Most of us who have lived in Vermont for any length of time know the basics of sugaring: You have to boil about 40 gallons of sap to get a single gallon of syrup. A sugarmaker should expect to lose 15 to 20 hours of sleep every spring to boiling. And as global climate change curtails the number of days when there might be a sugar run, the seasons are likely to be – to quote my friend and sugarmaker, Bristol’s John Elder – “short but sweet.”
If you’re a Vermonter who doesn’t sugar, it’s easy to take the process for granted. It’s easy to forget the feelings we had when we first tromped through the mud and melting snow and walked inside a sugarhouse to watch someone boiling. It’s kind of like the way we grow up and forget the magic of those birthday parties when we were five years old. And, make no mistake, a sugarhouse is an enchanted sort of place, even if it’s a decrepit shed so small it can barely fit an evaporator the size of a pool table. It might be thirty-five or forty degrees outside, but chances are the heat from the wood fire and all that steam will make it feel like a sauna inside. There is the mouth-watering aroma of maple. And there is that entire fairy tale vibe: A shack at the edge of the woods with a roaring, medieval fire inside and something strange and alchemic occurring in the roiling fluid above the flames: A vat of sap that can be stilled in a heartbeat with but a dollop of butter or a drop of cream. Eventually that sap will thicken into ambrosia.
Earlier this month Susan McNally, a reader from London, England, shared with me her introduction to sugaring. “A few years ago, we rented a house in Vermont in the middle of a lot of snow,” she said. “Suddenly we saw smoke coming out of the little hut on our land and decided that someone must have been trespassing.” When she went to investigate, a little wary, she found it was a sugarhouse – and now has great memories of the demonstration and a deep love of maple syrup.
Just as there are far fewer dairy farms in Vermont than there once were, there are far fewer sugarhouses. Years ago, retired Lincoln dairy farmer, Herb Parker, told me how once upon a time he could stand on a hill by his farmhouse some days in March and see “steams” in all directions. Those “steams” were the working sugarhouses in the community.
Moreover, in the same way that the dairy farms that remain are larger than the ones that dotted the Green Mountain landscape fifty years ago, the sugaring operations are bigger, too. Technology has allowed a sugarmaker to tap more trees and pull from each maple more sap. You might still spot metal buckets hanging beneath taps on a line of maples, but my sense is that a lot of those belong to the dabblers.
Not that there is anything wrong with dabbling. We still need the lasagna pan, stovetop sugarmakers – people with stories like Monique Beaudry. “When I was growing up in Westfield,” she told me, “my parents decided to let my sister have a go at making a small batch of syrup in our kitchen. My mother wasn’t very happy when her wallpaper started falling off the walls of our very old farmhouse, due to the steam created by the boiling sap.” But that finished syrup? Delicious.
Consequently, the sugarhouse remains an important part of Vermont’s identity. In 2011, we produced over 1.1 million gallons of syrup, generating nearly $40 million. Last season, we produced another three-quarters of a million gallons. Maple syrup is part of our mystique, in the same way that milk and cheese are.
And while it may not be possible to recapture the magic of birthday parties when you were still in kindergarten, it’s hard to outgrow a sugarhouse. No one ever regrets visiting one. Besides, when there’s maple there’s mud. They’re meteorological cousins. If we’re going to endure a little mud, we should treat ourselves to a little maple.
‘Tis the season.