The History of Vermont Maple Syrup
Vermont 'Sugar Shack Facts'
Tap, Tap, Tap...
The production of Vermont maple syrup and other maple products is a thriving tradition that signals the arrival of spring in northern New England.The sweet scent of boiling maple sap escaping area sugar shacks is just one of the many reasons visitors travel from around the world to experience springtime in Vermont!
Gathering maple sap - A bucket hangs below a spile tapped into a hole drilled to precise specifications, then covered to eliminate particles from contaminating the treasured crystalline sap.
The first American Sugarmakers were early Native Americans of New England who called their delicious maple syrup, "sinzibukwud," which translated means, "sweet buds." The world is forever in their debt for teaching their Sugarmaking trade to the first American white settlers.
The Native American tribes of the Northeast, used it as a flavoring for breads, stews, teas, and vegetables. Native Americans also traded maple sugar for other products they needed. The French and English colonists were delighted with the taste of maple sugar, and eventually they learned the process of making it from the Native Americans. Maple sugar became the principal sweetener in North America. (Native Americans and colonists could not store maple syrup easily, so they used the dry form.) When cane sugar was introduced, New Englanders still preferred maple sugar because it was much cheaper and did not involve West Indian slave labor.
Once a staple of American life, the sweet products of the maple tree are now specialty items. Over the years, the price of cane sugar fell dramatically, and now cane sugar is the variety most Americans use every day. The popularity of maple syrup keeps Vermont sugarhouses going. As anyone who has ever tasted it knows, genuine maple syrup has a taste and texture that the imitations just cannot match. (In Quebec, cheap imitation maple syrup is called "sirop de poteau" or "pole syrup", suggesting that it was made by tapping telephone poles. We couldn't agree more.)
There are only a few regions in the world suitable for maple syrup production. Vermont is, by far, the most famous!
The arrival of Spring in Vermont is anticipated long before the first buds appear on the wintry foliage, as the sweet aroma of boiling maple sap drifts upon the breeze. The sweet scent of maple permeates the fresh New England air, signaling the arrival of the Vermont Maple Harvest.
This annual event is a tradition founded on romance and ritual. The gathering of sap excites native Vermonters as they court the maples, determining the precise time to tap and capture the crystalline liquid traveling through its veins. The syrup processing ritual is eagerly anticipated regardless of the hard work and long hours spent laboring over the sugar pots. Why? Because the maple syrup gathering season is short-lived and often unpredictable due to New England's variable weather conditions.
Time and weather are the primary keys to a successful maple harvest. Weather plays the most significant role in maple sap production, as the maples rely on the freezing and thawing periods that usually occur in late February and early March. In order for the sap to flow, the weather must grow steadily warmer until temperatures rise above freezing
. Northern Vermont's Lake Memphramagog before the spring thaw.
It takes a long, long time (nearly 40 years) for the best provider of the highest quality sap - the Sugar Maple, or Hard Maple - to grow larger than 12" in diameter at chest height, when it becomes ready for one tap. If all signs signal the go-ahead, Sugarmakers will head into their stand of trees - called 'maple orchards' or 'sugarbushes' - in late February and begin drilling the 7/16" holes, to a depth of approximately 2 1/2", into the trunks of their specimen maples.
If the weather has been cooperative, the clear, slightly sweet liquid will slowly drip from the spile into buckets that, when full, are promptly collected and brought to the sugarhouse for boiling. If a pipeline system (also referred to as a sapline system) is used, the sap flows directly downhill through a tubing network to a central collection point.
The 'sap run' continually starts and stops as temperatures rise and fall above and below freezing. As a rule, each tap will yield approximately 10 gallons of sap during a six-week period, producing 1 quart of maple syrup per tap. There is no limit to the number of times a tree can be tapped - many have poured forth their annual treasure continuously over 150 years, or longer.
Stoking the fire to boil the sap in the sugarhouse.
The highest quality syrup is made from the freshest and cleanest sap. If not immediately tended, the sap will deteriorate and the resulting syrup will not withstand the test of a true maple syrup connoisseur. Vermont Sugar Shacks house huge evaporator pans fired by wood, oil, or gas to heat the sap to the boiling point. Billows of steam escape through a vent or cupola atop the shack, where the aroma travels on the air for all to enjoy.
It takes long hours and perseverance to produce a maple syrup worthy of the 'Pure Vermont' label. The boil-down process is especially tedious, continuing for hours upon hours in order to eliminate all water content from the sap. But have no fear, for the delectable golden brew will materialize - literally, when it's good and ready!
Once the boiling process is complete, the resulting syrup is filtered and packed for distribution to eagerly awaiting consumers around the world. The Vermont Department of Agriculture administers stringent quality requirements on the making and selling of Vermont maple products. Every product sold is required by Vermont State Law to carry a label showing the grade of the syrup and the name of the producer.