March 1-The church bells chime as I head inside to find my place on the pew of the small New England church. There seems to be a bit of excitement in the air this Sunday-as soon winter will loosen its grip and will give way to the coming spring when coats are shed for flannel shirts. The music starts and we all stand to sing – between verses, the man in front of us can wait no longer. He turns to my husband and tells him that he began putting up pipeline in his sugar woods. The two stand in whispers as we sing, telling of the coming season.
If the weather cooperates, in another week, steam will rise from sugar houses that dot the valleys as sugar makers, large and small, tend their fires. The warmer spring temperatures persuade the sugar maple trees to convert stored starch into sugar. The tree mixes the sugar with ground water, creating a clear cool sap. When the days reach above freezing and the nights remain below freezing, the sap flows, filling sap tanks and buckets across the state. Sugarin’ A Vermont Tradition for years.Sugar makers collect the sap either by pipeline or bucket. The pipeline forms a connected web of tubing running from tree to tree which sends the sap to a central storage tank. Many sugar makers will then use a vacuum extraction method to draw the sap in a steady flow. Our farm resorts to the old fashioned method of buckets and spouts. We rely solely on Mother Nature, with freezing and thawing temperatures to bring the sap pinging into the metal bucket.
As sugaring season approaches we begin tapping the trees that line our property. We first drill a hole in the tree and gently tap a spout into the hole. We then hang a bucket on a hook at the end of the spout and place a cover over it to keep rain and a late spring snow out. On warm days, you hear “ping, ping” throughout the woods as the sap drips from the spout into the pail.Each day, we walk from tree to tree, checking for sap. We carry large 5 gallon pails with us to pour the sap from the buckets. It will take forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so we must collect 200 gallons of sap before we can fire up our evaporator, where the sap is boiled down to syrup. Our wood-fired evaporator sits in an old “milk house” on our property where farmers of days gone by would bottle and store the milk from their cows. Our small 4 x 6 foot evaporator just fits inside, with room for wood to be stacked next to it. We pour all of the sap we collect into a storage tank behind the sugar house where gravity feeds it into our evaporator. As we boil, steam billows from the windows of the little house with a sweet maple scent.Once the sap has boiled off all of the water and reaches 219 degrees, tiny golden bubbles fill the pan of the evaporator. The thickened sap caramelizes making rich sweet syrup. At this point, we draw off the syrup from the pan and filter it through a wool cloth before bottling.
For the next four weeks, sugaring will be the topic of just about every conversation. Trucks with sap storage tanks drive the dirt roads and farmers brag about how many gallons they have made thus far. Families will sit in sugar houses tending fires and sap til the wee hours of the night, telling stories of past years. On March 28 and 29, sugar makers across the state of Vermont open their sugar houses to guests to experience a Vermont tradition.