Small Scale Sugarmakers in Vermont Hone in on a Local Touch



BURLINGTON— A quick walk through the co-op will shed light on the abundant uses of maple sap, which includes but is not limited to maple syrup, maple candy, maple cream, face cream with maple-sap extract and maple-infused water, which is expected to inspire a cult following similar to that of coconut water.

The state of Vermont is one of the world’s largest producers of maple sugar products, second only to Quebec, Canada, a province that produced around 8 times as much maple syrup in 2010 and is about 62 times as large as the Green Mountain State.

The maple sap harvesting season begins as early as late-January, and continues into February and mid-March. In the past, sugar makers (as producers of maple syrup are called) collected sap from either red or sugar maples through 2-inch-deep holes drilled at an upward angle into the trunks.

The sap would flow in a freeze-thaw cycle through metal or plastic sprouts into buckets hanging eagerly below the spout. The weather in northeast United States, with its long spring days and chilly nights, enable this unique business and way of life to thrive.

According a study conducted by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, the average maple sugar producer in Vermont has 3,451 taps, a number that makes the traditional process of sap collection, which requires the buckets to be collected every day, a somewhat tedious ordeal.

When local sugar-maker Lew Coty first started his operations at Nebraska Knoll Sugar Farm through trial and error in 1977, he chose a site called Birch Hill, which he described as “an appropriate name as there were many birch trees but the maples were few and far between.”

A tap count in 2012 at Nebraska Knoll tallied 9,778 total taps and eight main lines, or tubes of sap flowing back into the sugarhouse. “When the sap is running well,” Lew said of the rush to collect and process the sap in early spring, “our operation quickly morphs into a state of immediacy.”

On his blog on Nebraska Knoll’s website, Coty describes the sap runs as “relentless and non-retrievable. Waiting for tomorrow to deal with the situation after a good night’s rest is rarely an option. Bouncing between exigencies and sneaking in power naps are part of the game.”

“Having your head bathed in hot steam for long periods completes the separation of mind from body,” Coty said of the physically demanding work of tapping and tubing. Referring to the condition he described as “living in the ozone,” he said, “You focus on the immediate and float while you can over the rest.”

Most larger scale operations like Coty’s now collect their sap by connecting their sprouts to a tubing system that transports the sap to a collection tank. Back at the sugar house, the sap is then filtered and pumped into the evaporator, where its water is boiled away and its sugars caramelized.

Through this process, maple syrup develops the unique flavors for which it is known. At maple competitions, terminology to describe the flavor profiles of various syrup-entries might include roasted, which compares the syrup to chocolate or roasted ground coffee, confectionary, a flavor linked to white sugar, mineral, garlicky, or woody, in a process not unlike that by which chocolate, wine, and cheese are judged.

Factors such as the climate and elevation of the maple trees, the time of year at which the sap was harvested and the boiling process all affect the final flavor of the syrup. Local sugar-maker Matt Davis at little Hogback Farm in Bristol, Vermont said that discerning palates may even be able to taste flavors from microbes in the pipelines and in the stainless steel or plastic tanks that store the syrup.

As a child, Davis had experimented with sugar-making as a hobby, but it wasn’t until eight years ago that he became a professional sugar-maker. According to Davis, syrup made during the colder months in the early sugar season is typically lighter in flavor, while syrup harvested in the later, warmer months is typically more caramelized, with a deeper roast.

In comparison to larger maple syrup productions with out-of-state investment, Davis said, smaller, local producers have “a bit more control over the final product.”

“We do end up having smaller, more distinctive batches,” he said.

“Smaller producers tend to do more direct sales to their customers, so that certainly affects how you’re going to think about the product you’re making,” Davis shared. “A lot of larger producers are just filling barrels of syrup to retailers, so on that end they may not be thinking about [their individual batches] as much.”

“We’re intimate with all our batches,” he enthused.

Coty shares this view towards larger producers, voicing that he “[hates] to see the huge operations that have been recently setting up in Vermont funded by out-of-state corporate money.” Two of Coty’s biggest challenges have been “global warming and bulk prices determined by a Canadian cartel.”

“They are changing the perception of maple syrup coming from quality oriented smaller producers to that coming from a factory,” he expressed.

Davis believes that his customers, mostly locals of Vermont, are looking for maple products with a local, personal touch. “We’re really trying to form relationships with our customers,” he said.

“They’re looking for a story, to know how [the syrup] is made; they want to know that we’re using quality equipment, that there’s no way we can potentially contaminate our product—and that they can actually come and see that for themselves.”

Asa teacher of ecology, Davis is also conscientious of the effect of maple production on local ecosystems. “Historically, sugar-makers have tried to remove other species to encourage maple growth,” he explained.

Maintaining diversity in the forest is important not only for encouraging resilience against different diseases and pests against the maple, but also for the some three-hundred bird species who nest on trees in the area, Davis said. Davis’ “sugarbush” currently houses sixteen tree species, of which two, the red and sugar maples, provide sap to be harvested.

Davis does not sugarcoat the reality of the industry, however. “There’s impact from any extractive activity,” he said. Though he recognizes that the scale of larger productions doesn’t necessarily imply negative ramifications on local ecology, “if those operations are leaning towards maple monoculture over a broad area, that’s certainly going to be a place where disease and pests could be more problematic,” Davis warned. “Especially if their neighbor is trying to maintain more diversity.”

Despite new and old difficulties in the arena of maple syrup production, the enthusiasm both Coty and Davis have for sugar-making is clear.

Various sections on the mechanics of sugar-tapping on Coty’s blog reflect his thirty-seven years as a sugar-maker, and he describes sugar-makers as both plumbers and soldiers in battle.

In an entry in 2008, Coty excitedly described a particular sugar-making. “First run syrup often has an immature quality, but this was slightly later with a pubescent glow. Unlike its later, darker cousins, which are usually clothed in garments of caramel or coffee or chocolate, this syrup lay on the tongue with the raw, naked, seductive taste of pure maple essence,” he said. “Sadly, this stellar flavor burns at both ends and its overwhelming allure will be noticeably diminished in a few months. We learn to indulge in this ephemeral delicacy while we can.”

In addition to selling his maple products at local farmer’s markets, Davis and his family are also avid consumers of the golden syrup they make. “We really like to experiment cooking with it,” Davis said. Two recent favorites of the Davis’ are maple chipotle turkey chili and maple-and-miso-glazed sweet potato tacos.

“I gorge by smothering all my meals with hot syrup right off the evaporator when we are boiling,” Coty confessed, “Unlike wine, maple syrup never tastes better than the day it’s made.”

“In the end,” Davis agreed, “the best part is always drinking it straight off the evaporator in the spring.”

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