In Which Amy Learns the Science of Sugarmaking
It’s early on a sunny and cold spring morning. I should amend that; before spring actually arrives to Vermont, there is a less-known fifth season when all the snow has pretty much melted but is still slowly seeping into the ground, turning every non-paved surface to mud. I’m on I-91 South, making my way toward the general direction of Springfield. Weathersfield is just outside the city but I still can’t imagine sugarhouses anywhere near the area. The only trees to tap around there are telephone poles.
I’m on my way to learn about making maple syrup at a couple of the many open sugarhouses this weekend. All across the state, sugarmakers will be giving practical demonstrations of how to make this sweet syrup. This is all pretty serious business since Vermont is the second largest maple producer in the world. I feel bad for people who use maple-flavored corn syrup as their pancake topping of choice. It’s like comparing a ripe wedge of Camembert to a pudding cup filled with nuclear orange faux nacho goo. There’s something truly grand about sweet maple syrup when you think about its being nothing more than boiled maple-tree juice.
My grandfather did some sugaring as a hobby. He had a small boiler in a glorified shack down the road from his farmhouse where he would spend all of March, with various members of the family helping out here and there. I remember how much fun it was, sitting around on chairs upholstered in broken leather, stacking and fetching wood, being handed the occasional Styrofoam cup of hot maple syrup to drink…
The directions I printed off the Internet are sketchy at best and I succeed in getting myself lost on back roads almost as soon as I leave Springfield. After passing snowy pastures and fields, I arrive at Wood’s Cider Mill and Sugarhouse. I pull onto a patch of brown grass next to a barn and head over to the main house. I stare at the sullen cat watching me while I wait for my knock on the door to be answered. No one. I walk around back and see a wooden building, just larger than a two-car garage. I couldn’t have been sure that this non-descript building was the sugarhouse were it not for the roiling clouds of steam billowing out from a top spire on the roof. I walk up and slide open a section of the wall.
Stepping into the sugarhouse was like entering a steam room. Since my glasses fogged up right away, I could only just make out a grey shape coming toward me through the mist. I move forward with my right hand along the wall for guidance. A friendly-looking man, wearing green wool hunting pants, a purple sweater and a blue hand-knit hat, soon emerges and introduces himself as Willis Wood. He greets me warmly but still seems to be getting things into place for the day. Willis moves off as another figure emerges from behind the screen and startles me half-to-death. This young man, also in hunting apparel, is Peter. He's nice (in an innocent kind of way) and after chatting with him a bit, he appears to be Willis’s right-hand sugar-making sidekick. He asks me what I’m writing and I tell him I’m working on an article for an online publication. After he asks which one and I tell him, he says, “Oh. A cooking magazine?” I say yes and move over to Willis who is calling me.
Willis begins explaining the method of maple syrup-making to me as if he thought I’d just been hired and needed to start work right away. Maple trees are tapped with spouts, or spiles, that commonly have a 7/16th of an inch opening. A bucket is hung onto the spout, to collect all the dripping sap, which looks like water but tastes slightly sweeter. A cover is commonly placed over the open top of the pail to keep any rainwater from diluting the sap. The bucket method of collecting is still used today but tubing seems to be the fastest way to collect the highest quantity of sap. Narrow tubes are attached to the spouts and the sap moves gravitationally along mainline tubes, connected to many more trees, all the way to the sugarhouse. Willis tells me that there is a relatively new type of vacuum tubing you can get that actually draws the sap to the sugarhouse. I ask him how many trees he has tapped and he says 3,000 on tubing and 600 on buckets. For the sap to run best, the nights must be very cold (below freezing) and the days must be warm (above 45 degrees). A typical sugaring season only lasts three to six weeks. Willis started boiling this year on March 3rd and he tells me that the season is already half over.
We move toward the rectangular boiler, which is essentially a large evaporator, as well as the focal point of the house. Under the boiler, a fire heats that sap and causes great clouds of steam to rise up through openings in the roof. Maple syrup is made by boiling water out of the sap, leaving a liquid that’s 66% sugar. When the sap comes in, it’s usually only about 2% sugar. To (literally) see the sugar-to-water ratio, sugarmakers can use a refractometer. Willis hands me a device remarkably heavy for it’s small size. I hold it up to my eye like a tiny, misshapen telescope and inside I see a clear circle surrounded by black with a scale bar running down the center of the circle. Willis pours a small bit of fresh sap into the tool and hands it back to me. Since the refractometer measures the liquid’s optical density to determine the sugar content, when I look through the eyepiece again I see a horizontal line showing the sugar/water boundary, level with its percentage of sugar.
At one end of the boiler, wood is continually burned to keep a roaring fire going at all times. It’s right above this direct heat where the final stages of reduction take place. The sap continually moves from the large pan to these four smaller chambers. The sap moves along a zigzag path, through openings at the bottom of the chamber-separating walls, at opposite ends. It is in the last chamber where the syrup is tested for temperature and density.
The temperature must be 7 ° F (or, 3.9 ° C) higher than the boiling point of water. The thermometer used looks like a large turkey thermometer protruding from the side of the boiler. It’s also common to test with a hydrometer, which looks like a laboratory thermometer. A tall narrow cup is dunked into the boiler to collect some syrup and the hydrometer is dropped in. When it remains buoyant at 66 ° Brix (the unit for sugar concentration), the syrup is ready. At this density, the syrup contains about 86% solids. From this derives the “Rule of 86” used to calculate the sap to syrup ratio. Let’s call Y the gallons of sap, P the percentage of solids and R will be sap with a Brix of 2:
Thus, it takes 43 gallons of sap with 2 ° Brix to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
In the final stages of boiling, there will sometimes be some grit or accumulation in the last chambers. Every now and then, the sugarmaker has to reverse the flow of sap, so that it occasionally comes off the boiler (through a spout) on the opposite side. This prevents build up of “sugar sand”, or nitre. There’s also a lot of foam rising from boiling syrup and Willis sprinkles some de-foamer over the top. I tell Willis that when my grandfather used to boil maple syrup, he’d scrape the end of a stick through some butter and swirl that into froth. Same thing, Willis says. When the syrup is done, it’s filtered and bottled.
On the subject of grades for maple syrup, there are four:
Fancy: Light Amber Color, Delicate Maple Bouquet. Delightfully mild maple flavor, excellent on ice cream or on food which permits its subtle flavor to be appreciated—a gourmet choice, and the preferred grade for candies and other maple specialties.*
Grade A Medium Amber: Medium Amber Color, Distinct Maple Bouquet. Characteristic maple flavor; most popular for all-around use.*
Grade A Dark Amber: Dark Amber Color, Pronounced Maple Bouquet. Heartier maple flavor; also popular for table and all-around use.*
Grade B: Darkest Table Grade, Robust Maple Bouquet. Some folks prefer this syrup for the table, and its stronger maple flavor makes it an excellent choice for cooking.*
(*From The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook, 2nd Edition. $1.00)
This is, technically, the order of “best to worst” but personal preference dictates what grade people choose. Me, I like Fancy but a lot of [city] people like the darker syrups. Willis tells me that if someone puts in an order but doesn’t specify a grade, he’ll send them Fancy. One time, the syrup was returned to him with a note saying, “You didn’t boil this enough. It’s too watery.” In fact, all the different grades have equal percentages of sugar to water. To get a lighter color, it depends on how quickly you get the raw sap up to the final product. Also, the lightest syrup is made during the beginning of the season and the syrup will get progressively darker as the season progresses. The bacteria content is what makes the syrup dark. Can one year be good for Fancy and another poor? Yes, but it all depends on the Sugar Gods, Willis says. This year has been a remarkably good year for Fancy, while last year there was a lot of Amber. He goes on to point out that another reason that the light-colored fancy is considered better is because in the late 1800s, maple syrup was competing with the cane syrup as a sweetener. People wanted the syrup to be really light for cooking purposes.
Next, I’m taken up into the woods behind the sugarhouse where Willis shows me some innovative, ultra-exciting, 5/16th inch stainless steel spouts that are taking the sugaring world by storm. These spouts are important because the opening is so much narrower than the standard one, meaning that they are less invasive to the tree. Surprisingly, you get just as much sap from these smaller spiles. Since these spouts are made from stainless steel, you can bake them between seasons to sterilize them, which will make for better quality and production of syrup. The common plastic spouts can only be washed with soapy water and bacteria may eventually build up on the inside. If you drive one of these bacteria-riddled spouts into a tree, the tree’s going to reject it and close up on the inside. The stainless steel spouts make it easier for the tree to heal as well.
Back at the sugarhouse, I’m offered a shot of Fancy. Because the syrup was iced from a batch earlier in the week and ice cold, I found the ounce of syrup frightfully refreshing. I tell Willis I’m off to see the Dana Brothers next and ask how to get there from here knowing that it was not too far away. Willis says to take a left, then a right onto a dirt road, then two miles up a hill, a left at a four-way, straight through a four-way and it’d be right one the left. Only understanding about 30% of the directions he gave me, I buy a pint of Fancy and leave.
I try to remember the directions and I eventually follow along a rutted, washboard dirt road. My teeth clatter together and I start to feel like a bobble head before the dirt road smoothes out. I crest a hill and see the Dana Bros. sugarhouse. Unfortunately, since I wasn’t watching the road, I drove right into a huge patch of mud which was basically a whole stretch of the road had been liquefied. I slow down but realize the threat of getting stuck is very real and speed back up, spraying mud out behind me. I zoom onto a patch of grass next to the red sugarhouse and calmly enter.
There is a lot of wide-open space inside the Dana Brothers sugarhouse. These sugarhouses have come a long way since the hastily put-together shanties from the days of yore. But then, you should have a really nice sugarhouse when you’re making maple syrup commercially.
Inside are several men of varied ages attending to sugaring tasks. The familial resemblance was impressive; all of them looked like the same man at various stages of the aging process. Off to the right were women and kids who looked bored enough to be family members as well.
The man is charge is Alden Dana. He looks like he’s been making maple syrup long enough to do it in his sleep. I imagine he’s in tune with the trees and has a maple-flavored sixth sense. He brings me around to the evaporator and begins to explain the way he does things.
The most obvious difference in his boiler is that the main pans are covered with a metal roof. This brings the cold sap to a higher temperature more effectively. Since the cover is peaked at the top and extends just over the rim of the pan, any condensation that collects runs over the edge, onto the concrete floor, and does not fall back into the sap. Willis told me that Alden is notorious for making a lot Fancy and this must be one of the reasons.
Alden says that he also has 3,000 trees tapped with tubing and some more with buckets. I ask why anyone would use buckets when it seems more time consuming and less effective. He says that he places the buckets on maple trees that sit on level ground, such as next to a road. Since the sap movement on tubing is based on gravitation (unless you use a vacuum), you can only tap on maple trees that sit at a higher elevation than the sugarhouse.
The Dana Brothers make a lot of syrup. This boiler is very large, with six finishing chambers at the end. When the syrup is ready to come off, it’s poured straight through a faucet on the boiler, down a tube and into the basement where it is filtered and stored. I follow Alden down to the basement (not really getting over the fact that this sugarhouse even has a basement) and the first thing I notice are all the barrels against the back wall. Dozens of thirty-gallon barrels, full. Alden says that storing the syrup in large quantities like that is better for the syrup. When someone places an order, the specific amount is taken directly from the large barrels. I ask him how many gallons he has already made this year. Four hundred. I ask him what the highest amount he ever made in one season was. 1,204 gallons. I can’t even imagine how many households, all over the world, were enjoying his syrup that year.
Alden asks me if I’d like to try some syrup. Yeah, hit me with a shot, Bartender. I’m young and carefree and feeling wild today. He hands me a dentist’s cup filled with Fancy. Well, this is like two shots but… Down the hatch.
Back upstairs, one of the Dana boys is showing me some of his tubing. The new kind they’re using is a four-season type. That doesn’t mean they can sugar all year, it just means they can leave it out all year without serous degradation to the plastic. After the season is over and you walk through the woods, cleaning the tubes, you can close up the end and hang the looped tubing onto a tree branch. It saves bringing literally miles of tubing back to the house.
I see some maple syrup boiling in a small pan on a portable stove. I’m offered sugar on snow and accept. It’s been years since I had it. When I was a kid, I would get a meatloaf pan packed with snow, a bowl of hot maple syrup (which had been reduced more than the 66 ° Brix and a spoon. I would dip my spoon into the syrup and drizzle funny shapes onto the snow. Since the syrup was hot and the snow was cold, the syrup would sink in a little before it hardened. The best part was sticking the tip of my spoon into the soft syrup and peeling back the shape to reveal an imprint in the snow. There were so many “Little House in the Big Woods” moments from my childhood, though I never have kicked around an inflated pig’s bladder nor snacked on fried pig’s tails.
A different one of the Dana boys hands me a bowl of snow with hot maple syrup already poured over the top. Well, that takes the fun out of it but the taste was splendid. So wonderful it should be a delicacy. It’s cold but melts in your mouth. It also leaves a urine yellow mark on the snow, but that’s to be expected.
I thank Alden and the Danas for showing me around. They produce a lot of maple syrup there but they’ve got well-oiled family machine running. Not wanting to go back the way I came, I get new directions to the interstate.
Back at home, I felt the urge to make a maple recipe right away. I had bought an insanely cheap cookbook with all sorts of maple recipes and the recipes for Maple Cream and Maple Candy looked incredibly easy: just reduce the syrup more and stir. After thinking about it, there didn’t seem to be an easier recipe in the whole world. I poured a pint of maple syrup into a pot to boil.
The two recipes were essentially the same, the only difference being the temperature of the syrup when you started stirring it. For the cream, the syrup must be completely cool, whereas for the candy, it must be hot. The cookbook says that the cream is good to spread on toast but since I hate toast, I decided to go with the candy. I just hope it’s smooth and not like those see-through hard candies. Bits of those always get stuck in your teeth.
When the syrup starts to boil, I check the temperature. I’m using a chicken thermometer and since it only goes up to 190 ° F, I’m going to have to “guesstimate” when it reaches the required 234 ° (the same temperature the syrup has to be for sugar on snow.) This makes me a little nervous and I think that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this after all, but it’s too late now. I remember at my grandfather’s, when we’d have sugar on snow, whoever was boiling it would drop a drop of the hot syrup into a glass at look at it. I fill up a glass with water and bring it to the stove. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for, but it must be something cool or telling. I dip a chopstick into the syrup and transfer a drop to the glass. The syrup fell to the bottom like a disintegrating doughnut. Later, when I check again, the drop sank to the bottom in a more solid form. On the third try, the drop formed into a ball and quickly dropped to the bottom but developed a tail of syrup along the way, like a sperm cell. Thinking it was cool, I did it a few more times before thinking that this might be the sign. I quickly pour the syrup into a bowl and note it’s deep, chocolate color. I obviously cooked the syrup way to long and wonder what’s going to happen now.
I grab a spoon and start stirring. It’s so thick I can barely do it. I notice a slight lightening of color and start to have hope that it might turn out all right after all. I stop stirring for a few seconds and when I start up again, the syrup had nearly completely set. I force the spoon to make a few more circles around the bowl when I suddenly hear a “puh!” sound from the bowl. Then a “ppssssss” came at the wake of each spoon stroke and the thick, brown liquid transformed into tan sugar right before my very eyes. It was the most mystifying thing I’d ever seen. It was like magic. Soon the spoon stopped moving for good, like a stick dragged through rapidly drying concrete. Inside the bowl was maple granular sugar fused into a solid layer from the heat. I pick up the handle of the spoon and hold the bowl upside down, my mouth forming a silent “oh.”
Eventually, I broke the spoon out and tasted a nugget of the sugar, nearly chipping a tooth. Crunchy. Looks like I can grind it down and use it in coffee and tea.
Miles driven: 77
Wrong turns taken: 6
Pints of Maple Syrup bought: 2