteen-inch tree, for instance, only one taphole is drilled. For larger trees, two to three may be bored. But, too many holes drilled into younger trees can harm them, so sugar makers are cautious about how many times they puncture the bark of a new, sap-producing maple.

After the hole is drilled, a spout, which can be either metal or plastic, is inserted into it. That diverts the sap flow into a metal bucket, or, more frequently these days, plastic tubing, which runs from tree to tree.

If you're an off-trail hiker, you've probably encountered maple trees connected by blue plastic tubing, because it stays up all year long.

Plastic Tubing
Courtesy of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association
Small plastic piping is attached to each tap and then connected to larger tubing called the "pipeline." That, in turn, delivers the sap to collection tanks, or poured into tanker trucks, many of which look the same, only a bit smaller, as the trucks used to haul milk.

While the tubing may seem an easy way to let the sap flow, it's a high-maintenance technology. The conveniences of automatic collection can be offset by the considerable amounts of time, both on and off season, during which sugar makers have to check every inch of piping for any damage done by fallen branches, wildlife or any holes in the system.

Still common is the bucket method. Metal buckets are hung from the spouts and emptied into vats brought into the woods by tractors.

In the old days, horses were used to draw sleds, on which large vats were placed, into the woods. The sugar maker would lead the animal to different locations until all of the sap had been collected. The horse-sleigh combo would then be led back to the sugarhouse, where the sap was quickly boiled.

Today, some sugar makers use horses still, especially if the ground near the sugarbush is muddy, but instead of sleds, they use carts with wheels.

    How Many Trees Does It Take to Make Vermont Maple Syrup?

A lot. Typically, smaller sugar makers tap between 100 and 200 trees, while big operations harvest sap from as many as 30,000 to 40,000 trees. Whatever the number, the maples collectively are called a "sugarbush."

The sap that seeps from the trees comprises water for the most part. The sweet stuff amounts to between 2% and 4% sucrose, and contains trace amounts of enzymes and other ingredients that provide the maple flavor.

The ruggedness of the terrain, the proximity of the trees in the sugarbush and other factors determine which of the collection methods is best for each sugar maker.

While plastic tubing may seem the ideal way to go (and less expensive over time because fewer extra hands are needed to empty sap buckets), there can be cost factors that make it less than desirable.

For instance, if the trees in the sugarbush are far apart, the tubing approach becomes too costly and impractical. But if the trees are close together, tubing has the advantage.

Buckets are typically used on flat terrain, and if the sap is bountiful, they need to be emptied at least once if not several times a day.

Many sugar makers who use buckets hire extra hands to empty them into the vats, so it's a labor-intensive collection process, compared to the plastic-tubing method, which is maintenance-intensive.

    The Sugarhouse: Boiling It All Down

A Vermont Sugarhouse, Courtesy of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association
Once collected, maple sap is brought to the sugarhouse and poured immediately into an evaporator, which boils the water off.

Evaporators, too, have evolved over time. They come in a variety of sizes, and some have special features that help better control the process. The smallest ones tend to be two-by-four-feet in size, and the bigger ones, six-by-twenty-feet. Size is determined by how large the sugarbush is.

Evaporators are heated either by wood or heating oil in what's called an "arch." Until recently, wood was the fuel of choice, but like the horse-drawn sleigh, it, too, may be going the way of the buggy whip.

While usually more costly, oil requires no effort to keep the fire well stoked. Fresh wood, on the other hand, has to be added constantly to keep the heat at a somewhat constant temperature.

During processing, the sap is poured into a flue pan containing channels that serve to bring it closer to the fire and get it boiling faster.

Sugaring Pan
An evaporator, Courtesy of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association
As it moves through various pans, more water is boiled off and the sap grows thicker until it winds up in the syrup pan at the front of the evaporator. At that point, it should ideally be 70% sugar. The sugarmaker then pours it off to keep it from getting any thicker and to prevent burning.

During the sugar-pan stage, a sample is poured into a cup, and a hydrometer, which measures how much water content remains, is placed in that. It tells the sugarmaker if what he's just processed is the correct consistency for one of the grades of Vermont maple syrup.

The next stage involves pouring the syrup through a conical wool filter to remove such impurities as "sugar sand," an undesirable mineral produced by the trees, which mixes with the sap.

Finally, a color check is performed. This represents the moment of truth. It's the color that determines the quality of the product. Vermont maple syrup quality grades are: Fancy, Medium, Amber, Dark Amber and B.

Once the color determination has been made, the processed syrup is poured into a large drum and covered, where it slowly cools. Once it's fully "chilled out," it's placed in retail containers or further processed into Vermont maple sugar candy, a delectable confection.

Maple Syrup
The final product, Courtesy of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association
The final step is getting the syrup and candy to market, where it's distributed to New England country stores, supermarkets and gift shops. It's also sold to restaurants, which use it in a wide range of recipes.

While much of it is sold in New England, depending on how large the bounty is, it winds up in stores throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, and, if the harvest was really good, across the country.

Because supply is determined by many different factors and demand is ever on the rise, the price of a gallon can be pretty steep. But to the devoted, it's to them what caviar is to people with extravagant tastes. It comes in tins, jugs of different sizes, cleverly crafted bottles shaped like maple leaves and as candy in gift boxes.

Regardless of cost, if you're in Vermont during the sugaring season, I encourage you to try some sugar on snow at the least and to take a large tin or jug home with you. You won't be disappointed, and my bet is you'll be back for more during the next sugaring season.

Vermont Maple Sugar Resources:

For more information about maple sugaring, visit: The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association

Vermont Maple Sugar Foundation

Vermont Maple Syrup Recipes: Vermont Maple Sugar Foundation

For places to stay near a sugaring house, visit our Vermont Lodging Section


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