Sunday we recovered from our long weekend by taking full advantage of one of Vermont’s best traditions: Maple Syrup Open House weekend. One weekend during sugaring season sugarmakers* open their houses to the public for tastings and tours.
I call this the day I see if I can drink maple syrup until it comes out my ears. This year we visited 6 sugarhouses just in our little 3 town area. I have a pretty high tolerance for maple syrup (maybe from drinking when my dad made it as a kid growing up?) although not as high as the guy who showed us the coffee mug he keeps next to his boiler and tops up regularly! Anyway, Lamoille county may not be known for much, but my neighbors make a lot of maple syrup up here. Maybe it’s because we’re further north (longer sugaring season) then some parts of Vermont, but still have more of our forests then the highly agricultural Franklin county and the northeast kingdom? That’s my guess anyway.
All the commercial sugarhouses are using some variation of these big, steel boilers. Three we saw are actually still wood fired while the rest use oil. Some have RO (reverse osmosis) machines to remove some water before starting, others have steam pipes to steam off extra water before starting to boil. Either way it takes 40-43 gallons of sap to create a single gallon of maple syrup. Given that I consumed almost 16 ounces on Sunday – that’s a lot of sap!
There’s a maple syrup outlet on the main road that doesn’t have much in the way of tours, but has a great self-guided history display showing old taps, old buckets, a plank from a maple tree with many old tap holes… They also have maple cotton candy, maple creemees (soft serve ice cream) and maple donuts available to buy.
I was really happy to spend a sunny spring day bumping over the muddy, rutted roads to visit sugarhouses. Neil asked every sugar maker the same question – to explain what the difference was between RO machines and the alternatives. We made a game of comparing the answers each gave us. My favorite was from the guy who gave us the most detail. He talked about how each sugar bush will produce a unique flavor. The trees are growing in unique soil, with a mineral balance, water, sunlight, and tree mixture that no other sugar bush has. And so each creates its own unique flavor (there’s a wine term “terroir” which I’ve heard applied to tomatoes as well. So why not maple syrup?) Apparently the osmosis process removes some of those unique characteristics with the water, so the syrup boiled from that concentrated sap will have a more generic taste. He said this even while admitting he was planning to get an RO machine eventually. He explained that the process yields diminishing returns the more you concentrate the sap – so going from 2% sugar to 4-6% gives a greater return on investment then running the sap up to 20% sugar before boiling it.
All this gave me yet another reason to buy from local producers instead of bulk processors whenever possible! You know, besides my desire to support my neighbors so those sugar bushes covering the hillsides stick around.
*not all of them, Neil and I have counted 5 sugarhouses between us and the main road and none of them took part.