Road Trip: Maple Sugaring in Vermont
Years ago, I traveled around New England to find some “locally grown” products that I could experience and blog on. Well, we all know how Covid (and gas prices!) have put the kibosh on travel. So, I decided to go down memory lane to dig up some of my Yankee travels and I came across my June 2012 trip to a maple syrup farm in Vermont. This blog never transferred over to my new website, so I thought I would share it with you, again in case anyone has maple sugar farming on their bucket list!
When one thinks of Vermont maple syrup, freezing temperatures and trudging through a foot of snow come to mind. So, you might ask, “Who takes a trip to Vermont in the summer to visit a maple syrup farm?” Since I am the finicky aficionado that brings her own maple syrup to breakfast with her, the answer is undeniably, “Me!”
80% of the maple syrup is produced in Québec while 20% comes from U.S. states with Vermont being the biggest producer. Located some 200 miles from Boston, it isn’t exactly "local" but I am a huge lover of pure maple syrup but not one of freezing temperatures. It was now or never, but when I decided to take the road trip to Vermont, I hadn’t planned on the unseasonably high, 95-degree temperatures that it turned out to be on the day of my arrival.
I did some research on sugar farms and decided I wanted to visit the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks family after listening to Tom Morse on their website. The Morses are the oldest maple family in Vermont, spanning eight generations. Nestled at the top of a winding road, three miles past Vermont's capital city of Montpelier, we pulled into the parking lot of the maple sugar farm and were met by the owner, Burr Morse. We began our personal tour at one of the 3000 maple trees on his property and listened intently as Burr, a quiet soul, shared his life’s work and love of “sugaring” with us.
We started our lesson by learning that the term “sugaring” is the process of making maple syrup from sap. We watched a video made by his late father, Harry, who remarked that they only "borrow a small fortune of the tree's sap." Sap, at around 97% water and 2% sugar, is what that the trees inherently use to nourish their buds in the spring. Indians used tomahawks to cut a slice into trees for the sap and used hot rocks to boil it to make the syrup. Although tools have changed, the same method of boring holes for collection is still followed centuries later.
With the advent of technology, Burr uses a drill to make a 5/16th inch diameter, one-inch deep hole in the tree. Twenty five years ago, the Morses followed traditional methods and placed metal taps in the holes and attached a metal bucket below them to collect the dripping sap. Today, an extensive network of hoses lace and loop along the mighty maples, connecting ‘tapped’ trees to the sugarhouse. He demonstrates “tapping” in this picture, by placing a plastic tube in the hole. This is a snugger fit and doesn’t allow for the holes to close so fast, making for longer collection times vs. when they used metal taps.
This method also cuts down on labor by connecting all of the trees together by miles of tubing; the sap runs through the tubes by gravity and is delivered to one central holding tank at the sugarhouse. Wind direction is also important. Sap runs fast when the wind is from the west and runs the least when the wind comes in from the east. The traditional metal bucket system (one still used by many sugar farms) meant a daily trip to each tree to empty a half-full bucket of sap. In the olden days, horses, and then tractors, pulled the collection tanks through the woods and back to the sugarhouse. The drawback of the tubes is that they are left vulnerable to the wild critters that also are wandering through the woods of Vermont; so the Morses check the tubes for leaks on a daily basis.
Each tree is hand-tapped and tubed (remember, that’s 3000 trees!). He starts the tapping in February, as it can take up to three weeks to tap them all and to run the tubing. In freezing weather, tree trunks constrict, pushing the sap stored in the roots upwards to nourish the tree for the spring buds. As daytime temperatures rise above freezing, pressure in the trunk pushes the sap through the trunk to be collected. For sap to flow, it has to be freezing temperatures in the mid 20's at night, and then temperatures need to rise to the 40's the next day.
At the sugarhouse, the sap enters a reverse osmosis machine that turns the sap to 9% sugar (this step concentrates the sap, so it will take less time to process). From here, it goes into a feeder tank and an evaporator, which removes the moisture. The temperature is carefully monitored and when the product is 66.9% sugar, it's officially maple syrup! From start to finish it takes 30 minutes vs. the good ole’ days of boiling the sap, which took about two hours. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. If you boil sap to 219° F, you will get maple syrup. If you boil sap to 240°F you get sugar. So, they are on their toes when the system gets cranking in the sugar house. I’m told that smell of the sugarhouse at sugaring time is pure heaven. Now, that’s the flavor of Vermont!
Sap starts to flow in March and sugaring lasts approximately 4-6 weeks. When the tree buds start to blossom, it renders the sap bitter and sugaring is over until the next year. A three-day stretch of higher temperatures can mean disaster for these farmers, rendering the sap bitter. That's what happened this year when we had 80-degree weather in March. As much as the rest of us love the break in temperatures, this ruins a maple syrup farmer’s season.
The Vermont grading system distinguishes maple syrup by levels of paleness and transparency and they are graded by color and flavor. Burr says that a lot of the grades are decided by the weather. The sap coming out of the trees is not always stable. The first sap that comes out of the tubes is usually lighter and the sap that flows from the taps later on is generally stronger, darker syrups. As the season goes on, the syrup gets progressively darker and stronger. The different grades are displayed in one of the sugarhouse windows. It’s a loose demonstration of the grading system but also makes for a colorful photograph!
Vermont Fancy Grade is the top grade and is the early syrup-pale in color and taste:
Grade A Medium Amber-- distinctive in taste, and golden in color
Grade A Dark Amber- rich and mellow, with full maple flavor
Grade B- full bodied and hearty
Grade C is a black strap syrup that is only sold at a commercial level, although a lot of this syrup ends up in some of the “imitation” syrups sold at a retail level. That’s fake syrup in my book! Yuck!!
When I asked Burr how long he's been sugaring, he said he’s been doing it “his entire life." Seems like there's sap running through his bloodstream the same way it travels through the trees in the springtime!
In good health,