March 24, 2013

Vermont Maple Sugarmakers Rejoice

This years' maple sugaring season promises to be profitable for local Vermont farmers as the weather is finally cooperating. These old maple buckets are not actually being used, but they are hung for tourists. Today, sap is collected in vinyl pipes, which connect to tapped trees.

Maple Sugar season in Vermont is a subject that I've been wanting to report on for a few years now, as it is one of the best plant-related experiences in New England. We can all thank the trusty Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum for not only the brightly colored foliage in autumn, but for the tasty syrup we all enjoy on our breakfast pancakes. That is, if you buy real maple syrup and not Mrs. Buttersworth's. There is nothing like real maple syrup, and as a third generation New Englander, how could I not report on this traditional harvest. So today, Joe and I hopped into the truck and drove to the Robb Family Farm in southern Vermont for a lunchtime visit to a few sugar shacks, as the season officially has begun.

The snow is still deep in Vermont, and with mud season just beginning, it's perfect weather for sugaring. The snow cover
will keep the air and soil cold, and the warm March sun will rise the temperatures to just above freezing each day -
exactly what the Sugar Maples need to get their sap flowing.

We almost drove up to Vermont last year, but when we found out that the season didn't really exist, we opted to wait another year. You see, the maple syrup industry is completely dependent on the weather, for maple sap runs only in March and part of April in those years when the night time temperatures drop just below 32º F, and the daytime temperatures rise to near 40º or so. Any higher, or lower, and the sap stops. If you live in New England, or if you are planning spring ski trip soon, check out the Vermont Sugarmakers site for more information.

The Robb Family Farm run by Helen and Charlie Robb in West Brattleboro, VT offers an idylic sugar house, as well as family raised beef and dairy products. Located on a quiet, unpaved farm road, be sure that you have four wheel drive!
I drove in the long way from the north, but I also think I found our dream house ( farm).

This year, things are looking up for those with sugar orchards or "in the sugarbush' as near perfect conditions are promising perhaps a record harvest. I'm always up for a drive to Vermont, which is an easy day drive for us, as the Vermont border is only an hour and fifteen minutes north of us. Today we visited three sugar houses, and even though all were collecting sap, only one was actually boiling sap.

 If you are unfamiliar with how maple syrup is made, here is a brief primer. ( you all probably know the facts from school - Maple syrup comes mainly from the Sugar Maple, or Acer saccharum, which native throughout much of Northern New England and Quebec. Sap runs only in spring, when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing, but when the nights drop below freezing. These are the magic days, when the sap - which looks exactly like water - is collected via pipes and tubes, and not in buckets as it once was. 

Another sugar house that we visited, the Sprague & Son. Sugarhouse, was still loading in their sap. Run by the same family for 6 generations, this sugarshack was recently restored.

Glass jugs of maple syrup for sale at the Robb Family Farm.

Trees are tapped in late winter, and plastic pipes are connected in an elaborate system, that connects tree to tree, sometimes miles away from the sugar house. A vacuum system essentially sucks the sap down hill back to the sugar house, or, an osmosis system is used by some farmers.  Sap is collected in food-grade tanks, sometimes 300 gallons a day, or more, which then is transported to often larger holding tanks, stainless steel today, but they used to be made from spruce wood ( we saw one today that was made in the 1800's).

Maple syrup comes in many grades, with the lighter ones being more light in flavor, and the darker amber grades more flavorful.

Inside the Robb Family Sugarhouse.

It takes a lot of wood to heat the fires in wood-fired evaporators. The Robb Family stacks wood near some antique sugaring buckets hanging from old taps on this 100+ year old sugar maple.

When enough sap is collected, it is transferred to an evaporator, traditionally wood heated. Sugar shacks are constructed like giant chimneys, where the steam can escape. All over Vermont today we saw sugar shacks with steam rising, which is a great sign for the Vermont Maple Syrup industry. The snow is still deep in the Green Mountains, so the outlook looks good, especially with ideal temperatures expected for the next week or so.

Tapped maples are connected in elaborate systems, this one extended a mile up this hill, from trees that have been tapped for over 120 years. The farmer, who was 79 told us that when he was a child, his parents, who moved to the farm in 1909 took over a sugarbush as their retirement project. In the 1920's, he told us that they had nearly 1000 buckets, and all were collected daily by horse and sleigh.

Tubes transporting maple sap arrive at a pump station, where these blue valves release the liquid into a holding tank. Many of the farmers who make syrup in Vermont are also dairy farmers, so they convert electronic milking machines into suction pumps. The sap was not running when we arrived, but within 20 minutes, these valves opened up and the sap started pouring into the tank. The farmer yelled back to his son to fire up the evaporator.
The evaporator filling with sap, getting hot with the newly lit fire. Hundreds of gallons of sap will boil, and remember, it takes 86-90 gallons of raw sap just to make 1 gallon of syrup.

An old label from the turn of the century, discovered by Mr. Robb at the Robb Family Sugar Farm.

 Mr. Robb found the original label that his great grandfather used, and decided to use the original label on his glass gallon jugs, and this newly crafted version for the smaller bottles.

The Robb Family farm sits on a long, dirt and ice road, which made us glad that we had 4 wheel drive! I do sort of like it when my truck is covered in mud! This vent in the roof will soon by shrouded in steam as the wood fire heats the syrup to the boiling point. All over Vermont today, sugar houses steamed away as the sap flowed in the March sunshine.

Vintage syrup buckets hang in the rafters of the Robb Family sugar house.


  1. Thank you, sir! Spreading the maple gospel is a very important duty for every resident of New England, the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence valley, and other fine maple parts of the continent. I went so far as to link this on my own blog.

  2. Thanks Brent! Great point there are many parts of the Eastern US where sugar maples ( and birch) sap is made into syrup - we should support all of these local farms and farmers.

  3. Yeah, it just tends to get harder to make and tastes a little bit thinner the further south you go. A good rule of thumb for me is that decent syrup can be made wherever Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus) is also naturally occurring. The two trees are found in a climax state usually in the same forests; Sugar Maples can be found well into the American south but tend to get a little shorter and less bulky down there.


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