Nestled on the western edge of the Green Mountain National Forest is the serene town of Goshen, Vermont. Situated high up on Cape Lookoff Mountain is home of Republic of Vermont, a certified organic farm specializing in maple syrup and honey. Raised in New England, I had always been curious about these sugar shacks as they sent a pillar of steam into the sky from their vented roofs, but surprisingly, never got to experience one. (Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States.) This winter, I was invited by Ethan to spend a day at the farm with him and Annina to document and learn more about the maple syrup process. No way I was passing this one up - especially so close to the "sugar moon" - the Native American name for the first full moon of spring.
I loaded up the car with a pile of Cinestill 800T 120 and the Pentax 67 with the 2.4/105 and headed west to Vermont.
It's early in April, but the dirt road up to the sugarhouse is layered with a fresh 5" of snow from the previous night and a chilly 28°F outside. As I ease my car up the snow covered road, I begin to wonder if the summer tires on my little car will make it all the way. Luckily, the road isn't that long and I catch Ethan waving me into the driveway of their sugarhouse. It's truly a gorgeous site.
We have introductions and I meet Libby - their super-loving and friendly Australian Shepherd. The front and rear barn doors are wide open as Ethan sets to work, getting the evaporator ready for the boil. He hands me a welcomed cup of coffee as he talks with beaming pride of their sugarhouse he built and equipment. I soak it all up, envious of his maple wonderland.
The Maple Syrup Process
Maple syrup has been around since well before the first Europeans landed in North America. Native American's first discovered how to remove the sap from trees by slashing across the maples with a stone tool and catching the runoff in buckets. They had various ways of reducing the water content and concentrating the sugar: some would boil it down by placing hot cooking stones into the buckets and some would set the buckets out on freezing nights and remove the layer of ice on top in the morning, leaving the sugary syrup goodness at the bottom. Though modern man has fine-tuned the method of capturing the sap and boiling it down, the end result is the same. The organic syrup Ethan and Annina produce is no different than that made by the Native Americans. Even though the modern process may be slightly faster, converting sap to a syrup is not a job for the impatient man.
Two years ago, Ethan and Annina built a beautiful sugarhouse high up on the slope of Cape Lookoff Mountain to upscale their production. For two years previous to their sugarhouse, they had been producing on a small scale from their log cabin home down the road as they learned the process. It's not heavily documented, so many hours of research went into figuring it all out. With the building of the sugarhouse, they have been able to really ramp up production with modern efficient equipment and have continued to increase the number of taps they are using each year. Last year, using 1500 taps, they easily went through their product through mostly online sales and the local market. This year, they have increased to 2200 taps and are on target for 700 gallons of bottled syrup. If things continue this way, they will once again be increasing taps next year.
So, what does this all mean - how does it work?
Throughout the winter months, trees gather melted snow and rain water into their trunks to convert stored starches into sugars and begin the production of buds in the spring. The ideal trees are at least 40 years old (10-12" in diameter) and will produce up to three gallons of sap a day during the short 6-week (+/-) season. The sap that runs from maple trees (sugar maple and red maple being the most common in this area) flows when a cycle of night temperatures below freezing and the day temperatures above freezing begin to build up a pressure that allows the sap to flow through the taps. In New England, this tends to be late February / March and occasionally into the first or second week in April. The season ends when either this magic temperature combination stops or the trees bud. Once they bud, the sap changes to a not so pleasant flavor. It's all up to mother nature though, and Ethan is friends with some local foresters that can give a great outlook to the sugar / red maple expected budding. This also encourages constant sampling during the boil - a job I'd gladly take.
The sap that flows is not sticky as you'd expect, but more like water with the slightest hint of maple flavor. Some farms up here actually bottle the sap and sell it as an all natural water. If you never tried pure sap like this, you're missing out on a really light and unique taste. But the real treat is syrup.
In earlier times (and currently on smaller farms), the sap was pulled from the trees by boring a small hole into the tree (does not damage the tree), "tapping" a spout into that hole with a small hammer, and hanging a bucket from the spout to gather the sap as it drips. The farmer would collect all the sap from the sugarbush (collection of maple trees), one bucket at a time and haul the collection by foot, 4-wheeler or snowmobile to the sugarhouse.
Larger productions still tap the trees, but rather than buckets for collection, they run hollow tubing like a network of veins from tree to tree which is either gravity fed or pulled through the lines with a small vacuum pump (does not harm the trees) into a large holding tank at the bottom of the hill - for Ethan, that's 2200 taps this year running right into the 3700 gallon tank outside the sugar house. Keep in mind, it takes over 40 gallons of sap to create a gallon of syrup! If your sugarhouse is not at the bottom of the sugarbush, then the gallons of sap must be hauled to the sugarhouse by some other means.
Late-winter, Ethan and Annina (and sometimes some local volunteers) trudge through the snowy forest above the sugarhouse to place the 2200 taps and connect them to the tubing network. It takes several days to get them all in place and connected and then the wait begins for the days to warm up above freezing and for the sap to flow.
Ethan tells me there isn't a ton to do (regarding maple production) while waiting for the sap to flow, other than prepping the sugarhouse. Wood was cut, split and stacked throughout the summer and fall.
Before the Boil
Once the sap arrives in the outdoor holding tank, it needs to be moved into the building to ready for boiling in the evaporator. To reduce boiling time, the collected sap goes through reverse osmosis, a technique which removes much of the water through a series of membranes leaving a concentration of sap and sugars from the maple trees. This process takes the maple sap from about 2% sugar to 10-18% sugar during the process. With some of the water removed and the sugar content increased, the boil time is greatly reduced, saving time and resources (namely wood) used in the evaporation process. Ethan tells me all the wood he burns is off his land - and this year he consumed somewhere between 5 to 6 cords. If it wasn't for the reverse osmosis, he would have run out of wood mid-season.
The reverse osmosis pump moves the sugary sap from the 3700 gallon holding tank up to the large 400 gallon reserve tank above the evaporator, ready to boil.
Keeping it Organic
Ethan and Annina made the decision early on that their product would be completely pure and completely organic. Being certified organic is a very involved process. They worked with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA VT) to attain their certification. The process looks at their forest management process, water runoff, logging practice, sustainability, food grade equipment, safety (every bottle can be traced to a boil and bottle date) and inspections of their woods and sugarhouse. This organic certification means products like their defoamer must also be certified organic. Though the organic version of the defoamer is not as efficient as others, it's worth the extra work to use it.
Sap from the tank follows a series of gorgeous copper pipes into a large wood-fired evaporator. Ethan loads wood into the firebox of the highly efficient evaporator and ignites it to start the day, quickly closing the heavy fire door against the arch. Vents on the roof of the sugar house are then opened to let the steam and smoke out as the room slowly fills with the amazing smell of a wood fire and boiling maple sap.
If you've ever driven through New England in March, you know the site of the working sugarhouse with the iconic flow of steam and smoke bellowing from their roof. Annina tells me that this serves as a welcome sign to passer-bys to come on in and talk about the process and try a fresh hot sample. The making of syrup is a social event!
Foam inside the evaporator from the boiling sap has to be continually monitored, and a certified organic defoamer is used to keep it in check - otherwise the foam would spill out all the contents and you'd have nothing to show for your hard work.
The temperature of the sap in the evaporator quickly rises to 200° and the climb becomes a crawl. The magic temperature for sap to turn to syrup is around 219° or at 66% sugar content (32 brix density). But the evaporator is in no hurry to get there. It seems to sit just below the golden temp for a long time - but once the sensor matches the desired temp, a valve opens and a short burst of syrup steams off into an awaiting pan where they mix in some diatomaceous earth for filtering. These short bursts last just a few seconds to a half minute or so. When the temperature rises or falls out of range, the runoff stops again. Only pure syrup leaves the evaporator.
Throughout the morning, this is the process: keeping the fire stoked, monitoring the foam, waiting for the sap to hit the magic temperature, a short runoff to be collected and filtered for bottling. This continues on the 300 gallon tank gets to a low volume - but not empty. When this happens, they let the fires die down. Ethan tells me if they ran the tank dry, the fire would burn the pans in the evaporator, ruining them for the season.
For the filtering, I mentioned the diatomaceous earth. This is a natural organic powder made from crushed rock that is used to pull impurities from food sources. A pump pulls the syrup from the evaporator runoff through a series of paper filters that capture the diatomaceous earth and impurities and continue the pure syrup into a double boiler that holds the syrup at 180 degrees for bottling.
The reward for all the work is pumping the reserves into large steril barrels or directly into their beautiful glass bottles for shipment.
Grading syrup is completely out of the hands of the producer and is dependent on what sap runs from the trees that day. One day you can be boiling light Grade A "fancy," and the very next a dark amber cooking grade. The grade is based on color only and all syrup is produced exactly the same way. The light colored fancy tends to run on the early winter days of the season while the warming springs days tend to produce a darker colored (and strongest maple flavor) amber. I prefer to get my syrup as dark as possible - cooking grade when I can. In between these grades, Vermont has Grade A Medium and Grade A Dark Amber.
Ethan has a set of 4 glass jars with each of the grades as a sample set used to grade that day's boil. If storing in the drums, he notes the boil date and the grade of that barrel and places a small glass jar with a sample on top for quick reference (when later bottling).
The next months will be spent bottling and fulfilling orders from around the globe, as well as creating maple sugar (which they also sell) from their supply. With last check, Ethan has begun prepping for the summer work - getting the beehives ready for honey production. Stay tuned to see that process here as well later this summer.