At the end of winter in Vermont, small outbuildings you might mistake for sheds or barns, come to life. Plumes of steam rise from their chimneys as sugar makers stoke the fires within. Kept burning around the clock, often still fed by hand, the fires heat maple sap in large metal pans called evaporators.
The sap from maple trees does not start out as the sweet and pancake-ready syrup we know. Fresh maple sap is thin and watery and must be boiled down to thicken it and concentrate its sweetness. This process is known as maple sugaring.
Sugaring season starts at the very end of February and lasts until early April. As the long winter freeze abates and temperatures rise, the sap loosens and begins to run through the trees. To harvest the valuable sap within, sugar makers must bore into and tap their trees. In the past, hollow metal spikes, also known as spiles, were hammered into maple trees and collection pails were hung below them. A slow but steady trickle of sap would drip out of the tree through the spiles and into the waiting pails below. Once filled, each sap pail would be emptied into larger containers hauled by a team of horses to the sugarhouse for boiling.
Some sugar makers still use the traditional spile and bucket method to this day, while others have traded in their spiles and pails for modern taps and PVC sap lines. The PVC lines are connected from tree to tree allowing the sap to flow freely, downhill, into larger and more easily accessible collection containers. A single maple tree can produce between 10 to 20 gallons of sap per season—depending on the weather. It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
Producing 100% pure maple syrup is a tradition that dates back to before Colonial Times. Maple sap was collected and made into syrup by native populations long before it was adapted by early American settlers in the late 1700s. Back then the sap was boiled in large cast-iron kettles over open campfires and hearths. For many, the art of sugaring has been passed down from generation to generation. While Vermont is one of the largest maple producers in the US, many sugar makers simply do it to keep the craft alive, and to make enough syrup for their friends and family to enjoy.
One fun way that Vermonters like to enjoy maple syrup is over fresh snow–a New England tradition called Sugar on Snow. It’s easy to make! Simply bring maple syrup to a boil, and let it simmer until it reaches 235 degrees and then pour the syrup over a baking pan filled with fresh snow. Allow it to cool again and then peel the maple syrup off the snow with a fork. As the syrup cools, it turns into maple taffy that melts in your mouth. A true sugaring season delicacy!