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Winter's Nectar

Tapping the Source

The sweet, slushy world of maple syrup


My friend Carl keeps a small jug of pure Vermont maple syrup in his car. He just can't face breakfast on the road without it.

Driving the back roads of Vermont last March--the height of sap season in these parts--I thought of Carl. Here, the muddy roads are lined with maple trees, and it seems every tree is adorned with a tin bucket necklace to collect the precious sap. This is maple syrup paradise.

Vermont, after all, produces one-third of the U.S. syrup supply; the state estimates the maple syrup industry to be worth about $105 million.

This part of the country, where American Indians first practiced the art of "sugaring" and passed their knowledge on to British colonists, is ideally suited to syrup making.

There's the crazy weather, for one thing. Without the dramatic temperature swings New England experiences during the transition from winter to spring, there just wouldn't be maple syrup. Temperatures must fluctuate between 28 degrees (or below) at night and 38 degrees (or above) during the day for sap to flow. And so, at the tail end of winter, when the rural farmhouses are still blanketed with snow but the dirt roads have turned from ice to mud, tappers start looking to collect maple sap. The sap season, usually about six weeks long, typically begins in mid-February and goes to the end of March.

Of course, among New Englanders, the time to tap is determined by more than weather. One arbitrary local tradition is to tap your trees on Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March.

My favorite advice is this: Start when the melting snow streams across the road and stop when the peepers start their peeping. (For you city slickers, peepers are spring frogs.) Melting snow shows that it's just warm enough to produce sap flow, but when the ice melts enough for frogs to emerge from their ponds, it's warm enough for the leaf buds on the sugar maples to bloom. Once that happens, the sap loses its sweetness and becomes bitter.

In recent years, tradition has given way to some technological advances in syrup making. But for the most part, the industry hasn't changed much since the 1800s.

American Indians collected sap by slashing tree trunks and letting the sap flow into a hollowed-out log or other container. Sizzling rocks heated in a fire were tossed into the sap causing slow evaporation. The sap would be reduced until it was very thick, then stirred until it crystallized. It was then poured into wooden molds and stored in block form for use during the rest of the year.

The colonists reduced the cooking time with the use of iron kettles placed over a fire, resulting in more efficient evaporation. In the late 1700s, slashing was replaced with a gentler technique--the insertion of a spile or hollowed-out stick into the tree--that resulted in healthier trees.

In the late 1800s, a Vermonter whose name is unknown invented the first evaporator. He made a large metal pan that was wide and flat, helping the sap to evaporate quickly. This was improved over time with the inclusion of channels that allow the cooking sap to flow through the evaporator.

Among the trees of Stan Holt, a retired minister and community organizer who loves the ritual of putting taps on trees after a long winter and listening for the plink-plink of the tree's nectar hitting empty buckets, you could easily imagine that you've stepped back in time 100 years. Holt, who collects syrup lore as well as sap, doesn't make syrup. His favorite part of the process is the tapping, not the cooking, which he leaves to someone else.

On this morning, we find several full buckets on his trees. He lifts the lid on one and I dip my finger into the icy liquid and put it into my mouth. It tastes like cold, slightly sweet water.

Holt explains that to tap a sugar maple, you must first be sure that it's old enough. A tree must be at least 10 inches in diameter (about 30 years old) to withstand one tap. The larger and older the tree gets, the more taps you can install. A hole, about 1/2 inch in diameter and 1 1/2 to 2 inches deep, is drilled into the tree about three feet from the ground. A sap spout, or spile, is inserted and a 2 1/2-gallon bucket is then hung from the spile. A cover must be placed on top of the bucket to prevent dilution from rain and snow and to try to keep animals away.

Each tap should produce 10 to 12 gallons of sap per season. If you've got four buckets on a tree, you'll get about 40 gallons of sap, which in turn will give you on average one gallon of syrup. That's right. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. This helps explain the high price tags for pure maple syrup.

Holt empties the buckets into a large barrel that sits atop a small trailer hitched to his car, then drives his liquid cargo over muddy roads to the sugarhouse of John Plummer, the man who will turn Holt's sap into syrup.

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