Late winter/early spring in New England can sometimes be pretty ugly especially once the snow gives way to mud. Up in Vermont they have what’s called “mud season” and yes, it’s a real thing! In the land of dirt roads, it can be quite messy and it certainly isn’t the most “postcard-ready” season. With all that being said, there is something gloriously amazing that happens this time of year… Maple Sugaring!
Tony and I started off our trip to Vermont by packing up the car and the second Corlie sees us packing toys in her “travel bag”, she starts losing her mind and whining until we finally tell her it’s time to get in the car! Devon and her husband Ross have a 5-year-old Golden Retriever named Addison, Addie for short. Corlie was starting to get seasonal boredom from being cooped up in the house so we knew her and Addie, and Devon’s parents’ Golden, Lily would have a blast playing together and running around in the mud for the weekend.
We stopped off for lunch at this cool little spot called The Worthy Burger which is housed in an old freight house in South Royalton, VT. The food was great but they also have a pretty good variety of local beers on tap. It’s definitely worth checking out!
We arrived later that night at Devon and Ross’ new house near Montpelier which was absolutely breathtaking. We caught up on our crazy lives over a wonderful dinner and watched the pups antagonize each other being that they’re both only fur-children.
The next morning, we got up and went to this little breakfast place in downtown Montpelier that Devon and Ross had raved about the night before. Down Home is a great little spot known for it’s southern inspired food. The owner is from South Carolina and the food was delicious. The fact that I could get iced coffee there in February was a major win! If you get the chance you should try to score a spot at the family style farmhouse table for breakfast all day. True southern hospitality!
After breakfast we got back on the road with the golden girls and started heading north to Devon’s childhood home. Her parents; David and Louise have a beautiful property on over 30 acres in quaint Bristol, Vermont where they take pride in the art of maple sugaring every spring. I was excited to be there and to capture the process of making “liquid gold”.
There is quite a science to sugaring and there is never a set “date” that you should start tapping the trees. When I asked Devon’s dad David how you know they’re ready he said it really depends on a lot of different variables, but ultimately you have to simply “trust your gut”. David has been doing this for the better part of 30 years so while this is like second nature to him, not so much for us! David is one of those people who loves nature, the woods, land, sustainable farming, hiking, biking, you name it – if it’s outside he’s probably doing it. He’s uniquely qualified to teach a college course on maple sugaring techniques as he is both a UVM professor at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources as well as the Executive Director at Vermont Family Forests which is a non-profit forest conservation organization established in 1998 to preserve the health of local family forests. We were able to learn just a small percentage of his knowledge during our day at the sugar shack.
Typically, you need colder nights that are below freezing and warmer days where the temperature goes above freezing for the sap to really flow. During the day the starch that the trees have stored in their roots and trunks before winter, will rise in the trunk and convert into sugar sap. The sap doesn’t have much taste, it’s water with a little hint of sweetness. Actually, obtaining maple syrup from the sap is where you really put in your time! It takes about 40-45 gallons of sap (depending on the sugar content of the tree, most are around 3%) to produce one gallon of syrup. The sap becomes syrup by evaporating the water down by boiling it just above boiling point (usually done on an evaporator and not recommended to be done in the house especially if you like the paint or wallpaper on your walls)!
It’s best to boil the sap the same day it’s collected as it can spoil easily and if you have some great “run days” you’ll have so much that you can’t keep up with it! As it was we collected some of the trees twice in a 4-hour window since it was flowing pretty quickly. This year they decided to tap 100 of the trees on their property but they could have easily done twice that if they really wanted to. The problem then becomes manpower. You have to collect the sap every day and the old saying of “many hands make light work” definitely ring true. We collected 118 gallons of sap between 5 of us, minus the one I spilled when I tripped on a root and lost the whole damn bucket!! David was nice enough to tell me that it was an “offering to the tree gods and they don’t forget”. A wise man he is!
Tony had never actually done any of this sugaring stuff, but I had years ago and always had such a blast that I couldn’t wait to introduce him to it. I told him that there was nothing like that sweet smell of boiling sap, hauling buckets back to the sugar house, and hanging out with friends discussing life for a few hours while drinking some great local brews. I think he was kind of like “yeah, yeah, Erin’s being dramatic again”, but he really got into it and had a great time. Just before we were ready to head to dinner and most of the sap had been boiled down to the first level, we all got to taste the fruits of our labor right off the evaporator. It will eventually be filtered seven more times to make the syrup more refined. Trust me, if you’ve never tasted maple syrup that fresh, you’re missing out on one of life’s little pleasures.
As we were finishing up the batch and remarking about how delicious it is, Ross says “too bad we don’t have any whiskey”. David just smiles and puts his hand up, gesturing for us to wait a minute as he goes next door to grab a bottle of Dewar’s. He had just the right amount left to mix with the fresh syrup. Absolute heaven!
It was time to change out of our farm clothes and head down to the Bobcat Café for dinner with the crew. Louise and David were kind enough to let us take some fresh sap so that I could attempt to make some Mapletinis (stay tuned for that concoction once I figure out the right ratios) as well as some liquid gold from last years run. Many thanks to the Brynn’s for having us and teaching us the art of sugaring!