Vermont Maple SugaróLiquid Gold
By James H. Hyde
If youíre visiting Vermont during the early spring, one getaway stop is a sugaring house, of which the state has many, where maple tree sap is boiled down to one of the more delicious gifts from nature: maple syrup. But donít wait long to come to New England to see a sugaring house in action. The season is short and unpredictable. When you do get a chance to visit, itís an experience youíll remember for a lifetimeóespecially if you sample sugar on snow. For that concoction, maple syrup is poured over snow and it is something not to be missed.
What "liquid gold" and "Texas tea" are to oil, "Vermont liquid gold" is to maple syrup. And depending on whom you ask, one of three states makes the best maple syrup in the U.S. Vermonters claim theirs is the best. New Hampshirites assert theirís is, and Mainers declare their tan syrup to be the best. While the quality is arguable, quantity isnít. Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States.
Low Tech and High Tech: How Sugaring Has Changed
In any state that produces this nectar of the gods, the harvesting and processing of the sap to get syrup is called "sugaring," and the methods of collecting sap and turning it into syrup have improved considerably over the years. New technologies have brought more efficient harvesting and easier preparation.
It can take as long as 40 years for a maple sapling to reach the ten- to eighteen-inch diameter it needs to be to yield itís sap. Sugaring starts with maple trees and the right weather conditions.
The role weather plays in sugaring is critical. In general, as winter begins to sputter, almost always in March, the sap begins to flow if the days are above freezing. But if winter decides to hang out a little while longer and the thermometer gets stuck below 32 degrees, the sap wonít run and the sugaring season, generally six weeks, is shortened.
Basically, cold nights and warm days are ideal. When it gets below freezing at night, the tree absorbs water through its roots and produces barely perceptible suction within the tree. If the next day is warm, pressure builds causing the sap to run.
To harvest sap, a "taphole" is drilled into a maple tree. The hole is no bigger than five-sixteenth of an inch in diameter and goes in about two inches. The larger a tree is, the more tap holes can be drilled in it, but rarely are more than three tapholes drilled in any tree. For a ten- to fifteen-inch tree, for instance, only one taphole is drilled. For larger trees, two to three may be drilled. Itís important not to drill too many holes in younger trees because doing so can damage them, so sugarmakers are very careful about how many holes they drill. Their future yearly income relies on keeping trees healthy and ready to give up their sap each year.
After the hole is drilled, a spout is inserted. It can be metal or plastic, but it keeps the sap from running down the bark, and instead diverts the flow into a metal bucket, or, more so these days, plastic tubing.
Smaller sugarmakers may tap from 100 or 200 trees, while the big operations harvest sap from as many as 30,000 to 40,000 trees. Whatever the number, collectively theyíre called the "sugarbush."
What comes out of the tree is mostly water, but it has between 2% and 4% sucrose and contains trace amounts of enzymes and other ingredients that provide the maple flavor.
The terrain, closeness of the trees in the sugarbush and other factors dictate which method, bucket or tubing, is best for each sugarmaker. While plastic tubing may seem the ideal way to go, it isnít always so. If the trees in the sugarbush are far apart, the tubing approach becomes too costly and impractical. If the terrain is flat, sugarmakers may still use metal buckets.
|An evaporator is used to boil off water in the sap. It's designed to keep the sap moving until it thickens. With high-tech equipment, sugarmakers can measure how much sugar is in the syrup.
Collecting the Sap
Depending on how well the sap is flowing, the buckets need to be emptied daily or even several times a day. For the most part, tractors haul collecting tanks to the sugarbush. Many sugarmakers who use buckets hire extra hands to empty them. In the past, horse-drawn sleighs were used, but, while some sugarmakers still use horses, itís rare.
If youíre an active hiker, youíve likely seen sugarbushes in which plastic tubing wends its way from tree to tree. Small tubing is attached to the tap and runs down to larger tubing (also known as the "pipeline"). The pipeline delivers the sap to collection tanks. From there, it is put on tanker-like trucks or trucks that have tanks or vats that can hold it all.
In many respects, the conveniences offered by plastic pipes during the sugaring season are offset by the considerable amounts of time, both on and off season, during which the sugarmaker has to check all of his piping for any damage done by fallen branches or for any leaks in the system. Very much like a fisherman minding his nets, sugarmakers find themselves checking every inch of pipe all year long, even during the sugaring season.
The Sugar House: Where the Magic Happens
Once collected, the sap is brought to the sugarhouse. There itís poured immediately into an evaporator, which boils the water off. If youíve seen a sugarhouse, youíve noticed how large the chimney is. Usually lined with stainless steel, the chimneys have to be large because a tremendous amount of steam escapes during processing.
Itís critical to start boiling the sap as soon as possible. It usually arrives at the sugarhouse cold, but if it warms, it begins to break down and the longer itís not being boiled the more likely it is the sap will spoil. As it breaks down, it produces dark, undesirable syrup.
The boiling takes place in evaporators. They come in a variety of sizes and some with extra buzzers and whistles. The smallest ones tend to be two-by-four-feet in size, and the bigger ones, six-by-twenty-feet. The size of the evaporator is predicated on how large the sugarbush is.
Evaporators are heated either by wood or oil in whatís called an "arch." Customarily, wood was used, but like the horse-drawn sleigh, it, too, is going the way of the buggy whip. While more costly, oil requires no effort to use. In particular, the sugarmaker doesnít have to keep stoking the fire with fresh wood.
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. As it moves through various pans it grows thicker as the water is boiled off. It finally winds up in the syrup pan at the front of the evaporator. When it reaches the end of that, it should comprise 70% sugar. At that point, the sugarmaker pours it off to keep it from getting any thicker or to prevent burning.
A sample of the syrup is poured into a cup and then a hydrometer is added. That will tell the sugarmaker if what heís just processed is the correct consistency. The final stage involves pouring the syrup through a conical wool filter to remove such substances as sugar sand, a mineral produced by the trees.
At this point, the testing is done to check for color and Vermont grades, which are: Fancy, Medium, Amber, Dark Amber and B, the appropriate one of which will appear on the label. The syrup is poured into a large drum and covered. When itís cool enough, itís placed in retail containers, made into maple syrup, candy or both.
I wonít say which state I think makes the best maple syrup, but I encourage you to sample the highest grades from each of the three and decide for yourself which is best. You wonít find it an easy task because all three states make excellent maple syrup, but I can guarantee you, it will be a real treat.
For more information about Maple sugaring, visit Vermont Maple Syrup
For places to stay near a sugaring house, visit Vermont Lodging